The Air Coryell Chargers went long, fell short and changed football

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The log house Dan Fouts has lived in for almost four decades — the house he’s never leaving — sits on a volcanic ridgetop in the Oregon backcountry, hidden by seven snowcapped mountains and 40 acres of ponderosa pines. It’s a refuge the Hall of Fame quarterback has come to relish the older he gets.

“It suits me,” Fouts says. “There’s not another house in sight.”

He’s 72 now, out of a broadcasting job, his playing days fading further from memory. He’s asked if any regrets linger. He laughs.

“I wish I’d been kinder to my teammates,” he says.

Back then, he could be ruthless and unrelenting, a hard-driving prick whose patience ran thin and temper ran hot. “We all had our moments where you’d just had enough of him,” former teammate Hank Bauer says. Fouts famously used to wear a hat around that read MFIC — Motherf—er in charge — but no one needed reminding. “He knew it, we knew it, everybody knew it,” Bauer says.

Fouts had his reasons. “If you don’t have a cocky, arrogant QB playing for you, then you’re in trouble,” he once told a reporter.

The San Diego Chargers of the late 1970s and 80s didn’t have that problem. They were a team ahead of their time, colorful and controversial beyond their star quarterback. The storms the franchise faced off the field read like fiction today — probably because some are. There was the alleged shooting of Fouts, in the middle of one of his Pro Bowl seasons, rumored to have been hushed up by local police. And there were accusations, by the team’s former owner no less, that some players were high on cocaine during the 1981 AFC Championship Game.



Don Coryell’s Hall of Fame legacy: Today’s NFL offenses still have his fingerprints

Fouts remembers the morning of Monday, September 25, 1978, when it all really started. He remembers seeing the smoke billowing up into the sky. A Boeing 727 had collided with a Cessna two-seater above the San Diego skyline; 137 lives were lost in what was, at the time, the deadliest airline crash America had ever witnessed. “One of the worst days in the history of our city,” Fouts says.

The Chargers gathered for a 9 a.m. meeting. Their coach, Tommy Prothro, had stayed at the stadium all night poring through film of a humiliating 26-3 loss to the Packers the day before. The Chargers had managed only a field goal. They’d turned it over 11 times. They were 1-3 on the season. Prothro had seen enough. He decided to quit.

He told the players. Then the new coach was introduced, and as Don Coryell made his way to the front of the room, Fouts muttered something under his breath.

Holy sh–, this is amazing.

To that point, Fouts had done nothing in the NFL. “A horrible career,” he calls it. He was a bust, and more than that, a headache. He spent his rookie season warring within, torn between the Chargers’ coaches and their aging, iconic starter.

Even at 40, Johnny Unitas never saw the third-round pick out of Oregon as any kind of threat — “He saw me as someone who’d go get him a beer,” Fouts says. The Chargers’ staff that year was primarily made up of old Giants and Packers, two teams that happened to be chief rivals of the Baltimore Colts, the franchise Unitas spent 17 seasons with before landing in San Diego in 1973. “The coaches wanted me to do what they were teaching, not the things Johnny was telling me off to the side,” Fouts says. “I didn’t always listen to the coaches.”

Unitas hurt his shoulder and lasted just four starts in San Diego, never to play again. Fouts took over and didn’t win a game all year. By 1978, he’d played under three head coaches and five offensive coordinators. He’d won 13 games in 47 starts. Fouts had demanded a trade, taken the team to arbitration, lost, then threatened to retire at 26. But Fouts knew Coryell was a disciple of Sid Gillman, father of the forward pass, and that Coryell’s San Diego State teams used to outdraw the Chargers in their own stadium.

Suddenly, there was hope.

Within days, the new coach added a play to the offense — 989 F-rub sneak — that featured two go-routes on the outside with rookie first-round wide receiver John Jefferson as the primary option. The Chargers hardly practiced it, the assistant coaches never thinking Coryell would dial it up in the game. Sure enough, that Sunday against the Patriots, Coryell called it in the first quarter.

His assistants figured the bravado would blow up in his face. An argument ensued.

“Dan, if we get this coverage, we’re gonna do this,” offensive coordinator Ray Perkins told Fouts.

“But if it’s this coverage,” another coach chimed in, “then go here …”

Coryell stood in silence for several seconds, letting his assistants bicker.

Finally, he spoke up.

