Success had been a long time coming for the football fans of San Diego. The Chargers were last a playoff team in the Air Coryell Era of 1979-82, when they went to the postseason each year and reached the AFC Championship Game in 1979 and 1980. After a decade in the wilderness, the 1992 San Diego Chargers hired Bobby Ross, who had Georgia Tech to a surprise national championship in 1990 as their head coach. And the ‘92 Chargers not only got back to the playoffs but made history in the process.
Today, the name Junior Seau is sadly synonymous with the risks that come to the brain from playing pro football. Back in 1992, the late linebacker was a rising star, 23-years-old and on his way to 1st-team All-NFL. He led a defense that finished fourth in the league in points allowed. Seau got help from a tough pass rush led by Pro Bowl defensive end Leslie O’Neal and his 17 sacks. Burt Grossman and Blaise Winston combined for 14 more sacks and Gil Byrd was a Pro Bowler in the secondary.
The offense didn’t have the same kind of Pro Bowl talent, but they still ranked ninth in putting points on the board. Quarterback Stan Humphries ranked in the middle of the league in completion percentage and throwing interceptions but was seventh among quarterbacks in yards-per-attempt.
Anthony Miller was the primary target on the outside and Miller caught 72 passes for nearly fifteen yards a pop. Nate Lewis was a big-play threat, with his 34 catches producing more than 17 yards each. Derrick Walker provided another option at tight end.
But no one was more consistently in Humphries’ sights than the versatile Ronnie Harmon out the backfield. Harmon caught 79 balls for over 900 yards and was the only Pro Bowl player on offense. The backfield was rounded out by conventional, physical running backs in Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine, who combined for over 1,300 yards.
The schedule was difficult out of the gate. Of the first four opponents, three of them (Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers, Pittsburgh Steelers) would make the playoffs. The fourth, the Denver Broncos were coming off an AFC Championship Game appearance in 1991. And the Chargers lost all four games.
No team in NFL history had ever reached the postseason after an 0-4 start. Even though the playoffs had been expanded to six teams per conference in 1990, and even though San Diego beat lowly Seattle on October 4 to go into their bye week at 1-4, there was no reason to expect these Chargers to be the first.
San Diego began a softer schedule stretch that included two games against the mediocre Indianapolis Colts (the schedule format of the time had the two teams that finished last in the five-team divisions play each other twice). The Bolts won both games. More notable was that they did it decisively, by scores of 34-14 and 26-0. These wins were sandwiched around a big 24-21 victory over Denver, as Humphries went 20/27 for 355 yards, while the Charger defense picked off John Elway three times.
The Broncos and Chiefs were still the leaders of the AFC West, and San Diego dropped a 16-14 game in KC. They were at 4-5. It was a nice turnaround, but the Bolts were still two games back of Denver.
But another winning streak promptly began. San Diego went to Cleveland, led by second-year head coach Bill Belichick. Trailing 13-7 in the fourth quarter, Humphries ht Miller with a 45-yard touchdown strike that won it. The following week was about the ground game, with Butts muscling out 104 yards in a 29-14 win over Tampa Bay. The Chargers were 6-5 and on the winning side of the ledger for the first time in 1992.
They hosted the Los Angeles Raiders for Sunday Night Football and San Diego showed the nation how far they had come. They led 21-3 by halftime and coasted to a 27-3 win. There might have been a modest hangover the next week in Phoenix when they spotted the Cardinals a 14-zip lead and still trailed 21-10 in the third quarter, with no running game to be found. But O’Neal would get four sacks himself, the defense forced five turnovers and Humphries 20/32 for 275 yards was enough to pull out a 27-21 win.
San Diego came back home to face Cincinnati and were tied 10-10 at halftime. The Chargers again took over late and again the pass rush was a reason why. O’Neal and Grossman combined for three sacks and the final was 27-10.
The Chargers were 9-5 and improbably tied with the Chiefs for first place in the AFC West. The Broncos had slumped in the second half and were fading fast at 7-7. It was a two-team race, but with San Diego having lost twice to KC, they needed help.
And they got it on a Saturday afternoon in the penultimate week of the regular season. The Chiefs lost to a weak New York Giants team. The Chargers came out the next day at Los Angeles to face the Raiders and played one of their best games of the season. San Diego played error-free football, shut down the running game and intercepted three passes. The final was 36-14.
History was already made—San Diego was in the playoffs. But now the AFC West crown was in their grasp. Kansas City won its finale, so the Chargers needed to win in Seattle (the Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002). San Diego trailed 14-13 after three quarters. The defense took matters into their own hands. Grossman created a safety. Darren Carrington brought an interception back to the house. They Chargers pulled away again and won 31-14.
San Diego’s history-making turnaround had not even required the most recent playoff expansion of 1990. The Chargers were in the old-fashioned way, as division champs.
And Round III with Kansas City was up. Nobody was under any illusion about how different this Charger team was from the one that lost to the Chiefs in September or even in midseason. San Diego was a three-point favorite for the late Saturday afternoon kickoff.
Both teams were built on defense and it showed. The game was scoreless at the half. It would be Butts that would breakthrough, rambling 54 yards for a touchdown. He rushed for 119 yards and outplayed his counterpart, KC’s physical Christian Okoye. And that San Diego defense kept coming. They got seven sacks, with Grossman, O’Neal and Shawn Lee all getting home multiple times. The final was 20-0.
A road trip to Miami was on deck for the divisional playoffs, something that woke up the memories of 1981 when the Chargers won one of the great playoff games of all-time in South Beach. That 1981 game was the late Sunday afternoon kick that ended divisional weekend, just as this 1992 game would be. But that’s where the similarities ended.
The rain was pouring and after a scoreless first quarter, the San Diego dream run came crashing down. Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino heated up in the second quarter, while Humphries threw four interceptions. The game got away by halftime and ended 31-0.
It was still an amazing turnaround year for a franchise that needed it. And it was the start of a good five-year run under Ross. He would get to the playoffs two more times and the 1994 trip resulted in what remains the only Super Bowl appearance in Chargers history.