The San Diego chargers are now 8-1, and the pro football world is filled with disbelief. A 16-14 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders on Sunday night in San Diego gave them, in this strange, strike-interrupted season, a two-game lead on the rest of the AFC. These Chargers are largely the same people who were 4-12 last season, aren't they? The same ones who have not finished higher than fourth in their division, the AFC West, in four years?
O.K., they're the same people plus Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks. But he hasn't been a sacking terror, just another good, solid veteran. How are they doing what they're doing? Let's look at this story in its logical order:
THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS
After Sunday's game, Dan Fouts wobbled down the corridor leading from the locker room, his right leg tightly taped from ankle to knee. He turned to one of the guys he was giving a lift home. "The question is, Who is going to start the car?" said Fouts.
Charger coach Al Saunders, who at 40 is four years older than his quarterback, watched him leave and then pointed to a picture, on the locker room wall, of the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "That's exactly where that guy should be," said Saunders.
A muscle in Fouts's calf had popped early in the pregame warmups. He had dragged himself into the locker room. "I saw that," said offensive tackle Jim Lachey, "and I turned to Mark Herrmann and said, 'Herrmie, warm up. You're it tonight.' "
"Sure, I thought Danny was out," said center Don Macek. "I mean, you're warming up with a different quarterback, what are you supposed to think? But just when we're ready to go out for the coin toss, here comes Dan, trotting out onto the field."
"Massage," Fouts said after the game. "They gave it a good long massage." "Massage" was Fouts's euphemism for a needle filled with painkiller, a remedy with which he has become well acquainted during his 15 NFL seasons.
"Tough, I'll tell you, the man is tough," Macek continued. "I remember a game against Cleveland a couple of years ago. He got his knee blown out. In the huddle his face was bright red, and I knew something was really wrong with him, but he finished the series. When we watched the films we could see that when he dropped back to pass his knee was moving from side to side. How he ever stayed in there.... Then there was the Raiders game last year when Sean Jones broke his nose."
"Pickel, it was Bill Pickel that did it," Lachey said.