SI Vault
Rick Telander
September 01, 1982
San Diego's Kellen Winslow (left) and San Francisco's Dwight Clark, the NFL's top two receivers in 1980 and '81, proved they are a breed apart during last season's playoffs
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September 01, 1982

The Doggone Best

San Diego's Kellen Winslow (left) and San Francisco's Dwight Clark, the NFL's top two receivers in 1980 and '81, proved they are a breed apart during last season's playoffs

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At a pickup game in a San Diego gym, Winslow rises above his defender and lofts a 15-foot jumper that drops softly through the net. Winslow has made a few thundering slams earlier in the game, but this is nicer than the jams, this touch coming from such a big man.

Winslow is a specimen—not only big, but also amazingly talented. "I've never seen anybody with his athletic ability," says Fouts. "I think he may be the best football player in the game, at any position. And I'm not saying that to cause controversy, just as a description. He can throw a football 80 or 100 yards." Chargers owner Gene Klein was so convinced of Winslow's skills and the role he could play in the then budding Air Coryell Show that when the Chargers worked a last-second deal with Cleveland for the draft choice used to pick Winslow in the first round in 1979, Klein took most of the Chargers' scouting staff out to celebrate.

San Diego Strong Safety Pete Shaw complains, as all players who must cover Winslow do, that it's unfair to have to guard a man who can outjump, outmuscle, outrun and outfinesse you for the ball. "In practice one day Kellen got mad at me for grabbing his arms on overthrown balls," says Shaw, "but I told him, 'Kellen, how do I know what you can't catch?' " Mismatches, of course, are one of the most crucial aspects of pro football. "I don't feel any remorse for lining up out wide," says Winslow. "I know I'm resented for it. Defensive backs call me a sissy and say, 'Get back in there where you belong.' But it's like telling Earl Campbell he can't run because he's too big."

There are, after all, tight ends in the league who are heavier and taller and stronger and faster than Winslow. New England's Don Hasselbeck is 6'7", for instance; Pittsburgh's Benny Cunningham weighs 260. But what none of them has is Winslow's gracefulness. "He has this softness that's like a wide receiver or a basketball player," says Shaw. "He doesn't think like a tight end. He thinks, 'I'm going to catch the ball and run,' while most tight ends are looking for a place to fall down."

And how Winslow loves to run. "One of my most satisfying feelings is to have the ball and suddenly be in the open," he says. "Then it's like pinball, bouncing along from one man to another. I love that challenge. And I thrive on the fact that I can run around a man or run over him."

So does Air Coryell. This most potent of NFL offenses—it led the league last year in first downs, scoring, third-down efficiency, average yards per play and total offense—lives by two dicta: The ball travels faster by air than land, and the ball travels farther in your best players' hands. Thus, the ball is often in Winslow's hands. His 88 receptions in '81 were one fewer than the NFL record for tight ends, a mark Winslow had set the year before. And among all receivers, only the Rams' Tom Fears, with 212 in 1948, '49 and '50, caught more passes in his first three pro seasons than Winslow, who had 202 receptions despite catching only 25 passes in his rookie year when he broke a leg in the seventh game.

"He probably would have had 60 that season," says Coryell. "I'm sure he could catch 100 passes in a year—that's less than one more a game than last season. But we don't want somebody to catch 200 passes and average four yards a catch. We think yardage per pass play is the important figure."

Well, last year San Diego led the NFL in that category, too. Winslow went for 12.2 yards per reception, a big number for a tight end. The other San Diego receivers have hardly suffered because of Winslow's presence. Last season Wes Chandler (1,142 yards), Charlie Joiner (1,188) and Winslow (1,075) became only the second trio of teammates to catch passes for more than 1,000 yards apiece in a season. Winslow, Joiner and then Charger John Jefferson were the first, in 1980.

All the San Diego receivers abet one another, but it's Winslow who gives Air Coryell its special punch, its scariness. "All teams have tendencies from certain formations," says Zampese. "But by moving Kellen around we're able to eliminate a defense's pre-snap thought. I mean, when he's out wide he's a wide receiver, but when he's in tight he's something else." In tight he's a fearsome, if underrated, blocker. "He's overlooked as a blocker only because he's so good at everything else," says Fouts. "But that's really the key to our whole offense: Kellen's ability to block."

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