When can you trust a football team? I mean, really trust them? When is it safe to believe in them? When can you hope they won't hurt you again?
This is the 37th season I've followed the San Diego Chargers; I've been following them since I was 8 years old. And when I say 37th season, I mean it. I've been their fan every one of those seasons. I've been a fan throughout their 249-312-5 regular season record and 6-8 playoff record. I was a fan when they went 12-4 in 1979 and 2004 and a fan when they went 2-11-1 in 1973 and 1-15 in 2000.
This year will be only the ninth time in those 37 years that they've made the playoffs. But it's not like they've made the playoffs at a steady once-every-three-or-four-years pace, though. Uh-uh. They made the playoffs zero times from 1970, my first season of fandom, through 1978 -- nine straight years. Only in 1978 did they win more games than they lost. Then they made the playoffs four years in a row, 1979–1982. Those were the "Air Coryell" years. That's when they really hurt me. They would raise my expectations so high, only to flame out in the playoffs. They never even made the Super Bowl. I can remember how each of those years ended.
1979: That was their first great season. They went 12-4. They beat good teams (including both of the teams that ended up in the Super Bowl, in fact). They were flying high when the season ended -- they definitely looked like the best team in the league. First round of the playoffs, they faced the Houston Oilers. Houston's best players were injured and couldn't play. It was supposed to be a walkover. I guess somebody forgot to tell the Oilers that, because they won, 17-14. Air Coryell could only come up with 14 points. I heard later that the Oilers stole their offensive signals, so they knew what every play was going to be. I don't know if that's true. I only know the Chargers lost.
1980: Although their record was slightly worse at 11-5, they were even better on offense. Dan Fouts threw for 4,700 yards. John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow each had over 1,000 yards in receptions. There was only one problem: the Oakland Effing Raiders. The Chargers and Raiders played three times that year. San Diego won the first game. They were outplayed for most of the game, but they managed to pull out the win in overtime. Fouts threw a pass to Jefferson, who leapt and caught the ball and fell to the ground at about the 4 yard line and then rolled in for the touchdown while the Oakland DB stared in confusion. In your face, Raiders! The second regular-season game, Oakland won. The third game was the AFC Championship -- winner goes to the Super Bowl. Oakland won again, without much trouble. The problem wasn't that Oakland was better, exactly, but that they just matched up well with the Chargers defense. The Chargers couldn't stop Cliff Branch and those guys.
1981: So, the Chargers were better than most everybody in 1980 (again beating both Super Bowl teams during the regular season), but they had this match-up problem with the Raiders. For 1981, they would make some incremental defensive changes, a little adjustment here and there, right? Wrong. We're talking about the San Diego Chargers. They panicked. They brought in a new defensive coordinator and completely reworked their defense. The result? A disaster. Now they not only couldn't stop the Raiders, they couldn't stop anybody. They still went 10-6, because their offense was absolutely insane. Fouts threw for 4,800 yards. Joiner and Winslow and Wes Chandler, who replaced Jefferson, had 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Chuck Muncie came into his own, running for 1,100 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns. Plus, James Brooks ran for 500 yards and had 1,200 return yards. That was the peak of Air Coryell.
But their defense was terrible. No lead was safe. As the season wore on, the prevailing mood among Charger fans during each game was anxiety. It was one of the strangest things I've ever seen in sports. The fans at home games couldn't really bring themselves to cheer wholeheartedly because they knew that no matter what the Chargers offense did, the other team was going to come back and score. Instead of getting excited over Charger touchdowns, we got nervous.
So anyway, 10-6 and they win the division and go to the playoffs where they faced Miami. This was one of the greatest games in the history of the NFL (so good it has its own Wikipedia entry, in fact). The Chargers jump out to a 24-0 lead in the first quarter, but no Charger fan thinks the lead is safe. And we're right. Miami has cut it to 24-10 with like six seconds left in the half. They have the ball around midfield. They pass to one of their guys at around the 20, and he immediately laterals the ball to another guy who races right past the Chargers for a touchdown, 24-17. It was designed play, something I'd never seen outside a high school game.
Second half, and Miami scores first to tie the game, 24-24. But Fouts brings the Chargers back and we take the lead, 31-24. Our defense still sucks, though, and Miami scores to tie the game, 31-31. Then they score again to take the lead 38-31. But here come the Chargers. We score with about a minute left. Tie game, 38-38. A minute's too long for our defense, though. We let Miami get into position to kick a game-winning field goal. They line up, the snap's fine, the hold's fine, and it looks like the Chargers have let us down again. But wait! Winslow comes flying into the line, leaps, and blocks the kick! The Chargers are still alive! The game's going into overtime!
Sudden-death overtime, and the Chargers get the ball first -- our only hope, because we know we aren't going to stop anybody. We take the ball right down the field to set up a short field goal. The Charger's kicker, Rolf Benirschke, is very reliable (and an all-around nice guy). But the snap is bad, the hold is bobbled, and it throws off his timing. He misses the kick. Shit. Now it's up to the defense. Yeah, right. Of course, Miami takes the ball right down the field to set up its own field goal try. But their guy kicks it low, and the Chargers 6'9" defensive end, Leroy Jones, blocks it. Chargers ball. Once more, we take the ball down into position for a short field goal. This time, it's all perfect. The Chargers win 41-38.
