The Best Teams Never to Win the Super Bowl, Part 9: The 1981 San Diego Chargers

Although it may seem that in recent times every post I’ve done has been about the Chargers or the Rams, maybe it’s a subconscious effort from my brain to try and write about teams before they move to Los Angeles.

Or maybe it’s just a coincidence and these posts have just been behind everything else for a while.

There was a buzz around the 1981 Chargers, particularly going into the playoffs that year that it was a team that very much could go all the way. They were horrifically imbalanced and they only finished 10-6, but who cared?

Don Coryell

Don Coryell was the man behind the team, who had come in as the new head coach after a 1-3 start to the 1978 season. After Coryell started 1-4, he rebounded to go 7-1 and finished 9-7. Despite the nice ending to the season, the Chargers missed the playoffs, but were poised to compete in 1979.

Coryell’s wide-open passing offense had already gained him fame around the San Diego area, leading San Diego State to over 100 victories in his time there. “Air Coryell” made its debut with the Chargers, and paid instant dividends. In 1979, the Chargers became the first ever AFC West Champion to run more passing plays than running plays, finishing 12-4 and finishing in the top 10 in terms of defensive points allowed, something they wouldn’t do again until 1989. They lost in the playoffs to the Oilers though, thanks in part to quarterback Dan Fouts’ 5 interceptions and no touchdowns.

Fast-forward to 1981, and everything is still high-octane and exciting. The offense is still great, but the defense…is not.

Dan Fouts 3

Dan Fouts is a Hall of Famer, and the 1981 season definitely helped him. Fouts completed 59.1% of his passes for 4,802 yards, 33 touchdowns and only 17 interceptions. He was only sacked 19 times, and finished with a grand rating of 90.6.

Chuck Muncie

Chuck Muncie, with his big coke-bottle glasses, nose strip and lawnmower facemask finished as San Diego’s leading rusher. He carried the ball 251 times for 1,144 yards and 19 touchdowns, tying the NFL record mark for touchdowns on the ground in a season for a single player. He was also a threat catching passes, recording 43 receptions for 362 yards but no touchdowns.

James Brooks Chargers

1981 was James Brooks’ rookie season, and although he only spent three seasons in San Diego before moving on to Cincinnati, they were good ones. Brooks carried the ball 109 times for 525 yards and 3 touchdowns, while catching 46 passes for 329 yards and 3 touchdowns, a 7.2 yards-per-reception average.

New York Giants v San Diego Chargers

Although he was 34 years old, Charlie Joiner had a great year as San Diego’s leading receiver. He caught 70 passes for 1,188 yards and 7 touchdowns, a staggering 17.0 yards-per-reception average. Joiner would retire in 1986, spending 17 years in the league.

Kellen Winslow

Although Kellen Winslow was a tight end, he finished as the team’s second leading receiver, something you don’t see very often unless the tight end is a very special player or you’ve got some offense that spreads the ball around everywhere. Winslow was both of those, as he mixed incredible size and speed with great hands and a knack for breaking tackles. Winslow recorded 88 receptions for 1,075 yards and 10 touchdowns, posting a rather impressive 12.2 yards-per-reception average.

Wes Chandler 2

Although John Jefferson was traded away near the start of the season, Wes Chandler filled in nicely, recording 52 receptions for 857 yards and 5 touchdowns, this coming after a slow production year with the miserable 1-15 Saints in 1980. He did try to run the ball 5 times for -1 yard though, but all is forgiven.

So what we had with an offense with stars all over the place, a sturdy offensive line and a Hall of Fame quarterback is one that scored a league-high 478 points, an average of 29.9 per game. Teams were still traditional in 1981, they ran the ball and did all the necessary old fashioned things, but San Diego just threw that out the window and attacked you. The team averaged 421.5 yards-per-game and scored 60 touchdowns.

The defense, however, was terrible. “Mean” Fred Dean was traded away about the same time John Jefferson was, and it gutted the unit in the long run. They gave up 24.4 points-per-game, ranking 27th/28th in points against them while giving up 47 touchdowns and ranking last in pass defense, surrendering 269.4 yards-per-game. No more was the defense’s inability more apparent in Week 4, where the 1981 defense is remembered by a radio call by a Denver Broadcaster:

[Craig] Morton has thrown three touchdown passes, and we’re still in the first quarter!

This was a team that you excused their lack of defense because of their brilliant offense. With the mix of a nearly unstoppable offense but a crappy defense, the Chargers won the AFC West with a 10-6 record and received a first round bye in the playoffs.

In the Divisional Playoffs, the Chargers faced the Miami Dolphins in Miami in a game that is now known as “The Epic in Miami”. The game featured the Chargers blow a 24-0 first quarter lead, but ultimately win 41-38 in overtime in a game that featured 10 touchdowns, 856 passing yards and the infamous “Hook and Ladder” play right before halftime.

The Epic in Miami

From hot and humid Miami, where do the Chargers go? What is essentially the South Pole. The temperature in Cincinnati had dropped to below 0 thanks to a windchill factor of -32. The Bengals were favorite in the game, finishing with a 12-4 record, and San Diego’s passing offense (that had played in warm weather almost the entire year, I might add) stalled, managing only a single touchdown through 4 quarters. The defense, however, allowed three touchdowns and another two field goals to secure a 27-7 Cincinnati blowout.

The loss ended the Chargers’ Super Bowl dreams, and although they made the playoffs in 1982 with a 6-3 record, they didn’t make it to the postseason again until 1992.

Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow both retired after the 1987 season, with Joiner retiring after ’86. James Brooks was traded away after the 1983 season to Cincinnati, and Don Coryell was fired after the 1985 season. During the 10-year stretch of playoff absence, the Chargers’ highest win total was 8, finishing with that mark twice in 1985 and 1987, the latter coming after an 8-1 start.

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