Last Playoff Win Didn’t Come Easy : After Starting in Hole, Fouts, Winslow Flew Past the Steelers in ’83
Dan Fouts chuckled as he recalled how the game began. Before a play from scrimmage had been run, the Chargers were seven points behind and backed up to their one-yard line.
Fouts recalled, “I looked at Don Coryell and he looked at me, and he said, ‘Go get ‘em.’ As I ran onto the field I thought to myself, ‘Thanks a lot. Only 99 yards to go.’ ”
It was a playoff game on Jan. 9, 1983, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh--the same matchup the Chargers will have Sunday in their season opener--and James Brooks fumbled two Pittsburgh kickoffs in a row. The Steelers’ Guy Ruff recovered the first fumble for a touchdown, and Brooks managed to fall on the other on the one-yard line.
That the Chargers came back to win was a tribute to the imaginative offense of Air Coryell and the masterful manner in which Fouts executed it. Fouts outdueled Terry Bradshaw to lead the Chargers to a 31-28 victory.
The cliffhanger turned out to be an historic event for the Chargers, because they haven’t won a playoff game since. In fact, they haven’t even been in the playoffs since they lost to the Miami Dolphins the following week, 34-13.
A player strike had cut the 1982 season to nine games. The Chargers went into what was called the Super Bowl tournament with a 6-3 record, second best in the AFC West, but had to play on the road throughout.
The Steelers had won four Super Bowls in the ‘70s, and the fans were hungry for one more. They waved towels that read, “One for the thumb.” They didn’t even wait for the opening kickoff to show their enthusiasm.
Hank Bauer, the Chargers’ special teams captain, now a sports anchor at Channel 8, remembered the pregame demonstration.
“I’ve never seen a stadium as loud as that, just for the warm-ups,” Bauer said. “It was almost like wrestling. When we came out, we were greeted by 50,000 boos, then all of a sudden we heard wild cheering. We thought Bradshaw and Franco Harris might be coming out, but one of our guys had tripped and fallen near the 50-yard line.”
Considering the crowd’s mood, one can imagine what a din went up when the Steelers scored on their own opening kickoff. When Brooks followed that fumble with another, even though he recovered, Fouts had all he could do to make himself heard when he barked the signals for the Chargers’ first play.
Somehow, though, the Chargers shrugged off what loomed as disaster and drove 91 yards to the Steelers’ eight. When they finally stalled, Rolf Benirschke kicked a 25-yard field goal.
Benirschke said later, “That little field goal in the first quarter was very big at the end.” He was right. It ended up as the margin of victory.
The Chargers went from there to take a 17-14 halftime lead, but their real comeback was still ahead. Bradshaw passed the Steelers into a 28-17 lead before Fouts hit tight end Kellen Winslow with two touchdown passes to turn the game around in the final 8:42.
Fouts and Winslow, both almost certain Hall of Famers, formed a combination that has known few peers in NFL history.
Making a great duo even greater was the fact that Fouts had the best wide-receiver pair in the league in Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler, plus a second solid tight end in Eric Sievers and a fine running back in Chuck Muncie. Joiner, second only to Steve Largent in all-time receptions and yardage, is another likely Hall of Famer.
Ironically, Bradshaw, who had had one of the most productive days of his Hall of Fame career, made a mistake that opened the door for the Chargers. Instead of running for a first down when he had to scramble with 11 minutes left, he threw an off-balance pass that Jeff Allen intercepted and returned 17 yards to the Pittsburgh 20.
Fouts, in turn, threw an interception to cornerback Mel Blount, only to be saved by a controversial holding call against linebacker Jack Ham.
Given that reprieve, Fouts rifled an eight-yard scoring pass to Winslow, and the Steelers’ lead was down to four points.
“I don’t think I ever threw a ball harder than I threw that one,” said Fouts, who lives in Sisters, Ore., and works NFL telecasts for CBS. “Kellen was such a great target, and he snatched the ball as he went past Ham. He had to go through a tiny gap, because they had such tight coverage with a cornerback on his back. It was a real nail-biter.”
Winslow, who is entering his final year of law school at the University of San Diego, recalled that Ham had gotten to the ball first but had only been able to tip it. Besides studying law, Winslow does “Sportswrap” with Jim Stone after Charger games on Channel 39 and will make his debut this fall on the football broadcasts of his alma mater, the University of Missouri.
“I lined up right, pushed to the middle and came back to the right,” Winslow said. “Dan really wound that one up and, when Ham touched the ball, he barely changed its route. I caught it about two yards deep in the end zone.”
On the Steelers’ next possession, John Goodson shanked a 20-yard punt to give the ball to the Chargers on their 36 with four minutes left.
Instead of going to the air immediately, offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, now with the Rams, called a series of sweeps by Muncie, who ended up with 126 yards in 25 carries. This not only ate up yardage and time, but it set up the Steeler defense for the winning pass play.
