SAN DIEGO, NOV. 28 -- Maybe part of the reason people find it hard to accept the resurgence of the 8-2 San Diego Chargers is that these guys don't play like the real San Diego Chargers. Surely, a team relying on defense and a sensibly balanced offense is just a bunch of replacement players who forgot to go home.
But these really are the Chargers. And going into Sunday's AFC West game here against Denver, they lead Seattle by one game and the Broncos by 1 1/2. Style has given way to substance, and the Chargers appear headed for the playoffs, even if nobody recognizes them.
That's because there have been so many changes -- from last season's midseason switch in coaches from Don Coryell to Al Saunders, to the 180-degree turn in philosophy, to the club's decision to run day-to-day operations on East Coast time.
Some things haven't changed. Dan Fouts, 35, is still at quarterback. And he still has a group of capable receivers, including Kellen Winslow and Wes Chandler. But the Chargers are wearing their new look well.
San Diego's 8-1 start this season, after going 1-8 last year -- which got Coryell fired after nine seasons -- marked the biggest single-season turnaround in NFL history. The eight-game winning streak, after losing the opening game of the season, was the club's longest since 1961.
The Chargers were picked to finish last in the AFC West, where defending conference champion Denver, favored Seattle and 1986 wild-card entry Kansas City live, not to mention the Raiders.
Saunders understood, and still does. The team is winning -- the Chargers already have beaten Cleveland -- but just how good they are will be determined in these final five weeks.
"We expected to be better, but I don't know that anybody here could say they expected this dramatic a turnaround," Saunders said. "I don't think we can be considered as one of the best teams in the league, because I don't think that would be a realistic thing to say. But I think it is realistic to say we've made a lot of improvement."
Billy Ray Smith, the veteran linebacker who caught the end of the Air Coryell days, said, "We're talking about a world of difference; the two opposite ends of the spectrum."
Saunders, the youngest head coach in the league at 40, figures the transition was eased somewhat because he worked four years as receivers coach under Coryell. "And when you haven't had success for a while, change is something that's more easily accepted," he said.
This year he has built the team around defense, which also resulted in improved special teams, which are composed mainly of linebackers and defensive backs. Then he struck a sensible balance between run and pass. If a team had to look for the run once in a while, he reasoned, it would slow the pass rush and keep Fouts in uniform a little longer.
Building a defense is directly related to a somewhat more balanced offense. Ed White, an offensive lineman during the years the Chargers were known for their explosive offense and now an assistant coach, explained:
"We would go into the huddle, back at our own goal line, and say, 'Okay, how many plays is it going to take us to get it in this time?' Somebody would first say, '12.' Then, we'd get it to the 30 and somebody would say, 'It'll take us six good plays and we're in the end zone.' We'd move it right down and score. Six plays, three plays. One play."
"Unfortunately, our defense would be on the field all the time, and it put a lot of pressure on them to constantly hold up. We'd either score or throw an interception."
Smith said the defense was always run down. "When we're on the field 400 plays more than the other team is -- and I don't know the exact number, but it was up there -- it wasn't a good feeling. The offense was, 'Boom, boom, boom.' One way or another, we were going to be back out there."
So the Chargers took what some clubs would call a gamble. Steve Ortmayer, the team's director of football operations, worked under Al Davis with the Raiders for nine years and brought with him one of Davis' philosophies: Give a guy a second chance.
Of the 21 defensive players on the active roster, 15 were unwanted or unhappy elsewhere in the NFL. Of those 15, 11 previously were cut by other teams. Among those getting a second chance here: nose tackle Mike Charles, cut by Miami and Tampa Bay; defensive back Elvis Patterson, cut by the Giants; linebacker Chip Banks, acquired in a trade, and safety Mike Davis, a free agent after playing nine years with the Raiders.
Davis calls the defense "a host of guys from other teams that have come together, bringing a little dash of this and a little pinch of that. It's like we've taken a chapter from the book of the Raiders. They say we've got misfits . . . maybe so, but these misfits have talent and they have a place to play."
On offense, teaching the Chargers the importance of the running game was like getting a Porsche to obey the speed limit. "We ran the ball only because it was an NFL rule; something that we had to do," said Winslow.
Said Saunders, "I was the receiving coach, remember. I like to throw as much as anybody. But we needed to be a little bit more efficient in the running game -- not necessarily to run a great deal, but diversifying."
Saunders also was looking east when he asked his players to show up in camp at 7:30 a.m. and allowed them to leave by early afternoon. He doesn't want to be the coach of a team that can't cope with time changes when it travels east, something that's plagued the Chargers and Rams over the years.
And, of course, Saunders has taken precautions to protect Fouts. "A guy only has so many 90-mph fastballs in his pitching arm, so we have to pick our spots a little more wisely," he said. Fouts' statistics aren't what they used to be (eight touchdowns, nine interceptions, only one 300-yard game). But he's as healthy as ever for this late in the season -- and the Chargers are winning.
The question remains whether the package will hold up in the face of the Broncos -- who play San Diego twice -- and Seattle. There's also a game in Houston. Davis had a saying with the Raiders, and it applies to the old Chargers: "The first eight games, the pretenders contend, and the last eight games the contenders contend," he said.
The new Chargers will find out where they fit soon enough.