The 1979 San Diego Chargers marked the beginning of a new period of success in franchise history, with their high-powered passing attack nicknamed “Air Coryell, named after head coach Don Coryell. But the season also had a bitter ending, something the franchise has become all-to-familiar with in the Super Bowl era.
San Diego had been on the outside looking in since winning AFL championships in the early 1960s. The Chargers hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1969. After losing three of their first four games in 1978, Coryell was given the coaching reins and they promptly closed the season 8-4 and got positive momentum rolling into the 1979 NFL season.
Coryell had an offensive coordinator who would make a pretty good name for himself, and that was Joe Gibbs, future legend for the Washington Redskins. Gibbs oversaw a passing game that was state-of-the-art by the standards of the era, with Dan Fouts as the triggerman. Fouts threw for over 4,000 yards. In a testament to how aggressive passing games were, and how much leeway defenses still had, Fouts threw 24 interceptions, but it didn’t stop him from being named 1st-team All-Pro.
Wide receiver John Jefferson was also 1st-team All-Pro, and Charlie Joiner made the Pro Bowl. Both were 1,000-yard receivers. There was a young tight end named Kellen Winslow, who was still finding his way into the offense, but had a Hall of Fame career ahead of him. The right side of the offensive line, Ed White and Russ Washington, were Pro Bowl-bound.
The running game was up-and-down, but Clarence Williams still ran for over 750 yards, and the offense as a whole ranked second in the NFL in points scored.
San Diego’s defense in the Air Coryell era often came under scrutiny, but they also ranked second in the league. The talent wasn’t as explosive, but there were a pair of Pro Bowlers on the defensive front, with Gary Johnson and pass rusher extraordinaire Fred Dean. Two linebackers, Ray Preston and Woodrow Lowe, were alert to the ball and intercepted five passes. Defense wasn’t going to be a problem for the 1979 San Diego Chargers.
The AFC West would be a good division, with four of its five teams ultimately finishing with a winning record and even the fifth-place Kansas City Chiefs winning seven games (the division was the Seattle Seahawks along with the AFC West’s four current teams). San Diego opened with two division games and quickly showed they meant business.
Fouts completed 21/30 for 224 yards in Seattle, the defense forced six turnovers and San Diego broke open a game that was 13-10 at the half and won 33-16. Fouts kept it going at home against the Oakland Raiders, going 15/30 for 216 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 30-10 rout.
It was the running game’s time to shine when the Buffalo Bills came west. The Chargers trailed 19-13 in the fourth quarter against an average opponent. Williams then ripped off a 55-yard touchdown run to put the Bolts on top and then tacked one more score to win it. He finished with 157 yards rushing in the 27-19 win.
San Diego traveled cross-country to New England for Week 4 and the running game disappeared. The Chargers dug a 20-0 hole in the second quarter, before Fouts started bringing them back. The lead was down to 27-21 and San Diego was driving for the winning score, before Fouts was intercepted near the goal line in the final two minutes. They had taken their first loss of the season.
The hangover seemed to drag into a home game with the awful San Francisco 49ers. It took a scoreless first quarter for the Chargers to wake up, but then they got rolling again. Fouts was 26/34 for 251 yards and Winslow caught seven passes in what ended as a 31-9 rout.
Fouts put up the yards in Denver, against a Bronco team that had won the AFC West each of the previous two years, and reached the Super Bowl in 1977. Fouts threw for 305 yards. But he also threw three interceptions and with the running game shut down, the passing yardage proved to be sound and fury signifying nothing. Literally nothing—Denver won 7-0.
A similar offensive dynamic took place for three quarters at home against Seattle. Fouts finished with the game with 318 yards, including nine catches by Jefferson for 137 yards. But with no running game, San Diego couldn’t shake Seattle and only led 14-10. This one had a better ending though—Fouts went over the top to Jefferson for a 49-yard touchdown strike and a 20-10 win.
