The National Football League is probably at its entertaining best when the quarterback has just released the ball, at least two pass receivers are racing downfield, and the defense has started to react.
Whether the San Diego Chargers are Super Bowl material or not, no offense sets this tableau in motion more often than the aerial extravaganza choreographed by Head Coach Don Coryell and directed by QB Dan Fouts.
Last year San Diego was the first AFC Western Division champion (12-4) to throw more often than it ran: 541 pass plays compared with 481 on the ground. In the process Fouts set NFL records of 4,082 aerial yards and four straight 300 -yard games.
This season has begun even more spectacularly, with an opening 34-13 rout of Seattle followed by a 30-24 nationally televised overtime conquest of Oakland. And Fouts has been unreal: 50 completions in 75 attempts for an incredible 617 yards and seven touchdowns -- four of them including the winner on Sunday to his great wide receiver John Jefferson.
Actually there are three reasons for San Diego's devasting offensive game: the tempered steel in Fouts's arm, the quality of his receivers, and Coryell's "Frankstein" laboratory.
Coryell is the type who will study films of his next opponent's defenses on Sunday and Monday night with his staff, then arrive at practice Tuesday with a game plan that can stretch it to the breaking point.
TechnicallY, one would almost need to be a football coach to understand Don's approach, but basically he overloads against man-to-man defenses and rips zone coverage by attacking its seams.
"All pro coaching staffs are looking for the same thing -- a balanced team that can run and pass," Coryell explained. "That way you have the best of both worlds. But offensively pro football is not sitting back and waiting for a break. You've got to attack. You've got to be able to make a certain number of big plays and you've got to have personnel that fits together. Talent alone won't do it, because some guys don't come to play every week."
Fouts, who has the ability to size up a defense very quickly, never seems to kill the Golden Goose by throwing too often into the same area. Instead he mixes things up; keeping the defense off balance while throwing to a standout corps of receivers headed by Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow.
Jefferson, the "Mr. Excitement" of the trio, has the kind of speed that allows him to rocket away from most defensive backs. He caught 61 passes for 1, 090 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and is far ahead of that pace with his great 1980 start.
Joiner, whose wise old head probably is responsible for as many catches (72 last season) as his feet, simply doesn't make mistakes and always seems to stay between his opponent and the ball.
Winslow, who at 6 ft. 5 in. and 252 pounds could hire out as a phone booth, is just beginning to touch the fringes of his potential. Kellen is also an excellent blocker from his tight end position and often acts as a safety valve when Fouts gets trapped behind the line of scrimmage.
San Diego's offensive line is one of the best. It is headed by Pro Bowlers Russ Washington and Ed White, plus Doug Wilkerson and Billy Shields. All four hold their blocks very well, never seem to run out of gas, and almost always give Fouts the time he needs to pick up his receivers.
Defensively San Diego ranked fourth overall and second against the pass last season. The Chargers got a particularly strong rush up front from ends Fred Dean and Leroy Jones and tackle Gary Johnson. They also got some great fill-in football from tackle Wilbur Young, who subbed for injured Pro Bowler Louie Kelcher. Overall, the defense recorded 42 quarterback sacks and 28 interceptions.
Yet after winning their first division title in 14 years, the Chargers had a rare case of ignition problems in a 17-14 playoff loss to Houston. What particularly upset San Diego's coaching staff was that the Oilers won without power runner Earl Campbell and QB Dan Pastorini, both of whom were injured.
The Chargers are favored again in the well-balanced AFC West, although Seattle, Denver, and Oakland all pose major threats. Only Kansas City, which is still rebuilding, seems out of contention.