Although admittedly "depressed" after a poor performance against the Rams, Smith played well in the Philadelphia game, making eight solo tackles and assisting on another in less than a half of play. If he doesn't turn out to be a Butkus—and very few prospects do—Smith should at least provide the Chargers with stability in the middle for a decade or so.
Likewise, Byrd and Walters should give a big boost to the secondary, a particularly vulnerable area now that San Diego lacks even a rudimentary pass rush. Walters, it seems, can get by on his athletic ability. Byrd, though, is more the tactician; he has a degree in business administration and finance and is a budding real estate salesman. "I'm not your flashy-type player," he says. "I like to blend in with a unit, to do something well for a long time. What I'd like is at the end of a game for the crowd to say, 'Did Gill Byrd even play?' In other words, nobody caught a pass on me, but I was so subtle nobody noticed."
The man with the biggest chance to leave his mark is probably Elko. Playing nose tackle in the 3-4 is a grim, thankless task. But playing it well is critical to the success of the formation, and it's a burden Elko wouldn't mind carrying for a while. It's better, he figures, than going back to Mine No. 40 in Windber, Pa., where he's from, and digging coal. "All those mine towns are the same," says Elko. "Row houses and the company store and black slag mountains everywhere." Elko is no stranger to hardship. His parents died when he was young, and an uncle raised him. Another uncle grew up in Mine No. 35, which was just down the road a piece. That uncle's name was Frank Kush, and Elko went to Arizona State for a year to play for him. Just to show that he didn't have favorites, Kush took Elko five miles into the desert one day and made him run back to camp. Elko transferred to LSU when Uncle Frank got fired.
The outdoors soothes Elko, and if he sticks with the Chargers he'd like to head back into the desert, "just take some food and a compass and go for days." He used to do that in Arizona, wandering alone, catching rattlesnakes in a burlap bag. Elko is one of those hard workers that everybody roots for. He's aware of the lucky situation he has run into in San Diego—no proven nose tackle in camp, a desperate defense—and he wants to take advantage of it. "Everybody's being real patient with me, giving me a lot of chances," he says. "This could be a gold mine for me." He smiles at that. "From the coal mine to the gold mine."
The Chargers' defense is still a long way from what Coryell calls "respectability," which is all the team needs to win a Super Bowl. Part of the problem is the offense itself. Coryell has perfected a lot of gimmicks that have spread into the league and that no one knows how to stop. Indeed, the main reason the Chargers have switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 is that Air Coryell clones have made the 4-3 all but obsolete. Even practicing against the San Diego offense isn't fulfilling. "It's so complicated and so many people are in motion that it looks like Canadian football," says Walters.
In short, the Chargers have met the enemy and it's them. Bass, normally a man of reserve, vented some feelings toward all offense by taking on its symbol in a section of his poem Welcome to the Pit:
for all at once
you'll see him standing there
that overpaid highly publicized
son of a bitch
that's called the quarterback
hit him quick
don't slow to scream or yell
more than any other man
he's the one
that makes us look like hell.
Sic 'em, rookies.