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•Inside Linebacker Mike Green: 6 feet, 226 pounds, Oklahoma State, ninth round. First-team All-Big Eight as a senior, Green nevertheless was considered a gamble in the pros because he seldom had to drop back in pass coverage. Quick, aggressive and vocal, he has taken injured veteran Cliff Thrift's spot.
The man in charge of the rookies is second-year Defensive Coordinator Tom Bass, a gigantic, bearded, shaved-headed published poet known to his players as Boss Hog. A startlingly gentle man, Bass looks like a cross between Oddjob and a sinister Burl Ives but talks like a supporter of the arts, which he is. Though excited by their potential, Bass has mixed feelings about his young charges. "I'm fairly optimistic," he says, "but I'm not naive enough to think we'll change everything in one year. We're playing a 3-4 defense now, which requires a lot of adjusting during the game, and our young people are going to make mistakes. But I don't think we have any choice—we're just going to put 'em in there and let 'em play."
Bass is most concerned about his defenders' mental progress. "When I came here one of my first impressions was that the defensive guys felt as if they were second-class citizens, that all the victories went to the offense while all the defeats went to the defense," he says. "I felt sorry for the defensive players. It's become important for me that they build pride and gain the respect of the other players on the team."
In San Diego's first preseason game, a 34-20 loss to the Rams, the Chargers' defense yielded 401 yards and looked unworthy of anyone's respect. But things improved last Saturday in a game against Philadelphia. Although the Eagles won 21-20, in the second half San Diego held them to just 86 yards and no points. "I can't speak for the whole defense," said grinning Linebacker Coach Chuck Weber afterward, "but I think we've got something going."
But how did the defense get into such a mess in the first place? As recently as 1980 San Diego had a vicious defense that led the NFL in sacks with 60. Thrift, the fifth-year linebacker who was the team's leading tackier last season, stands on the practice field sideline nursing a pulled hamstring and listens as a reporter offers him a list of possible answers. Can the demise of the defense be traced to the loss in 1981 of premier pass rusher Fred Dean in a contract squabble? Has the defense been allowed to grow old without being replenished with young blood? Have three different defensive coordinators in the last four years been the problem? Does fault lie with the offense, which keeps the defense on the field for long stretches by scoring so quickly? Does nobody care about the infantry while the air force is flying?
"All of the above," says Thrift.
In truth, the defense has suffered most of all from neglect. Losing Dean, who went to San Francisco and promptly was named the 1981 NFC Defensive Player of the Year, hurt terribly. Losing defensive ends Gary (Big Hands) Johnson and Leroy Jones—both players have left this year because of money disputes—will hamper the team in '83. The Chargers' sin has been not replacing the good defenders once they've departed. Coryell would never let that happen on offense. When All-Pro Wide Receiver John Jefferson went to Green Bay, for instance, he was replaced almost immediately by Chandler, also an All-Pro, and the great airplane scarcely tipped a wing.
Naturally, there has been friction between the offensive and defensive units. Most of it is good-natured stuff, but the offense can always cut deep when it wants. "No, I don't hate the defense," says Winslow. "It's just frustrating to watch a bunch of good, dedicated ballplayers struggle. When we kid them, that's all we're doing. But if you don't have a thick hide around here, you're in the wrong business."
The defense agrees. "On the plane home from the San Francisco game last year, we started calling ourselves the 'Tex Cobb Defense,' " says Thrift. "You know, "You can beat us up, but you can't knock us out.' What else can you do? You have to laugh."
What the defense is looking for in its rookie crop, according to Assistant General Manager Tank Younger, is just one horse, "one man who makes everybody around him play better—somebody like Dick Butkus, or Jack Lambert when the Steel Curtain was in its heyday." Though Younger says the player can be at any position, it seems the logical candidate for such distinction is Smith. He's in the middle; he calls the plays; he's a gamer. But Smith has never played linebacker, and he has been taking some lumps learning the position. "The first week in camp one offensive tackle was just tackling Billy Ray," says Thrift. "Billy came up to [Linebacker] Linden King and me and said, 'I can't believe it. I feel like I've just been raped.' We said, 'Get used to it.' "