From the Pittsburgh 12, Fouts faked a handoff to Muncie, who faked a sweep to the right. With the flow of the play headed in the wrong direction, Fouts threw a screen pass to Winslow as he ran along the line of scrimmage to the left. Winslow barreled into the end zone with a minute remaining.
“The play was called during a timeout,” Fouts said. “The Steelers were counting on another sweep, and this was a perfect call for the situation. We used it only about every fourth game, so there was always the element of surprise. I couldn’t wait to get back in the huddle and give the guys the play. I knew it was going to work.
“Before the ball was snapped, I looked at their weakside linebacker, Robin Cole. If he wasn’t blitzing, it could affect the play, but I noticed him frothing at the mouth, so I knew he was coming. I knew that if I could spin around and fake and keep from tripping myself, we could pull it off.
“With everybody else going right, it was a one-man screen, with (center) Donnie Macek in front of Winslow. The key to the play was Joiner putting a block on Blount. Kellen had to get by Blount, but Charlie took care of him.”
Blount bounced off Joiner’s block in time to move into Winslow’s path, but Winslow was too strong for him.
“I started to the right and faked a block, which I was good at anyway,” Winslow said. “Then I went along the line to the left, trying to avoid bodies. Blount was in the end zone covering Chandler and, when he realized it was a screen, he came toward me. After Charlie blocked him, he and I met at about the one-yard line, and I managed to knock him down and get into the end zone. I really got a big lick on him.”
Not mentioning his important block, Joiner, who now coaches the Charger receivers, said, “I ran straight down the middle just clearing out that area. Chandler went down the right sideline while Muncie carried out the fake sweep.
“We had worked that play successfully for four or five years. It was one of our bread-and-butter plays. It was simple, but it had to be executed right. It meant a lot to have a leader like Fouts to make it work.”
Ed White, coach of the Charger tight ends, played guard on that team and was part of the faking convoy for Muncie.
“We had a great deal of confidence in Winslow,” White said. “It would usually take two men to take him down. When Muncie went to the right, he drew a lot of attention, and that set it up. Kellen took it from there. Dan got the ball to him and away he went.
“Doug Wilkerson was the other guard, and we both pulled in front of Muncie. I kicked outside, and Doug turned up inside. The tackles, Russ Washington and Billy Shields, also went right and Macek leaked out to the left.
“With Muncie piling up all the yardage he did, the defense flowed toward him pretty fast. He was a great complement to our passing game.”
Bauer said of the winning screen pass, “It was the best call I’ve ever seen, and it was perfectly orchestrated.”
As for the first two kickoffs of the game, Bauer recalled that the stage was set for big returns on both, only to have Brooks botch them. Bauer was one of the lead blockers.
“On the first one, it was a middle return and a hole opened up like the interstate,” Bauer said. “I started upfield, and then I heard a gigantic cheer. When I turned around, I saw the guy recovering in the end zone.
“I called the same exact return on the second kickoff, and we opened a huge hole again. When Brooks fumbled again, the crowd went bonkers. But at least he recovered that time, and we went all the way downfield for a field goal. That was a big key to the ballgame.”
Actually, the Chargers’ problems began several hours before Brooks committed his two fumbles.
“The night before, two of our players got caught sneaking out after curfew by the team’s security guards,” Bauer said. “They were never identified, so I won’t name them now.
“They knew Coryell would just lose it if he found out who they were, but he never did. At the pregame meal, he was screaming and crying. He said, ‘I don’t know who it is, but if I find out, you’re out of here.’
“One of the guys played the game of his career, and the other played very well, too. After that, we never heard a word about it. We won the game, so who cared?”
And Fouts was superb, with 27 completions in 42 attempts for 333 yards and three touchdowns, including an early one by Sievers. Chandler caught nine of Fouts’ passes for 124 yards, Winslow seven for 102 and Joiner five for 68.
Brooks also contributed eventually, redeeming himself for his early gaffes with an 18-yard touchdown run on which he bowled over three Pittsburgh defenders.
“I wasn’t going to let nobody stop me,” he said.
Bradshaw, meanwhile, completed 28 of 39 for 325 yards and two touchdowns, but threw two costly interceptions. Besides the one by Allen that led to a Charger touchdown, Bruce Laird made one at the San Diego one which snuffed out a Steeler threat.
The Chargers’ much-maligned defense also limited Harris to 35 yards and Lynn Swann to one catch. It did just enough to complement a passing game that was at its awesome best.
As outstanding as he was in his own right, Bradshaw was so impressed by Air Coryell that he spoke about it in superlatives after the game.
“If we ever have another war, we ought to send the Chargers and let ‘em throw bombs,” Bradshaw said. “You watch them and you want to run out there and ask for their autographs.”