The guy at the tailgate party knows his Chargers are 2-3. Depending on whom he listens to and what he reads, he might even think that record isn’t too bad for a team with a young coach, a young quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, an inexperienced owner and a relatively green general manager.
If he pays attention, the guy at the tailgate party also will know the Chargers have scored fewer points (57) than any team in the NFL. And if he really knows his onions, he’ll tell you the Chargers have been outgained in all five of their games.
At that point he might even figure he knows more than the sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the team for a living. But when he tells you he can do a better job coaching the team than the current staff, ask him if he wouldn’t really rather have another bratwurst.
And tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One reason is that he doesn’t know what the coaches are talking about.
Charles Berlitz doesn’t know what NFL assistants are talking about when they gather among themselves. Coaches are to the English language what Stonehenge is to astronomy.
Sometimes they even have a hard time understanding each other. In 1962, 49er Coach Bill Walsh was a defensive assistant the staff of Bills’ Coach Marv Levy at Cal. During meetings Walsh would fill one blackboard with diagrams, move to another and begin filling it up with more ideas while still talking about the first board. Levy would follow him with an eraser, rubbing out the plays. Why? The other assistants were confused.
Similarly, Tailgate Man knows the Chargers’ starting receivers are Quinn Early, Rod Bernstine and Anthony Miller. He might not know the opposing defensive coordinators call them “X, Y, Z.” In meetings, even the Charger staff calls them “X, Y, Z.” It’s standard nomenclature, much of it started in the 1930s by former Stanford Coach Clark Shaughnessy, architect of the modern T formation.
Tailgate Man knows Charger starting quarterback Babe Laufenberg is a better scrambler than he is a pure passer. But he doesn’t know that a quarterback’s ability to read defenses before and after the snap is often more important than either arm strength or quickness.
“The great quarterbacks,” Charger defensive coordinator Ron Lynn says, “will know after two steps that it’s Cover 2. He’ll run 74 X OUT where his first guy is X but . . . “
But if the strong safety stays home, if the cornerback presses, if the pre-snap read on the free safety turns out wrong, well . . .
Tailgate Man can tell you the Chargers’ leading sacker is defensive end Lee Williams with four. But he can’t tell you who leads the team in quarterback hits. Or wedge breakers.
Well, just what are these people talking about and what are those numbers and diagrams they carry around inside laminated folders.
NFL coaches not only speak an argot that rarely escapes their meeting rooms. They record and pore over a vast storehouse of statistical information that never shows up in the press releases disseminated by the teams’ public relations departments.
Take the “quarterback hit,” for example. The Chargers define this as the instance where a defender gets to the quarterback and knocks him to the ground--legally--just after he has released the ball. A “quarterback hit” may cause a wild throw or it may just remind the passer how much it’s going to cost every time he wants to wait for his primary receiver to beat the jam at the line of scrimmage.
“The sack is something that is a tangible thing,” Lynn says. “Obviously you’re able to say, ‘There it is--they have spotted the ball, and we have a measurable amount of real estate that we have taken from them.’ ”
Quarterbacks sacks are an official NFL statistic. Quarterback hits are not. That’s fine with Lynn. “We certainly don’t want to encourage anybody in a bad way with that type of statistic,” he says. “You don’t want people saying, ‘They’re encouraging cheap shots.’ Because that’s not what we’re doing.
“But it is a way of rewarding a defensive lineman who may come close. How many times do you see a guy make a great rush and he totally eludes and evades the guy that’s assigned to block him and just as he gets there the quarterback gets rid of the ball because it’s a three-step drop or a five-step drop or the receiver has badly beaten his man?”
Special teams are much the same way. To outsiders, special teams consist of the punter or the kicker and the return men. There is much more. There is the punt-coverage unit, the punt-protection unit, the kickoff-coverage unit, the kickoff-return unit and so forth and so on. Wayne Sevier, the Charger special teams coach, grades all 11 players on every special teams play in every game.
Tailgate Man may be able to tell you former San Diego State linebacker Randy Kirk leads the Chargers with five solo special teams tackles and three special teams assists. In recent years, NFL teams have started listing special teams’ tackles in their weekly releases. But he can’t tell you backup safety Jeff Dale leads the Chargers in blocks for punt returner Lionel James with 16.
Sevier can tell you that a 22-yard average on kickoff returns will place your team in the top five in the NFL. “So,” he says, “one of our goals every week is to average 22 yards per kickoff return.”
The weekly goals for the punting team are threefold: no touchbacks, a net 36-yard punting average (they’re at 36.5 right now) and no long returns allowed. Sevier outlines goals in 12 different special teams areas. A good score, he says, is 8 out of 12. “Especially,” he says, “if they’re in the right areas.”