“Ah, hell!” he shouted with a distinctive lisp that at least one former Cardinals player likened to Daffy Duck. “Just throw the son of a b—- to JJ!”

Fouts did. Jefferson caught it. The Air Coryell Chargers were born.

Under Coryell, the Chargers aired it out. “Eighty percent of the time, my first read was a deep shot,” says Fouts. (George Gojkovich / Getty Images)

Four decades later, Coryell’s fingerprints are all over the offenses that define the NFL’s modern era. The move tight end? The three-digit passing system? Using pre-snap shifts and motions to identify the defense? Coryell’s Chargers were the pioneers.

His system sought to exploit defenses in ways no offense did at the time. If Bill Walsh’s famed West Coast scheme leaned on short, quick passes designed to stress opponents sideline-to-sideline, Coryell’s vertical attack would stress them pylon-to-pylon, primarily with punishing deep shots down the seams.

Put simply, they wanted to air it out on every play.

“Eighty percent of the time, my first read was a deep shot,” Fouts says.

It was a timing-based offense built on trust and rhythm. Fouts was instructed to throw to spots, not players. “Danny, if you see the receiver open, you’re too late,” Coryell would tell him. It was a perfect fit for Fouts, who didn’t have Dan Marino’s arm but was a master of throwing with touch and anticipation.

He’d hang in the pocket as long as it took, consequences be damned. Fouts didn’t care. He’d take hit after hit, climb to his feet, then call the next play.

And he expected his teammates to be ready.

“If somebody was off, not focused, not concentrating, that used to get my goat pretty good,” Fouts says.

In a famous exchange caught on film, Fouts can be heard cursing at Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. “If you can believe it,” Fouts says now, chuckling. “That was a preseason game.”

His teammates came to respect the hell out of him. During games, when defensive linemen would bark “I’m coming back!” after laying a vicious hit on him, Fouts would laugh them off. “I’m gonna be right f—ing here!” he’d shout back. They loved that. They watched him play with blood trickling from his forehead to his chin, with a damaged knee ligament that wobbled like Jell-O, with a pulled groin and a separated shoulder and God knows what else.

Said Coryell: “We have an awful time getting Dan to throw the ball away. He wants to take his chances in there.”

Said Walsh, who worked for a season as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator: “He played more physical football than anyone on that team, including the linebackers.”

And receivers coach Al Saunders: “To a man, every single guy on those teams would tell you there wasn’t a tougher quarterback than Dan Fouts.”

Fouts saw it as his duty, the quarterback’s obligation. As much as he rode his teammates, he was always harder on himself.

“As a quarterback, if you’re willing to take the hit, that’s a big deal,” Fouts says. “If I only had a half-second to throw, I was gonna stay in there, regardless of what happened after that half-second.”

Stocked with offensive talent — Fouts, Jefferson and Charlie Joiner at receiver, Chuck Muncie, Clarence Williams and Bauer in the backfield — the Chargers added more weapons. Winslow arrived as the 13th pick in 1979, wideout Wes Chandler via trade two years later and running back Lionel James in the ’84 draft.

Coryell continued to innovate. In offensive meetings he cultivated creativity by asking his assistants for outlandish ideas. Early on, they’d throw some out, convinced the boss would shoot them down. “You know what? Danny can do that,” Coryell would respond. “Let’s try that on Sunday.”

“The coaches always had an empty chalkboard to work with,” says Saunders, who’d succeed Coryell as head coach in 1986. “Do you know how much fun that was?”

So they experimented. In those days, tight ends were hand-in-dirt blockers, seldom used for anything more than a few catches over the middle. Coryell flexed Winslow out wide, then targeted him all game long, turning him into one of the most lethal weapons in league history.

“The thinking back then was the more physical team would win each week,” Saunders says. “Don felt like, hey, let’s have the team with the better athletes win.”

His system was complex in theory but simple in execution — “the genius behind it,” Bauer insists. Routes were identified by digits: odd numbers for out routes, evens for ins. A quick out was a 1, a medium out a 3, a corner a 5. A hitch was a 2, a hook a 4, a post an 8. A go-route was a 9. Easy to memorize. Easy to call in the huddle. Quick to the line of scrimmage. The Chargers sped up. The rest of the league spent years trying to catch them. Now every offense in football uses some form of Coryell’s three-digit route tree.

