At the outset of the 1980s, the San Diego Chargers always seemed one game from greatness. They had lightning in their offense and on their uniform sleeves, and Coach Don Coryell was like Lombardi with a snarl.

The only difference was that Lombardi had a defense, too.

Consequently, as swiftly as the San Diego Chargers rose, they have fallen. The original card-carrying Team and Offense of the '80s appeared in conference title games in 1980 and 1981, then lost in a second-round playoff game in strike-time 1982.

Since then, the freefall has been just as startling: 6-10 in 1983, 7-9 last season. Who of sound mind in 1980 would have thought the Padres would be in the World Series before the Chargers were in the Super Bowl?

The vagaries of the game have raided these Chargers. Botched trades. Injuries. Aged veterans. Unsigned draft picks. Players with drug problems. Conflicts over contract renegotiations with star players. And a few more botched trades.

The offense still is electric. The Chargers scored 394 points last year, which may not be the 478 they scored in 1981, but it was fifth best in the league.

One fact, though, is as hard to ignore as thunder. The Chargers' defense had better improve but quick, or else it may be too late for the team's three most important members: quarterback Dan Fouts, 34, who is aging; tight end Kellen Winslow, who still is recovering from a severe knee injury; and Coryell, who may be out of a job.

"It's just been such an upheaval since I was there," says Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who was the Chargers' offensive coordinator in 1980.

Is it any wonder then that the pressure now is on Coryell, the living testament that a coach cannot live on offense alone? "All I have to say about that," says Gibbs, ever respectful to his former college coach, "is check his record."

Okay, let's check the record. Coryell, 60, is the only coach to win 100 games in both the National Football League and in the collegiate ranks. His pro record is 102-68-1 and he's won five division titles in 12 NFL years. In 32 overall seasons as a coach, he's had only three losing seasons.

But that includes 1983 and 1984. Last season, the Chargers went 7-1 against non-division teams and a fatal 0-8 against the AFC West. They didn't have a player make the Pro Bowl. Not one was named to even an all-conference or all-rookie team. Nothing.

"My only pressure comes from me. I want to do a good job," Coryell says. "I've been coaching too damn long to have to build up my own ego."

"What's happened here over the last two years," says all-pro tight end Winslow, whose knee injury cost him nine games last year and might keep him sidelined all of this season, "has nothing to do with the coach."

Apparently, what's happened in the past doesn't matter, anyway. Owner Alex Spanos, who bought the team from Gene Klein last August, talks as mean and purposefully about the future as does his long-time California buddy, Raiders managing general partner Al Davis. He just wants victories.

"I've signed all 14 draft choices and besides that I went out and got (U.S. Football League receiver) Trumaine Johnson," Spanos says. "That took me six months. And I got (USFL running back) Tim Spencer, too. And there's a strong possibility that we'll get (USFL receiver) Gary Anderson. Maybe not."

"I made a commitment to the fans, a commitment to the coaches. I want .500 or better this year and we'll have the ballclub to do it. We just need the coaches to bring the best out of them. Why wait three, four or five years when you can do it in one? We're picking up the best talent we can. I can't do much more than that, can I?

"After that, it's up to the coaches. Beyond that point, you draw your own conclusions as far as Coryell or anyone else is concerned."

Fouts voiced what has become the requiem of the Chargers of the '80s when he said, "If we could play some defense worth a damn, we'd be back in it."

Poor Tom Bass. He's the defensive coordinator who has been the target of criticism from Chargers fans over the past four years. When Bass rents a car, the joke goes, he doesn't get coverage then, either.

"When I got here four years ago, we lacked team speed," Bass says. "We had a secondary that couldn't play man-to-man pass defense. We had a defensive line that was big, but couldn't pursue. We've totally rebuilt the defense.

"I really haven't felt pressure -- only frustration. As a coach, pressure is having to play without gifted athletes."

How bad was the Chargers' defense last year? The statbook reads "28th against the pass, 26th overall." It's only a 28-team league. Worse yet, the Chargers released six defensive backs who started at least one game for them last year and none is playing for another team right now.

It seems nearly unfair that just when Coryell appeared to be on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl, his team disappeared from sight. Some of his workers have marched on, though.

Since he left, Gibbs has been in two Super Bowls. Louie Kelcher, Fred Dean and Gary (Big Hands) Johnson -- three all-pro defensive linemen for the Chargers in 1981 -- won the Super Bowl as role players with the 49ers last January.

