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Under a bright September sun in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium three weeks ago the Chargers, on their opening drive, moved the ball smartly down to the Houston 25. Now it was third-and-10, and the crowd of 52,466 grew quiet. It didn't know what to expect from this young Houston team. Moreover, the Chargers were coming off a 31-17 loss to Seattle the week before.
Third-and-10. In San Diego it's known as Charlie Joiner's down. He has made a career of catching 13-yard passes on third-and-10. Joiner lined up in the slot on the right side, inside Wes Chandler, the other wideout, and checked the coverage. Sixteen years of reading NFL defenses was at work now. It told him all he needed to know.
Steve Brown, the Oilers' second-year cornerback, was locked on Chandler. Keith Bostic, the strong safety, another second-year man, was on Joiner, and Bostic was playing him a few yards off the line. Two second-year men, two babies. The pick play was there, San Diego's bread and butter. Chandler comes inside, Joiner crosses to the outside underneath him. A little-breathing room was all Joiner was looking for. Bostic gave it to him, and it was over before anyone realized what had happened. Three yards past the first-down stake, Joiner caught Dan Fouts' sideline pass, and as he pitty-patted out of bounds and flipped the ball back to the official, a gathering roar came out of the stands.
It could happen sometime in December—maybe in the home final, against Kansas City, or the last road game, against Denver. Joiner will keep another drive going with a third-down catch. They'll stop the game at that point and hand him the ball and make a little speech, because he'll have broken Charley Taylor's record for most passes caught in a career. Joiner came into the 1984 season with 596 receptions. The record is 649. A 54-catch season shouldn't be a big deal for Joiner. In the Air Coryell system there are plenty of catches to go around.
Joiner will turn 37 on Oct. 14, and he caught 65 passes last season. The Chargers' p.r. staff figured out that 70% of those catches gave the team a first down. They've started keeping stats like that because of Joiner. They mention that in 1982, after the strike, each of Joiner's first 17 receptions produced a first down.
"My security blanket," Fouts calls Joiner.
His numbers won't get the attention of, say, Walter Payton's as he closes in on Jim Brown's alltime rushing record. The countdown has already begun for that one. So far no one is counting down for Joiner, which is fine with him.
"I don't want numbers just for the sake of numbers," he says. "Catches aren't all that important unless they mean something in a game situation."
"Charlie will get his catches," Fouts says, "unless all of a sudden they decide to do away with third downs."
When Joiner passes Taylor, it will be a record set in shadow, reflecting Joiner's whole career. He has always been outshone by the glamour receivers, the high flyers. At Houston (1969-72) he played in the shadow of Jerry LeVias and then Ken Burrough. At Cincinnati (1972-75) it was Isaac Curtis. At San Diego, first it was J.J. Jefferson, now it's Chandler and Kellen Winslow. Pluck one out of the sky, come down in the end zone, do a somersault, slap a high five...gee-whiz receivers have always surrounded Joiner. He doesn't slap any high fives and he's never danced after a touchdown catch, of which there have been 51. But gradually, as Joiner inched his way into the No. 4 receiving spot on the alltime list, it began to dawn on people that maybe one of the reasons big play receivers always seem to be on Joiner's team is that he helps get them where they are.