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The San Diego Chargers have had more than their share of woes. They have not been a winner since the 1960s, they suffered through a pill-popping scandal, and their attendance has been among the worst in the NFL. But, lo and behold, the Chargers have now put together such a big-play attack that the new ticket-sales pitch is "Watch Lightning Strike." Indeed, of all the teams in pro football, none has such dramatic possibilities for sudden and exciting improvement as the Chargers.
For the 27,620 in San Diego Stadium last Saturday night, lightning struck with 33 seconds left in the first half of an exhibition with the 49ers. At that point San Diego trailed 10-7. Joe Washington, in single safety, took a punt on his 11, skirted two tacklers on the left sideline, then broke into the clear. Angling all the way across the field, he outran the remaining 49er defenders for an 89-yard score. San Diego, although badly outplayed in the first half, thus took a 13-10 lead into the locker room.
After the intermission, Quarterback James Harris, making his San Diego debut, finally began making the acquaintance of his new receivers. He connected on 10 of 14 second-half passes for 125 yards as the Chargers added three more touchdowns to win 32-13. They would have had three more points, but Ray Wersching flubbed three of his five extra-point attempts. Still, Coach Tommy Prothro was elated. "Big plays will win most games for you," he said. "That punt return sure picked us up."
Washington's lightning bolt was the Chargers' second touchdown in two games that was scored on a punt return. The previous week, in the team's opening exhibition in Dallas, Johnny Rodgers scampered 68 yards with a punt for a score in a 34-14 loss to the Cowboys. The Chargers' locker room was quiet that night. Last Saturday it was jumping. "We're a young team," said Rodgers, "and when a young team gets on top it thinks it's king of the world."
The Charger optimism centers around this big-play lineup:
? Johnny Rodgers. The 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and the Chargers' No. 1 draft pick in 1973, Rodgers chose to sign with Montreal of the Canadian Football League, who made him the highest-paid player in CFL history. In four years with the Alouettes, he gained almost 8,000 yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks. He has just turned 26. "People think I'm older," he says, "because I've been in the news so long." Rodgers sports an unusual sartorial touch; he wears a specially tailored golf glove on his left hand. " James Harris throws the ball hard enough to break your fingers, and I can stop a brick with this glove," Rodgers says. "I wet it, and it's just like putting stickum on your hand."
? James Harris. Acquired in a trade for draft choices on June 14, Harris led the NFC in passing last season with the Rams, even though he eventually lost his job to rookie Pat Haden. The Rams won 20 of the 26 games Harris started for them. He is 6'4", weighs 210 pounds and has a long-ball arm. "James says he can throw it 89," says Rodgers. "I told him to hold up a few steps, make it 86, and I'd be there to catch it."
? Joe Washington. The Chargers' first pick in the 1976 draft, Washington averaged more than six yards a carry in four years at Oklahoma. Last season he never touched the ball for San Diego, following two cartilage operations on his right knee. Now fully recovered, Washington says he is a little faster than before—"My speed and acceleration have increased because I worked so hard to get my knee back in shape."
? Charlie Joiner. Acquired in a trade with the Bengals for Defensive End Coy Bacon after the 1975 season, Joiner was a teammate of Harris' at Grambling. Last year he caught 50 passes for 1,056 yards, a tape-measure average of 21.1 yards a reception. Only two other receivers, Oakland's Cliff Branch and Baltimore's Fred Carr, gained more yards.
?Don Woods. Picked up on waivers from Green Bay in 1974, Woods set an NFL record for a rookie that season by gaining 1,162 yards. Knee surgery and a nagging ankle injury cut his playing time the last two years, but he is now showing his old form.