All-pro receiver John Jefferson sits in a nonplayoff freeze with his big contract in Green Bay. Like all-pro defensive end Dean, Jefferson didn't get the big bucks he desired from Klein, the former Chargers owner, so he went elsewhere.

Furthermore, Chuck Muncie's drug problems cost the Chargers their most devastating running back with size, speed and the ability to catch passes. Age crept into the offensive line. Guard Doug Wilkerson recently retired after 15 seasons and guard Ed White, 38, is trying to make it through his 17th year as a starter.

Even Charlie Joiner, 37, is trying to add to his all-time leading reception total for one last time as Chargers coaches try to strategically match him with linebackers on the inside of the field. Joiner simply can't make it on the outside anymore.

You want to talk about wasting draft picks while trying for the quick fix on defense? Just take a peek at some of the Chargers' trades over the past three years.

They gave up a second-round pick in 1984 for New York Jets veteran defensive linemen Abdul Salaam and Ken Neill. Neither player made the team. They gave up a third- and fourth-round pick (in 1982, 1984) for Tampa Bay linebacker David Lewis, who played one year as a reserve and was gone.

They gave a fourth-round pick in 1984 to Tampa for linebacker Dewey Selmon and he never played a regular-season game.

They gave up a fourth- and an eighth-round pick in 1983 to Chicago for cornerback Reuben Henderson, who started only four games in two years and was sent packing. Safety Tim Fox gimped through three seasons' worth of injuries after San Diego gave New England a second- and a third-round pick. He was cut this summer and the Chargers still are paying him a cool $300,000 for his guaranteed 1985 contract. These were only a few of the trade mistakes.

"I think we did have a lot of old players and we kept trading for older players," Coryell says. "I understand (Klein) wanted to win a Super Bowl immediately. Hey, I just work for my bosses."

In 1982 -- as the San Diego meteor began to fall and the AFC West began to rise -- the Chargers' top draft pick came in the seventh round, pick No. 188. The choice was Clemson cornerback Hollis Hall and he didn't make the team, either.

Neither did the Chargers sign their first-round draft picks in 1983 (Gary Anderson) or in 1984 (cornerback Mossy Cade). Both Anderson and Cade headed for the USFL. Now that Spanos is in charge, the team has been negotiating with both.

"Maybe from a business standpoint," Winslow says about Klein's inability to sign top picks, "the team was being prepared to be sold."

"That was just the prevailing philosophy of the front office," says Bass. "Rather than build through the draft, build through the trade. But you don't get well overnight when your best pick is a seventh-(rounder)."

So now the Chargers retool their defense with youngsters named Byrd, Walters and Billy Ray Smith. They drafted five defensive backs in this year's draft, added an offensive tackle with their first pick (Ohio State's Jim Lachey) and hope Fouts can avoid the injuries that have cost him nine games in the past two years.

Winslow was placed on the physically unable to perform list this week, meaning the earliest he can return is in the eighth week of the season. Winslow has caught 374 passes over the past five seasons, most in the league. He had caught a staggering 55 passes in seven games before his injury last season.

Winslow, 27, isn't certain when he'll return. "If at the middle of the season, the doctor passes me on the physical and this team is 6-2, 8-0 or 7-1, they may not want to bring Kellen Winslow back because he could disrupt what they have going," Winslow says.

"On the other hand, if this team is 2-6 and we've got a lot of people beat up, why risk a commodity like that when you're so far out of the picture? I'm sure some people may be rubbed the wrong way (by these remarks), but if they step back and look at the cold, hard facts, they'd see my point. Would (Winslow's return) be an asset to the team or is it a particularly high-risk factor?"

Team officials quietly expressed anger over these remarks, viewing them as self-serving.

Coryell, who needs Winslow like he needs a defense, says of Winslow's remarks, "No, no. That's completely false. He will never disrupt this team. We need him too much no matter how many wins or losses we have."

Spanos says he wants a winning season in 1985 and that when the Super Bowl game is played in San Diego in three years, his Chargers will be in it.

Fouts just wants Coryell as his coach. "I've heard the rumors, " he says. "I just don't think the owner would do it (fire Coryell), though. I just don't think he could find a better coach than Don Coryell."