I watched all this on TV. You might think I was elated after this. My team just won one of the greatest games ever. And I was, sort of, but mainly I was tired. It was just too much. Too much happiness. Too much anxiety. Too much excitement. Too many mood swings. There's an iconic photo of Winslow being helped from the field -- exhausted, dehydrated, cramping -- after the game:
That's how we fans felt too.
I probably would've actually gone to the game, if my Grandmother had died about a year sooner than she did. I suppose I should explain that. See, there was this travel agency in San Diego that put together a package for a weekend in Miami and ticket to the game, about $500 per person. And there was this girl I wanted to take. I was just about to turn 20, and she'd been two years ahead of me in high school (but about three years older, because I skipped a grade), so I guess she was around 22. Her name was Sindy. (Yes, Sin-dy with an S. Just about the only one I've heard of outside the porn industry.) Anyway, I didn't know her in school or anything -- she was way out of my social class at the time -- but she'd gotten a job as a checker at the grocery store my family always went to (Alpha Beta – are they still in business?) and she was pretty friendly. She remembered my sister, and she noticed me I guess. I'd changed a lot since high school. In fact, I was damn good-looking, if I do say so myself, although my self-confidence wasn't proportional.
So anyway, she was a nice friendly girl, and really cute. She had black hair and dark eyes, and this really sweet smile, and she looked like she was maybe half-Asian and half-white or something. I'm looking at her yearbook pictures now -- she really was awfully cute, and she just got better looking in those three or four years after high school. I remember this one time all the checkers were wearing their own clothes instead of the usual slacks-and-polo-shirt uniform for some reason -- I don't remember why -- and she wore this mad sexy outfit. Remember J-Lo's green dress?
Sindy wore something that looked a lot like that, except it was black and it had like pants instead of a dress. I guess it was pretty inappropriate for a grocery store, but day-um! she looked good. But still wholesome, not slutty at all, even in that wild outfit. She looked very healthy-sexy, if you know what I mean. I was profoundly glad to have gone shopping that day.
Anyway, I used to always stand in her line at the grocery store, even if there were much shorter ones, so I could talk to her for a couple of minutes. I always wanted to ask her out, but I could never quite work up the nerve. She was a big Chargers fan, though, and if I could have come up with $1,000 I would have so asked her to come to Miami with me. I bet she would have come too. To a Chargers playoff game in Miami? All expenses paid? Yeah. I bet she would have. And if a trip to Miami wasn't enough, there isn't a fangirl in the world whose excitement wouldn't have carried over to the rest of the night after her team won a game like that. Oh my, it would have been so sweet to be 19 years old and take a girl like that to a game like that in a city like Miami. But I didn't have $1,000. Sigh. Money changes everything. And my Grandma died not long after that and left me $20,000. Nice timing, Grandma.
Well, the AFC Championship was sort of an anti-climax after that (kind of like the rest of this post, probably.) The Chargers were still worn out, and playing the game in -9° (-22°C) temperatures with a wind chill of -59° (-50°C) didn't help. They got beat by Cincinnati.
1982: There was a strike and the defense still sucked and the offense wasn't quite as good, but they managed to make it to the playoffs. They won their first game, but then they got blown out by Miami, which was totally out for revenge (and got it).
After that, the Chargers didn't make the playoffs for nine straight seasons, 1983–1991. Then they had a few good years, making the playoffs three out of four years, in 1992, 1994, and 1995. Nobody thought they were a great team though, not the kind that could win a Super Bowl. But they did make it to their only Super Bowl after the 1994 season. Naturally, they got blown out, losing to the 49ers by 23 points.
Following that, they sucked again. No playoffs from 1996–2003, eight years of futility. In 2004, boom! All of a sudden they were very good. Very, very good. They went 12-4, with a good offense and a good defense. They looked like they could go deep into the playoffs, maybe make it to the Super Bowl, and with a little luck…. But did they go far? No. They lost their first playoff game. To the New York Jets, a team that nobody considered as good as them. They just lost. Last year, they were supposed to be one of the most talented teams in the league. They also had a really tough schedule with a lot of East Coast road trips against good teams. They ended up not even making the playoffs. I heard people call them "the best team not in the playoffs" so many times it made me sick.
And this year? They're 10-2 with three games left. They've already clinched the division title. And, right now, they're the best team in the league. By far. There's no one close to them on offense. They've scored like 70 points more than the next-highest-scoring team. Their defense is very solid, with several playmakers in their front seven. They threw away one game with overly-conservative coaching and another with lax player attitude -- they aren't likely to make those mistakes again. They can hold leads and they can come from behind. This could be their year. But I'm afraid to believe in them. They've hurt me so many times. But if this is really the year they do it -- if they're going to win it all -- I'll be missing out by not fully committing to believing in them…