Even as we watch, wide-eyed and incredulous, it continues to evolve. Like a laboratory experiment gone out of control, there is no stopping it.
The San Diego Chargers' offense is so consistently brilliant it flirts with boredom. In the 1982 irregular season, San Diego achieved the third-highest offensive rating, by the league's cumulative statistics, in the history of the game, behind the 1951 and 1950 Los Angeles Rams.
And now, that offense must go against the American Football Conference's No. 1 defense, when the Chargers play the Miami Dolphins today at the Orange Bowl in a rematch of last year's memorable 41-38 San Diego overtime victory. Kickoff is 12:30 p.m. and the Chargers are rated 1 1/2-point favorites.
The Eisenhower-era Rams never had offenses that put fleet tight ends in motion, or water-skimmer wide receivers who dropped back to halfback. From Kellen Winslow to Wes Chandler, by way of Charlie Joiner, Chuck Muncie and James Brooks, this cast of ground gainers fits no collective stereotype. But they all excel.
"Hey," said Dan Fouts after a recent display. "We only threw 40 times."
In the seven regular-season games following the strike, San Diego averaged more than 36 points a game--sheer gluttony. The gloomsayers like to point out that they allowed almost 29 a game, but that's another story.
"This offense is capable of literally doing anything it wants to do, when it makes its mind up," says Chandler. "I was amazed before I got here. I was amazed when I got here. I'm still amazed."
When Wes Chandler plays Pac-Man, which is often, he likes to envision himself as the monster, and he sees all those little yellow dots as defensive backs. His fantasy is a metaphor for his team. His team consumes defenses in large swallows, without chewing.
"Scary," says halfback Hank Bauer.
Larrye Weaver, offensive coordinator: "They've got to be fun to watch. I wish I could take a day off and watch them some time."
That San Diego is capable of extraordinary offensive prowess is not in question. But how? Some cite the overwhelming number of veterans. The offensive line, which allowed 1.25 sacks per game, has an average age of over 30 and an average of 11 years experience.
"Because of that age," says Ernie Zampese, receiver coach, "we knew coming off the strike we'd be good, that it wasn't going to be hard to get back into it. It took us one week."
Ask anyone about the prowess of the passing game and you'll be referred to the runners. Muncie gained 569 yards this year in nine games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. After two visits to a drug rehabilitation center in the preseason, he emerged as dependable, relatively fumble-free and quick.
"When Chuck runs sweeps," says Chandler, "the defensive backs tend to want to run with me instead of coming up to turn him in. So they play me so deep I can do anything I want underneath."
But the run is to San Diego what colored pencils were to Van Gogh. San Diego is the pass. The pass is Dan Fouts, Chandler, Winslow, Joiner and the backs and Eric Sievers thrown in for garnish.
"We start the first day of training camp," says Zampese. "That is our practice session--not touching our toes, or throwing bad passes with a net behind us. You don't see that. What we work on is what you see: route adjustments and timing."
"Practice, practice, practice--seriously," says Chandler. "Despite the strike, we practiced every day, and it was no shuffling around. It was until we got our work done . . .There's a lot of love. We don't do it by hanging out together off the field. We express our love on the field. It's like being in a war. Your best buddy is next to you, willing to cover your back."
The Charger passing offense offers more formations than most. But, just as significantly, the receivers run more "option routes," where they can, in effect, adjust to coverages. The presence of Fouts allows such freedom.
"We have a lot of adjustments in our routes, a few more than most teams," says Zampese. "And I can't imagine anyone being as good as Dan at reading what's going on on the field. They say John Unitas was great at reading, and I'm sure he was, but Dan is simply unreal. I just tell the receievers to be where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be. That's all. And that's not as easy at it sounds."
Sievers: "We've got five receievers going out on some plays, and Dan has the ability to spot them. It's not really as complicated as people think--it's knowing who you are on each play. You can be a halfback, a fullback, a slot-man."
Not all of the improvisation is anticipated. With heady statistics come head-hunting defensive backs, a tactic the Dolphins seem certain to employ on Sunday.
"I'm taking more of a beating," said Chandler. " . . . I'm seeing a lot more disguises, where I can't read until I'm five or six yards down. I'm having to ad-lib a little more, and Dan is doing a hell of a job at reading what I'm doing."
"There's a lot of ad-libbing," Fouts said, "and that's part of our game, we allow our receivers to ad lib according to what they see on the defense. Again, though, it all starts with time to throw. You can ad lib all you want, but if the quarterback is on his back it doesn't you any good."
The Dolphins, meanwhile, have been moving the football rather nicely the last two weeks in victories over Baltimore and New England last week in the first round of the playoffs. Quarterback David Woodley has thrown five touchdown passes over that span, and his coach, Don Shula, says "he's playing with great confidence."
He will be playing against a San Diego defense that is somewhat improved over a year ago, but still is among the most porous in the NFL. "It's not as bad as a lot of people think," said Shula. "They don't give up the cheap touchdown very much anymore. They can hurt you. And with their offense, they present a lot of problems."
Shula conceded that shutting down San Diego's passing game might be be expecting a little too much--even of a secondary that yielded only 114.1 yards per outing. He said, however, that the key on Sunday could be the Dolphins' ability to contain Muncie and Brooks.
"The premium they've placed on the pass in the last four or five years is more than anybody else," said Shula. "But by the same token, even San Diego has realized in the last two or three years the importance of the run."