Computer ready? Let's play war games. Punch in the San Diego Chargers as the U.S. Department of Defense and Coach Don Coryell as the Commander in Chief. Next, program the computer Situation Red and Clock Running. Now execute. The screen erupts as: 1) Coryell hits the enemy with the greatest array of weaponry this side of Darth Vader's Death Star; 2) the enemy prepares to surrender; 3) Coryell launches another bank of missiles for good measure; 4) a band of pygmies walks into the War Room and subdues the Chargers with blowguns.
Coryell, as everyone knows, is the man without a defense. In his own little war game, which he has been playing since he arrived in San Diego in 1978, Coryell has been trying to bomb the NFL into submission without covering his flanks, or anywhere else. The result has been one of the oddest pairings in sports—an offense that can't be stopped and a defense that can't stop anything.
Last season San Diego led the NFL in offense for the third consecutive year. Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner, Chuck Muncie, James Brooks et al. rained down on opponents for 449.8 yards a game, the third-best offensive average in NFL history. The Chargers passed for a league-record 325.2 yards per game. They also led the NFL in first downs, average gain per play, total points and end-zone theatrics. By contrast, the defense finished 25th in yards given up per game (361.4), 24th in points allowed (24.6) and 28th, dead last, in pass defense, yielding on average 254.7 yards. This performance followed a 1981 season in which the defense was last against the pass and 27th in total defense.
One result of this bizarre union is that the Chargers have become the quintessential TV team. How can a viewer leave his chair when he knows the lead may change hands three times before he can reach the refrigerator door? Consider that San Diego soared ahead of the L.A. Raiders 24-0 last year only to lose 28-24. And that in the AFC divisional playoffs two seasons ago the Chargers led Miami 24-0, fell behind 38-31 and then finally won 41-38 in overtime. And that last year against San Francisco, in a game that had two ties and four lead changes as well as an NFL-record 65 pass completions and 1,009 total yards, the Chargers barely escaped 41-37. "TV people love that sort of thing," says Coryell with a characteristic grimace.
Such theatrics are tough on a coach's heart, however. Though Coryell claims he's California-mellow these days—"I saw a young cardiologist a while ago, and he said he'd trade blood vessels with me"—he's ready to make concessions. To get to the Super Bowl (the Chargers have won the AFC West three of the last four years but haven't advanced beyond the conference championship game) Coryell is even willing to build a defense. "We can't win without one," he says almost sadly.
So the Chargers have made their move. From 1976 through 1982 San Diego didn't take a defensive player in the first two rounds of the draft, but this year it selected two in the first round and seven altogether. Last week during practice, six of those rookies lined up with the first defensive unit. Holdouts and injuries partly accounted for the quick advancement of a few of these newcomers, but, says Coryell, "I wouldn't be surprised to see five of those rookies starting sometime during the season." In the order they were picked, the five are:
•Inside Linebacker Billy Ray Smith: 6'3", 239 pounds, Arkansas, first round. The namesake son of a former NFL defensive tackle, Smith is crafty, agile and polite, but he raised Charger eyebrows when he signed for $2.4 million for four years. He played defensive tackle and end for the Razorbacks.
•Left Cornerback Gill Byrd: 5'11", 191 pounds, San Jose State, first round. Byrd signed for $1,075,000 for four years. The Chargers' only worry is that-his right knee, on which he had surgery in college, holds up.
•Right Cornerback Danny Walters: 6'1", 187 pounds, Arkansas, fourth round. Walters runs the 40 in 4.4 and can jump to the moon. Because he switched from running back/wide receiver to defense as a junior, he was relatively unheralded in college, and San Diego thinks it made a steal.
•Nose Tackle Bill Elko: 6'5", 277 pounds, Louisiana State, seventh round. Raised amid the slag heaps of Pennsylvania's coal country, Elko is a press agent's dream. Mountain-man strong and fond of good hunting knives, he allegedly wrestled alligators while at LSU. He'll probably start if Louie Kelcher's knee doesn't improve.