Fouts never liked the shotgun, so the Chargers rarely used it. Coryell inserted a handful of pre-snap shifts and motions to help his QB sniff out the defensive coverage he was about to see. Coryell loved how fast Fouts’ mind worked. It typically only took him a second after the snap to confirm his initial read. He’d take his five- or seven-step drop and sling it.

“We’re gonna score as many points as we can in the first half,” Coryell used to tell his assistants, “then we’re gonna decide how to win the game in the second.”

The year before Coryell arrived in San Diego, Buffalo’s Joe Ferguson led the league with 2,803 passing yards. In his first full season in Coryell’s offense, Fouts erupted for 4,082 — the second QB in history to crest the 4,000-yard barrier (Joe Namath was the first in 1967). The Chargers would lead the league in passing each of Coryell’s first six seasons, and Fouts would break the passing record three separate times.

As Coryell continued to innovate — with Winslow, with pre-snap movement, with personnel groupings no one had seen before (two tight ends on the field at the same time, four receivers out wide) — defenses were forced to respond, football evolution happening in real time. Winslow was such a mismatch for safeties and linebackers that teams had to bring another cornerback on the field to cover him, the birth of the nickel defense. The dime would soon follow.

“Who ran a nickel defense back then? Nobody,” Bauer says. “Who had four receivers on the field at the same time? What? Are you kidding me? That was crazy.”

Coryell’s Chargers would inspire countless imitators — and a catchy disco fight song — but they never made it to a Super Bowl, which Fouts has never really gotten over.



Lightning in a bottle: The San Diego Chargers’ Super Bowl team

San Diego won 69 games and three division titles across nine seasons, twice reaching the AFC Championship Game. The Chargers’ signature win came in the 1981 divisional round, a 41-38 overtime victory over the Dolphins dubbed “The Epic in Miami.” “Probably the most exciting game in the history of pro football,” Coryell called it.

Less than a decade earlier, Miami capped its perfect 1972 season with a Super Bowl win in which Bob Griese attempted 11 passes all day. Fouts threw it a playoff-record 53 times versus the Dolphins. Winslow caught 16 for 166 yards, two more records, and was so battered and exhausted afterward he had to be carried off the field.

“Greatest game I ever played in,” Fouts says.

The Chargers’ stirring run sputtered a week later in a 27-7 loss to the Bengals in the AFC Championship game. The wind chill in Cincinnati reached 59 degrees below zero; “The Freezer Bowl” they called it. But Chargers owner Gene Klein came to suspect something else was responsible for his team’s dreadful performance.

Cocaine use was a league-wide issue the NFL desperately wanted to keep quiet, and no one fought more fervently to change the league’s lax testing policy than Klein, who pushed for reforms for more than a decade.

Klein claimed that a federal investigator later told him one of his players purchased a kilogram of cocaine while the team was in Miami during the 1981 playoffs, then smuggled it back to San Diego on the team’s charter flight. Against the Bengals, “that team was in a stupor,” Klein told Sports Illustrated. The owner later said his team’s drug use was the biggest reason why he sold the club to Alex Spanos in 1984. “What do I need lawsuits for, agents, drug problems?” he said. “Phone calls in the middle of the night telling me that one of my players is hanging around in drug-dealing bars?”

The stress, he said, had caused him two seizures.

Inside the Chargers’ locker room, it was an open secret that some players used. And the ones who didn’t? They didn’t ask questions. “Each guy was different in how they got ready for the game,” is all Fouts will say now.

“In terms of cocaine, I didn’t do it and I don’t know if anybody did or didn’t,” says Bauer, who joined Coryell’s staff as a special teams coach after retiring in 1982. “I can neither confirm nor deny that Chuck Muncie ever used any of my clean urine.”

On talent alone, Muncie could have ended up with Fouts, Winslow and Joiner in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 6-3, 227-pound athletic specimen became the lethal counterpunch to defenses that would sit back in coverage, weary of getting beat over the top. His 19 rushing touchdowns in 1981 set a league record.

“I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever been around a better natural athlete,” says Saunders, who coached in the NFL for 34 years. “He could’ve been an All-Pro tight end. Could’ve been an All-Pro receiver. He was an All-Pro running back.”