Sevier keeps track of negative statistics, too. They involve busted assignments, penalties, muffs, fumbles. “Anything,” he says, “that hurts your chances of winning.”
Likewise he credits special teams tacklers with an assist even if they just get a piece of the ballcarrier. He does so to encourage gang-tackling. And he counts solo tackles the same as assists when he adds up total “hits.” A player can also score on Sevier’s sheet for being the first one downfield or for busting a wedge or for making a block on a punt or kick-return unit. Through five games, Kirk leads all special teams players with 42 hits.
Lynn and assistants Gunther Cunningham (defensive line) and Mike Haluchak (linebackers) keep track of positive and negative statistics, too. These include errors, missed assignments, dropped interceptions, tipped balls, passes knocked down and something they call “big play effort.” The defense’s goal is 30 big plays a game. “In the games that we lose,” Lynn says, “it’s usually a pretty good measuring tool that we’re not at 30.”
But there is no statistical measure for the psychological warfare waged on every play--stuff that would make G. Gordon Liddy blush. “We like to give the offense misinformation and disinformation,” Lynn says. “CIA type stuff.”
Lynn’s biggest enemy: experienced quarterbacks in sophisticated systems. People like San Francisco’s Joe Montana, Miami’s Dan Marino and Denver’s John Elway. Particularly when those quarterbacks spread four receivers across the field before the snap.
“Things become very defined then,” Lynn says. “What, legitimately, can you do? Everything is spread out in front of the quarterback. And a guy like Marino is working out of a structured offense that he’s grown up in. He doesn’t get sacked because he knows what he’s seeing and, bang, he’s going there.”
All of which comes back to how well and how fast a quarterback can read a defense. “To me,” Laufenberg says, “reading is the No. 1 thing for a quarterback. Guys that don’t read throw a lot of interceptions.”
If you ask Tailgate Man, he probably will tell you that reading is something you do in the library. He might know about the importance of reading defenses the same way that the guy who flies a kite at the beach knows the importance of landing gear for a 747.
The passer’s goal is to get the ball to the receiver that is single covered. “To be able to play catch” is the way Laufenberg puts it.
On most passing downs, defenses will drop seven players into coverage and offenses will send five players into routes. That means the defense can double cover two of the five. “They key to reading is finding that one-on-one matchup,” Laufenberg says.
But the receivers have to make reads, too. So do the offensive linemen. Laufenberg can’t hit Quinn Early on a post pattern while lying flat on his back because the left tackle failed to read a blitz. “Reading and throwing the ball accurately kind of go hand in hand,” says Jerry Rhome, the Chargers’ offensive coordinator.
Pay attention now. Rhome is going to try and explain why it isn’t always the quarterback’s fault: “Let’s say the five of us are the offensive line, OK? Now, the guy over you goes that way and the guy over you goes this way and now here comes the linebacker. Now, you’ve got to pass him off to him. He’s got to pass him off and you’ve got to be ready for the linebacker. Now here he comes, and you don’t see him coming around. Here he comes clean. You broke down, and they didn’t.”
Now consider this: Sunday against New Orleans the Chargers will start just two offensive players who were full-time starters last year. “What ends up happening,” says Charger Coach Al Saunders, “is every time the quarterback takes a snap, especially in nickel (passing) situations, they’re seeing things they’ve never seen before. Every snap of the football is a new experience for Babe Laufenberg.”
And the results have been mixed. Laufenberg’s quarterback rating is 61.2 and near the bottom of the list among AFC passers. But his interception percentage of 3.8 is better than Elway’s and only one tenth of a point worse than Marino’s.
The last touchdown the Chargers scored was a perfect example of the quarterback making the proper pre-snap read, the proper post-snap read and getting the proper read from his receiver. It was also the touchdown that beat the Chiefs, 24-23, with 52 seconds to play.
It was a 9-yard completion that worked for the Chargers when Laufenberg spotted the Chiefs in a 3-4 defense at the line of scrimmage. That meant Kansas City would be able to double cover either his weak side wide receiver, “X”, or his running back. But not both. Miller was “X”. James was the running back.
At the snap, Laufenberg immediately noticed the double coverage going to Miller. Miller ran a clearing route, leaving James one-on-one with a linebacker. James made the same read and broke the pattern outside where the linebacker would have more trouble dealing with James’ superior speed.
But one week later, it was back to square one when Denver gave the Chargers more defensive looks than they could handle. They scored no touchdowns.
One final thing, Tailgate Man:
Your 9-to-5 world might be a drag. But NFL coaches work seven days a week up to 18 hours a day six months a year. Forthe other six months they average more than 40 hours a week. There is no union for NFL coaches. Job security is poor. Family life is often interrupted. And for assistants, the kids they teach make more money than they do.
That’s a language you should be able to understand.