The Los Angeles Rams would eventually make the Super Bowl out of the NFC, but they were still trying to find their footing when San Diego played them in a battle of SoCal. The Chargers forced eight turnovers, Fouts threw for over 300 yards, with both Joiner and Jefferson having big days, and it was a 40-16 rout.
In an era where there weren’t nearly as many prime-time games—Sunday night and Thursday nights were occasional novelties and only Monday Night Football was standard—the Chargers had not yet been showcased to the nation. They made a Thursday Night visit to Oakland and seemed to shrink. The secondary was carved by Raider quarterback Ken Stabler, they were outrushed 137-82 and pounded on the scoreboard, 45-22.
Fouts got his team back on track quickly in Kansas City, throwing an early 31-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson, and the defense forced four turnovers in a 20-14 win. The Chargers then flirted with danger in a trip to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals. Fouts threw four interceptions and San Diego trailed 24-16 in the fourth quarter, at a time when there was no two-point conversion.But the quarterback was at his best down the stretch. Fouts found Artie Owens on a 32-yard touchdown pass and then led a drive for a winning field goal.
The biggest possible test was next when San Diego hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers, the famed “Steel Curtain”, who had won three of the previous five Super Bowls and would win another one this year. San Diego led 21-7 in the third quarter, with Pittsburgh driving to get back in the game.
Lowe picked off Terry Bradshaw and took it 77 yards to the house, all but sealing a 35-7 win. It was one of two interceptions for Lowe, and one of five interceptions and eight total turnovers the defense as a whole forced.
After a slow start at home against the Chiefs, trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Fouts heated up. He went 29 yards to Joiner, 42 to Jefferson and threw a short touchdown pass to tight end Bob Klein, pulling away in a 28-7 win.
The calendar flipped to December and there were three games left. San Diego was 10-3 and atop the AFC West, but Denver was right behind at 9-4. The Broncos held the tiebreaker and the teams would play on the final Monday Night game of the year in San Diego.
Fouts played extremely well in a home game against a bad Atlanta Falcons team, going 28/37 for 338 yards. But there was no running game, and Atlanta’s balanced offense pulled a 28-26 upset. San Diego was dropped into a tie with Denver, and were now a game back of Pittsburgh for the top seed in the AFC.
A road trip to mediocre New Orleans brought a much better result. Fouts was 17/23 for 253 yards, spreading the ball around to all his receivers. Williams gave a consistent running game. The defense was in lockdown mode and the final score was 35-0. The following night, the Steelers lost to the Houston Oilers and San Diego would play for not just the AFC West, but the top playoff seed on the final Monday Night.
The Chargers-Broncos battle is the kind of game that would be quickly flexed to Sunday Night in today’s NFL. Back then, it was a lucky break for fans to get this kind of game for a finale. Denver led 7-0, but Fouts was able to scramble in for a 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game by halftime.
The workmanlike battle continued in the second half, but San Diego was able to make some big plays. Fouts hit Joiner on a 32-yard touchdown pass. The quarterback made mistakes—three interceptions—but Bronco counterpart Craig Morton made even more, throwing four picks. It wasn’t a work of art, but with the 17-7 win, the Chargers were division champs.
It seemed everything was pointing to a San Diego-Pittsburgh battle for the conference championship, especially when Houston arrived in San Diego for the AFC divisional round missing the heart of its lineup. The Oilers were not only without the league MVP, running back Earl Campbell, but missing quarterback Dan Pastorini and wide receiver Ken Burrough.
But Fouts ended up being owned by a rookie strong safety named Vernon Perry. The kid intercepted Fouts four different times, and Perry also blocked a field goal. San Diego scored on their first drive of the game, but most everything went wrong offensively after that and they lost 17-14.
San Diego had still arrived and their aerial attack would continue to keep them atop the AFC West each of the next two years and in the playoffs through 1982. They started getting playoff victories, advancing in each of the next three seasons. But this group of players never reached a Super Bowl, and the franchise itself still looks for its title since the AFL days.