The Old Man. That's what his players call him—not to his face, of course. Only one or two of them had heard of Arnsparger, who coached the Miami Dolphin No-Names and Killer Bees in four Super Bowls, whose 11 years with Don Shula produced nine seasons in which the Dolphins allowed the fewest or second-fewest points in the NFL. In those eight years before he joined the Chargers, Arnsparger was the coach at LSU and the athletic director at Florida. But he got the itch for another shot at the pros.
In his search for a defensive coordinator, Ross was leaning toward Rod Rust, with whom he had worked at Kansas City. However, Beathard, who was Miami's player personnel director in the Dolphins' glory years, suggested that Ross sit down with Arnsparger. One session did it. "We didn't even talk football," Ross says. "I was just so impressed with the man, with his sense of organization."
Under Arnsparger's predecessor, Ron Lynn, San Diego played an attack style that emphasized blitzing, and the Charger defense had some good years doing it—sixth in the NFL in 1989, fifth in '90—but last season fell to 19th. "I was a nervous wreck," Byrd says. "I was in man coverage all the time. I mean, you're constantly sending five or six people after the quarterback, and if they don't get there in time, well, then...."
Players were switched up and down the defensive line. Right end Leslie O'Neal, who had been a featured outside rusher his entire career, in 1991 spent time inside, in the meat grinder, so that Seau could rush from the outside. Says O'Neal, "I wondered if we were trying to win as much as trying to get certain people into the Pro Bowl."
At the other end of the line, Grossman sometimes made the same switch—even though he weighed only 245 pounds. "I didn't get abused too badly by the guards and centers," he says, "but I was a nonfactor. People said my productivity fell off, but nobody said, 'Well, he's playing out of position.' Sometimes I'd have to peel off and cover a receiver downfield. If you switch John Friesz from quarterback to cornerback, he's not going to do much either. The defense we play now might not be as exciting, but it's more disciplined. The big thing is that we always line up in our regular spots. Frankly, I prefer it."
Simplicity is the key to Arnsparger's system, a basic 4-3 with heavy zone coverage. Everyone is on the same page. "If you can't play his defense," says Nick Buoniconti, who was Arnsparger's middle linebacker in Miami, "you ought to be playing semipro."
The King of Sack. O'Neal always knew how to rush the passer. San Diego drafted him out of Oklahoma State in the first round in 1986 and turned him loose. He was a rookie phenom, with 12� sacks in 13 games, but then he tore up a knee. He was out for a year and a half, but he made the Pro Bowl after the '89 and '90 seasons. Last year his sacks were down, his comments about Lynn's defensive scheme and about life in general were critical, and the media coverage he received was not flattering. So for much of this season he slopped talking to the press. "What kind of publicity other than bad publicity are you going to get on a 4-12 team," says O'Neal. "I was tired of being a scapegoat just because I was outspoken."
Now he's talking again—and sacking. Despite being double-teamed most of the time, he has a career-high 15 sacks after having gotten 1� against Cincinnati and four against the Phoenix Cardinals the week before. He does most of his sacking late in the game. The offense tires, he comes on. "When you're on top and the other team's playing catch-up, that's when the sacks come," says O'Neal. "But I've been on the other side so many times. You're behind, and the other team's running the ball down your throat. Believe me, this way's much better."
The Video Man. Depression and redemption—it's a recurring theme with these players. Free safety Stanley Richard was just another pretty face as a first-round draft pick in 1991, a guy who was constantly asking Byrd, "What do we do on this one?" Then Richard got busy with the films and committed himself to learning his trade, and now he's one of the best safeties in the league.
But tackle Blaise Winter has a rags-to-riches story that beats them all. Cut by the Green Bay Packers in training camp last season after six years in the league, he shopped himself around last spring. "Some places I couldn't get past the receptionist," says the 30-year-old Winter. "Other clubs told me stuff like 'We're going in a different direction' or 'We know what you can do; we'll be in touch.' I went to see Dick MacPherson at the Patriots. He had been my coach at Syracuse. He said, "You look like you're in great shape. We certainly can use you.' Then he called back and said, 'Sorry, Blaise, but I'm not calling the shots here.' "