But as Muncie’s career took off, his drug use spiraled. He later told teammates he was using cocaine before games during the 1981 season — sometimes even at halftime. He started missing practices, then flights to away games. Finally, the team ran out of options, trading him to the Dolphins in 1984. Muncie flunked a drug test, nullifying the deal. He was out of football a year later.

By 1989 he was in prison, convicted of attempting to sell two ounces of high-grade cocaine, then lying to investigators about it. His attorney would argue for a more lenient sentence, contending that Muncie’s “environment” as a pro football player was at least partially responsible for his drug use. Muncie served his time and turned his life around, mentoring young athletes after his release.

He also may have crafted one of the NFL’s greatest urban legends.

Muncie could have been an all-time great, but as his career took off, his drug use spiraled. (Richard Mackson / Getty Images)

Amid an investigation into alleged misconduct by the San Diego Police Department, Muncie testified that Fouts was shot in the right arm during a dispute at an area condominium in the middle of the 1983 season. According to Sports Illustrated, Muncie added that two off-duty police officers who worked part-time for the Chargers helped cover up the incident to protect the team and its star quarterback. The two cops denied a shooting ever took place; both would later take full-time jobs with the club.

A years-long investigation ultimately found no evidence to corroborate Muncie’s account. But in a 1990 interview with Sports Illustrated while in prison he held firm. “I absolutely heard the shooting,” said Muncie, who died in 2013. He’d waver in the years that followed, denying his account, then re-confirming it, then denying it again. But a San Diego district attorney later told a judge that, in her opinion, Muncie’s testimony “had been truthful.”

Fouts has been adamant for years: it never happened. “That was a Muncie,” he says now, shrugging it off. “I don’t know where he got that.”

But he has an idea. Fouts injured his shoulder in a loss to the Patriots that season but finished the game. He remembers mentioning something in the training room. “I said something like, ‘I took a bullet for the team today,’” Fouts says. The QB would miss four straight with the shoulder injury, returning for three starts at the end of the season, still playing well enough to earn his fifth Pro Bowl nod.

Even though the investigation cleared the police department, the story lingered for years. “I did hear it,” Winslow later said. “(But) Fouts was like the CIA. You don’t question them. Or more like, Fouts was J. Edgar Fouts.”

Asked about the rumored shooting and subsequent cover-up all these years later, Bauer offers a knowing laugh, pauses for a few seconds, then finally responds.

“I’ll plead the fifth on that one.”

Fouts is often asked what kind of numbers he might put up in today’s game, with rules implemented to safeguard quarterbacks and limit downfield defensive contact. He was throwing for 4,000 yards when no one else was. Last season, nine quarterbacks did so.

“I’ll tell you this,” Fouts says. “If I played today, I wouldn’t have any bills to pay. And I might have a yacht, too.”

His three-decade broadcasting run ended quietly in 2020 when CBS didn’t renew his contract. His legacy rests with the team he lifted and the offense that changed the sport. The Air Coryell Chargers’ impact has been felt for decades, even if they remain overlooked, and at times, underappreciated.



Johnny Unitas, Dan Fouts and Justin Herbert’s Chargers destiny

A bright young junior college coach used to swing by their practices in the early 1980s; Coryell would always open up the gate so he could watch. Two decades later, Mike Martz would call plays for the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams. Bauer would sit at home and shout out the play calls from his couch. “Same plays, same shifts, same verbiage as us,” he says.

In the decade that followed, Peyton Manning would win four of his five MVP awards playing in an offshoot of Coryell’s system.

Saunders, now retired, sat in stunned amazement earlier this fall as he watched the Dolphins hang 70 on the Broncos. “Wow, that looks like us in San Diego,” he told his wife. “Except their coach kind of looks like a librarian.”

Coryell died in 2010. It took him seven tries to get in the Hall of Fame — something that infuriated his former players and assistants — before finally being inducted last August.

“Him getting in,” Fouts says, “keeps the San Diego Chargers’ legacy alive.”

Fouts isn’t chasing recognition. His quiet life in the backcountry fits him just fine. He knows what his old coach meant to the sport, what Coryell meant to him and his teammates. Every once in a while, he’ll get stopped in an airport or a stadium by a stranger wanting to confess to him how much those teams sparked their love for pro football.

“They’ll tell me, ‘I can’t tell you how much I loved watching you guys play,’” Fouts says. “And to me, that’s our legacy.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Stephen Dunn, Focus on Sport/ Getty Images)

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