The 1980 San Diego Chargers may have been the best team in the franchise’s “Air Coryell” era, where head coach Don Coryell, with a big assist from offensive coordinator Joe Gibbs, produced an explosive offense on the cutting edge of the NFL’s relatively new pass-friendly rules. They went all-in to win the Super Bowl, but defensive problems cut the dream short.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts was at the controls, and he threw for 4,715 yards and 30 touchdowns, both very high numbers by the standards of 1980. He also threw 24 interceptions, which, while not unheard of 1980, even for good quarterbacks, was still on the high end.
Fouts was a Pro Bowler and he had three 1st-team All-NFL targets. John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner were each 1,000-yard receivers, as was Kellen Winslow at tight end. The offensive line wasn’t great, and the team had problems running the football, but 33-year-old left guard Doug Wilkerson still made the Pro Bowl. San Diego would later seek to address its running game issues with a big midseason trade.
The offense ranked fourth in the NFL in points scored. It was defense that was the issue and specifically in the back seven. The Chargers had talent in the front four. Gary Johnson and Louis Kelcher were both Pro Bowlers at defensive end—Johnson was 1st-team All-NFL—and young Fred Dean was the same at defensive end. But the problems at linebacker and in the secondary resulted in a unit that ranked 18th in the NFL in points allowed.
San Diego opened up the season at Seattle, a division rival in the AFC West prior to 2002 and Fouts opened up. He threw for four touchdowns and any notions of problems with the running game and defense were nowhere to be found. John Cappelletti ran for 112 yards, the Seahawks only rushed for 47 and the final score was 34-13.
A home date with the Oakland Raiders was next. The Raiders, the division’s standard bearer through the most of the 1970s, had slipped and missed the playoffs two straight years, though they were never really bad. This was going to be a big comeback year for them, and the Week 2 game in San Diego was outstanding.
Fouts threw for 387 yards, hitting Jefferson and Winslow nine times apiece. The Chargers should have won handily, but they turned the ball over seven times, gave up a defensive touchdown and allowed backup quarterback Jim Plunkett to lead a drive for the tying touchdown at 24-24. The game went to overtime where San Diego finally won it.
The good times continued with two more AFC West wins, at Denver and at Kansas City. The defense picked off six passes in Denver, two by Glen Edwards who brought one back to the house in a 30-13 win. Fouts threw a pair of second quarter touchdown passes to Winslow in KC to get control of that game and the Bolts won 24-7.
Even though San Diego was 4-0, it was obvious they needed better offensive balance and to that end they swung a trade with the lowly New Orleans Saints. Chuck Muncie, an explosive Pro Bowl talent at running back—albeit with a penchant for fumbling the ball—was acquired for a second-round draft pick. Why the relatively low price tag? Muncie had off-the-field issues pertaining to drug use and the Saints were on their way to the worst record in the NFL anyway.
Muncie had no impact in his first game back, a tough 26-24 home loss to Buffalo. The Bills were on their way to an AFC East title and the inability to run the ball meant San Diego couldn’t hold a 24-12 lead in the fourth quarter. The following week in Oakland another loss came and this time it was the rush defense. The Chargers allowed 217 rush yards. Fouts did everything he could to overcome it, throwing for 388 yards, almost all to his Big Three of Jefferson, Joiner and Winslow. But again, the fourth quarter was the killer as a game tied 24-24 ended up in a 38-24 defeat.
A home game with a bad team in the New York Giants was a good antidote for the two straight losses, and Fouts opened up with 444 yards in a 44-7 loss. It set up a Sunday Night game in Dallas—prime-time games outside of Monday Night were a rare treat for fans in 1980, and with Dallas continuing to be an elite team under head coach Tom Landry, this matchup was a bigger treat than most.
San Diego trailed 7-3 before Fouts hit Jefferson on a 58-yard touchdown pass. A defensive touchdown put the Chargers ahead 17-7. But the flip side of this offense always staying on the attack was high turnovers and Fouts threw four interceptions. For the third time in four weeks, San Diego came undone in the second half against a good team, losing 42-31.
If we fast-forward the clock one year, San Diego traveled to Cincinnati for an AFC Championship Game in frigid temperatures. The weather in Cincinnati on November 2 this season was a little more manageable and so were the Bengals, who finished 6-10. The Chargers took care of the football this time, jumped out to an early 17-0 lead and coasted home, 31-14.
San Diego was a nine-point favorite at home against Denver and Muncie had his best game to date, running for 115 yards. But Air Coryell was grounded in this game. A couple drives to the red zone ended up in field goals, the mediocre Broncos hung around and pulled a 20-13 upset. The Chargers dragged the hangover through the first quarter at home against the Chiefs a week later, trailing 7-0. Finally, San Diego awakened, got 30 first downs and beat KC 20-7.
