They have no winning tradition. Not one of them knows what it's like to step into the NFL playoffs wearing the blue and gold of the San Diego Chargers. Some of them weren't even born when John Hadl and Lance Alworth were sending lightning bolts across the skies of the AFL. They were in high school during the heyday of Air Coryell. Only a half dozen have experienced a winning season in San Diego—8-7 in 1987—and it was tainted by six straight losses at the end.
Nobody's darlings, nebbishes, perennial losers. But now, after Sunday's 27-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Chargers are 9-5, tied for the AFC West lead with the Kansas City Chiefs and one win away from a playoff berth. So who are these guys, and how did they get where they are?
Primarily with their defense. It has been the constant, the rock to lean on when times were grim, which they were a month into the season. The record was 0-4. After the third game, a 23-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, rookie San Diego coach Bobby Ross issued a public apology to "our ownership, our management and our fans." Then the Houston Oilers blew out the Chargers 27-0. "We were 0-4, and it was 'Here we go again,' " says cornerback Gill Byrd.
Ross was the Chargers' fourth coach in seven years. Bobby Beathard, the miracle worker from the Washington Redskins, the guy who would turn everything around, was their third general manager in the same span. In 1990 and '91, Beathard's first two years in San Diego, the Chargers had gone 6-10 and 4-12, and this season looked as if it would be worse than either of those. The Beathard magic was wearing off.
Quarterback John Friesz was lost for the year in the preseason to knee surgery. Beathard's import from Washington, overweight, underachieving Stan Humphries, was in a one-touchdown, eight-interception funk, and the fans were booing him. Wideout Anthony Miller, a long-ball threat who was coming off a disappointing 1991 season and was vowing that this would be his turnaround year, was averaging three catches and 39 yards a game.
Only the defense was hanging tough, a a unit fortified by four years of top draft choices and run by 65-year-old Bill Arnsparger, who had been out of the NFL for eight years. Even though the Chargers were winless, their defense ranked second in the AFC and fourth overall. And as they proceeded to win nine of their next 10 games, as Humphries slipped into a comfort zone with his receivers, as Miller started making the kinds of long TD catches that had gotten him into two Pro Bowls, and as the power running game that had been the San Diego trademark gathered momentum, the defense remained at a consistently high level. Today it ranks third in the conference and fifth in the league. It's young (six starters are 25 or under), it's on the rise, and the cast of characters is unusual.
The Flywheel. At times Junior Seau looks to be out of control, like a flywheel spinning loose. Seau doesn't take on blockers; he bounces off them, darts around them, flies to the ball—sometimes flies right by the ball. At 6'3", 250 pounds, with 4.5 speed and phenomenal athletic ability, he plays the game with joyous abandon. Listed as an inside linebacker, Seau usually lines up on the weak side, but that's only the launch position. He flies off on uncharted trajectories. "We're never quite sure what he's going to do," says defensive end Burt Grossman, and neither is the opposing offense, which means many, many big plays for Seau—and some broken ones.
"At Southern Cal all I did was rush the passer or chase the ball," he says. " 'There's the ball on the other side of the line. Go get it, Junior.' Now, for the first time, I've got an awareness of the scheme, so I can attack with more intensity. But I like to take a chance, too, and be where they don't think I'm going to be. I'm cheating the scheme, let's put it that way."
"Scheme, what scheme?" says former NFL linebacker Matt Millen, who's now a CBS commentator. "He looks like he's playing his own scheme out there."
"Junior's like the guy in an old Clint Eastwood movie," says Grossman. "He can help us more on a horse than on the ground. So let him ride his horse."