- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Don Coryell is Woody Hayes in reverse. Three things make the SAN DIEGO coach nervous: the sight of his quarterback handing the ball off; the sight of a running back carrying the ball; and...we can't think of the third, but it has to do with the running game. Coryell tested his passing attack to the limit last year and found out, yes, you have to run the ball to win, if only a teeny-weeny bit. "We work on our running game 10 minutes in practice," said a Charger offensive lineman, "and even that's an exaggeration." Coryell's pass, pass, pass philosophy—in a league whose clubs ran more than they passed, San Diego's pass-to-run ratio was 541 plays to 481—carried the Chargers magnificently to a 12-4 regular season and the division championship in 1979 and brought Dan Fouts the most passing yards of any NFL quarterback ever—4,138. However, the magic went pffft in the playoffs when Houston picked Fouts clean and there was no running game to fall back on.
Coryell acquired Fullback John Cappelletti from L.A. in a trade, but Cappelletti may help the passing more than the running; his big pluses are as a receiver and a blitz-collector. Three offensive linemen—Ed White, Doug Wilkerson and Russ Washington—are getting along in years. Tight End Kellen Winslow is fit after a broken right leg and has the job to himself. Running Back LaRue Harrington (No. 6) could be the steal of the draft if his post-op left knee holds up. Healthy, Harrington would have been a No. 1 or No. 2, and in the preseason he played that way.
The San Diego defense has many quality people. Tackle Louie Kelcher, back from a knee operation that kept him out all but three minutes of last season, lines up next to Wilbur Young, who moves to the outside after a great fill-in job for Kelcher; this gives the Chargers 580 pounds of thrust on the left side. But their fine pass-rushing right end, Fred Dean, was another contract no-show in camp.
The big question: Has Coryell changed his philosophy? Will the Chargers discover the run? Well, they've reduced the number of running plays in their playbook and put in a Pittsburgh-style trap-block system. But who knows what will happen once the action starts?
Last Dec. 23 DENVER played Houston in the AFC wildcard playoff game. The Broncos were down 13-7, and the clock was running out on them. For more than 45 minutes of the game they had been unable to put a single point on the board. As the final seconds ticked away, there was action on the sidelines at the Denver bench: a heated three-way exchange among Coach Red Miller and quarterbacks Craig Morton and Norris Weese. They almost came to blows, or at least shoves. The essence of the debate was this: Why wasn't Morton able to control the ball more and dump it off and move the club? To which Morton replied, Well, Coach, you put the offense in, not me.
The game, and the argument, became a burr in Miller's saddle, and in the off-season he did two interesting things. He hired Stanford Coach Rod Dowhower to concoct a new offense, one that would feature a ball-control passing game—a dump-off game—and he acquired Matt Robinson from the Jets to throw those passes.
So, the Broncos supposedly are ready to attack the jungles of the West with a new quarterback and a new offense, but let's look at this thing sensibly. The idea of the new offense is to throw the ball more to the backs. However, in the last two games of 1979, when the Broncos could score only two TDs, the backs caught 19 of the 27 completions against San Diego and eight of the 14 against Houston.
Denver's defense wore itself out trying to carry the whole load in 1979. The sack total fell from 35 in 1977 to just 19, lowest in the NFL. Gone was Lyle Alzado, the leader of the Orange Crush. Rubin Carter was no longer a hit man at middle guard; in fact, Carter has now been moved to right end, to save his legs, and has been replaced by a new boomer, Don Latimer. Miller hopes the offense will control a bigger piece of the ball so the defense won't have to be on the field all game. On the whole, the Denver defense is still a big league unit, with such stars as Randy Gradishar, Bob Swenson, Bill Thompson and Louie' Wright, and the book still says that good defenses produce playoff teams.
Which brings us to KANSAS CITY, the emerging team in the AFC, thanks to a defense that's on the rise. There was a lot of heat in town during the off-season. Coach Marv Levy's conservative offense drew some of it. Hey, let's throw the ball a little and get some points on the board (K.C. was last in passing in 1979). Then there were the big contracts awarded to the Canadian imports, Cornerback Eric Harris and Quarterback Tom Clements. How about spreading it around a little? How about the guys who fought and bled for ol' K.C. all those years?
In answer, Levy, who buried his unproductive wing T for good midway through last season, promised a rollout passing game tailored to the talents of young Quarterback Steve Fuller. He also found a flyer in the draft, Carlos Carson from LSU, who can burn deep. And after a brief contract walkout by vets Tony Reed and Whitney Paul, which got verbal support from the older Chiefs, management promised that contracts would be examined and adjusted at season's end on the basis of performance. Harris, now rumored to be unhappy with life in Kansas City, missed the preseason with a bad leg, and people wondered when they actually were going to get a look at him. But if he gets straightened out, the defense could have the best in the NFL at two areas—cornerback, where Harris teams with Gary Green, and defensive end, which is manned by Art Still (the second-best in pro football, behind Lee Roy Selmon) and the vastly improved Mike Bell.