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CHARGE!
Paul Zimmerman
November 23, 1987
Surprising San Diego is sitting atop the AFC
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November 23, 1987

Charge!

Surprising San Diego is sitting atop the AFC

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"No, that was a different time," Macek said. "Anyway he didn't miss a play. He had cotton stuffed up his nose and tape across his face to keep the cotton in. The tape kept coming loose and flapping, and the blood was running out of his nose and mouth. Over the years I've seen him take some punishment. That's one tough sucker."

A tough sucker who has been the Chargers' quarterback for as long as...as long as...well, can you remember the last San Diego quarterback? O.K., it was John Unitas, who handed the reins over to the rookie Fouts in 1973. Seven NFL career passing records belong to Fouts, and there he was, beating that nasty Raider defense on a numb leg that gave him nothing to push off from. His long passes looked like high pop-ups. He completed just 15 of 32 throws for 149 yards and one touchdown and was intercepted once. But somehow he got the job done.

Oh, they love him in San Diego, but last summer things weren't so rosy. He was 36, and his back was bothering him. Over the last four years Fouts had missed 76 quarters of football. He wanted the last two years of his contract, 1987 and 1988, to be fully guaranteed. The $750,000 salary he was pulling down sounded like a lot of money, until you considered that 18 quarterbacks in the league were making more. He had taken a gamble. The six-year deal he signed in 1983 included $250,000 in yearly incentives, which were keyed to the Chargers' qualifying for the playoffs, something they had done the four previous seasons. Fouts never collected. He had gambled and lost. Now he was 36 and underpaid by NFL standards, and time was running out.

Steve Ortmayer, San Diego's new director of operations, who was imported from the Raiders, was willing to give Fouts more money, but the two-year guarantee? Let's hold off on that. Then the season began and the players went out on strike. Fouts, who isn't a member of the players union, reportedly wanted to cross the picket line and play with the replacement players. Saunders said no, organize workouts for the striking players instead, so they will be prepared to play when the strike is over. Fouts agreed, but said he wanted to be paid. The team reportedly said that couldn't be done unless he crossed the line—which, of course, is what he had been asked not to do. Nonetheless, Fouts held the veterans together, running drills—7 on 7's, 11 on 11's—and preparing them for future opponents with weekly game plans provided by the club.

But even after that display of loyalty and leadership—as well as a 293-yard passing performance in a 42-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the first poststrike game—Fouts and the San Diego management remained at odds. "Where do you stand now?" someone asked him before the Chargers' overtime win over Cleveland the next week.

"Five-and-one," he said, "and I'm the Prince of Darkness."

Against the Browns he brought the Chargers back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. Two days later everyone sat down, and Fouts's contract was worked out. Now Fouts says, "The deal is all right. I'm happy with everything."

Chapter 2
THE DEFENSE

It used to be a bend-but-not-break operation: Lay back and play coverages and let the other team inch its way down the field, hoping it would make a mistake. Then the offense would come in and get things done in a minute or two—i.e., either score or punt—which meant that the poor devils on defense would have to buckle up their chin straps and go back out to face more slow torture. Last year Ron Lynn was named defensive coordinator. He came from the USFL's Oakland Invaders, whose head coach, Charlie Sumner, was, and now is once again, defensive coach of the Raiders. Sumner has always liked to attack the pocket relentlessly. So Lynn put in a fierce blitzing scheme that produced a club-record 62 sacks last season, one less than the Raiders, the '86 NFL leader. With 37 sacks this season, the Chargers are on the same pace as last year.

"In 25 games we haven't rushed the passer with fewer than four people on any play, and sometimes we'll bring five or six or seven," says Lynn. "Sure, you'll occasionally give up big plays, especially if your cornerbacks aren't sound, but at least the issue is decided in a hurry. You're not leaving your guys out there forever. Plus, it's infectious. It steps up the tempo all over the field."

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