The popularity of the Chargers, with their innovative passing offense, could be seen by yet another prime-time date outside the Monday Night window. On Thursday they went to Miami. The Dolphins were the defending AFC East champs, but on their way to a mediocre season in 1980. But this game would prove to be a foreshadowing of an epic playoff battle the two teams would have in 1981.
Fouts threw three touchdown passes, the game went back and forth until kicker Rolf Benirschke won it in overtime, 27-24, with a short field goal. On Sunday, Oakland lost in Philadelphia. It meant the Chargers and Raiders were tied atop the AFC West at 8-4, with the rest of the division in the rearview mirror.
It was now San Diego’s turn to play Philadelphia, the team that would ultimately win the NFC crown. This game took place out west. After a season where the Chargers constantly struggled against good teams, they stepped it up with a strong outing to start the stretch drive. Fouts hit Winslow on a pair of touchdown passes, the defense shut down the Eagle run game and San Diego jumped out a 19-0 lead, before holding on to win 22-21. Oakland held serve and the race remained tied.
A road trip to struggling Washington should have marked another easy win. The Redskins were going to be in the market for a head coach soon and though they man they would find was in the San Diego coaches’ booth, it couldn’t have been based on anything that happened in this game. Fouts threw an early Pick-6, threw five interceptions total and the Chargers were beaten badly 40-17. Fortunately, Oakland also lost.
San Diego hosted lowly Seattle on Saturday in the season’s penultimate week and Muncie ran for two touchdowns, while Fouts threw for 339 yards in a 21-14 win. The victory wasn’t impressive, but it was a divisional win. The Chargers held the tiebreaker on the Raiders, and still controlled their destiny for the AFC West title after Oakland won on Sunday.
The Chargers’ season finale would be a Monday Night home date with Pittsburgh. The Steelers were the two-time defending Super Bowl champs, and San Diego-Pittsburgh was the AFC Championship Game everyone had anticipated in 1979 before the Chargers were upset in the playoffs. Undoubtedly ABC, who televised MNF, had big dreams when this game appeared on the schedule.
Pittsburgh faded and was out of playoff contention, so those dreams were shot, but the game would still mean something to San Diego. They had their playoff berth secure, but when Oakland won on Sunday, the Chargers needed to win to secure the AFC West. In fact, the stakes were even higher—in a balanced AFC where all five playoff teams ultimately finished 11-5, a San Diego win gave them the #1 seed. A loss put them on the road for the wild-card game.
San Diego had red-zone problems in the first half with three good drives resulting in field goals and that kept the game close, at 9-3. With the lead at 16-10 in the third quarter, the Chargers again settled for a short field goal. But they were controlling the flow of play and Fouts went 21/37 for 308 yards and no interceptions. Winslow caught ten passes for 171 yards. Muncie rushed for 115 yards and when he scored a fourth quarter touchdown for a 16-point lead, the game was secure.
The Chargers won 26-17, had their second straight AFC West title and ensured the road to the Super Bowl went through San Diego.
Two weeks later, Buffalo came in for the AFC divisional playoffs. Even though the Bills had won here in October, they were playing with a hobbled quarterback in Joe Ferguson and the Chargers were a (-6) favorite.
San Diego drove to the 5-yard line, but had to settle for a field goal, and then Buffalo took over the second quarter, with two touchdowns. The Chargers were in a 14-3 hole at half. Fouts found Joiner on a short touchdown pass to put the team back in the game. San Diego began driving for the lead score and reached the 5-yard line, but again had to settle for three points.
It’s easy to oversimplify, but while the acquisition of Muncie made opponents respect the run more, the Chargers continued to have problems in areas where the run game should have mattered most.
But Fouts and his Big Three could cover for a lot of sins. A big defensive play didn’t hurt either, as the Chargers came up with an interception inside their own 10-yard line when the Bills were driving for a lockup touchdown. With 2:08 left, San Diego reached midfield. Fouts threw over the middle and found one his under-the-radar targets, Ron Smith. Touchdown. San Diego escaped 20-14.
Oakland had won the wild-card game and then held off the Cleveland Browns in a thriller. It set up Round 3 of Chargers-Raiders, this time with a Super Bowl trip at stake. It wasn’t San Diego’s day, a fact demonstrated early when an Oakland pass was tipped several times before ending up as a touchdown.
The Chargers fell behind 28-7 in the second quarter before Fouts brought them storming back to within 28-24. The rally might have tied the game, but a drive inside the 10-yard line ended up in yet another field goal. Fouts was great, throwing for 336 yards and the defense recorded six sacks. But Oakland otherwise did what they wanted offensively and they held on to win 34-27.
San Diego was an explosive team and a very good team in 1980, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of disappointment. This was the first of two straight AFC title game losses, and the one they got on their homefield. The season was a clear success, but losing a conference championship at home to your hated rival, who goes on to win the Super Bowl, leaves a bad taste. Air Coryell never did get to a Super Bowl, much less win it, and the franchise still looks for its first title today.