SAN DIEGO — There was a time, more than a year ago, when Charger owner Alex Spanos had designs on hiring a defensive coordinator named Buddy Ryan.
History might have been significantly altered if Spanos had succeeded in getting permission from the Chicago Bears to talk to Ryan. Last season, Ryan was the architect of one of the great defenses in pro football history as the Bears lost only one game en route to winning the Super Bowl.
The Chargers now are working on their third defensive coordinator since Spanos cast an eye in the direction of Ryan. Tom Bass and Dave Adolph have made way for Ron Lynn, who may not be a clone of Ryan, but he is certainly close enough to give Spanos the big-play, blitzing defense he craves.
Under Lynn, the Chargers will have a fundamentally different defense. Rather than the low-risk, conservative approach of the past, the new defense will be aggressive and risk-taking, designed to complement the San Diego offense. And the Charger offense, the essence of pyrotechnics for the better part of a decade, also has some exciting new wrinkles for 1986.
Ryan summarized his approach to defense this spring after he became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, saying: "The philosophy of containing, trying to stop the big play, is the opposite of my idea. Sure, you leave your cornerbacks open to mistakes, but with the blitz coming, the quarterback doesn't have time to see that mistake."
That's a pretty good description of the way Lynn wants the Charger defense to approach its work this year.
The Chargers are going to use multiple alignments and multiple substitutions, along with heavy blitzing, to throw off the timing of the quarterback.
"The way the game is played today, with the rules set up to favor the offense and so many skilled quarterbacks and receivers, you have to change the quarterback's tempo so he can't throw on time," Lynn said.
"We want to throw off his rhythm and make sure he is concerned for his safety. We want to have people all around him and in his face."
Ron Nay, the Chargers' director of scouting, talked with Lynn all spring about the kinds of players he would like to have. Then Nay went out and drafted an All-American pass rusher, Leslie O'Neal of Oklahoma State, and followed with a highly regarded nose tackle, Terry Unrein of Colorado State.
"I know Coach Lynn is going to be doing more blitzing and is going to be more daring," Nay said. "We realize we don't need shutouts to win football games here, so we are going to take some chances. There will be some big plays allowed this year, but we won't allow as much ball control by the other side. The other teams shouldn't be able to keep our offense off the field so much."
The Chargers in recent years often played with three men rushing the passer and up to eight men defending the pass, attempting to keep the ball in front of them to avoid deep throws. The new approach calls for more stunts, dogs and blitzes, to use a Lynn phrase.
"We want to put all the pressure we can on the quarterback and on the running game, too," he said. "Quarterbacks vary in how they react to pressure. A guy like Dan Fouts, it takes a stick of dynamite to shake him. Others, you just brush 'em and they get rattled. But any quarterback, if you come after him enough, is going to be acutely aware of the pressure."
It's pretty easy to tell when a quarterback begins feeling pressure, according to Lynn. The quarterback may change his stride, release the ball sooner, alter his arm action or get skitterish with his feet.
"Once a guy looks like he's getting shell-shocked, we'll increase the tempo," Lynn said. "If you can make the other team deviate from the plays they wanted to call, or change their protection scheme, that's working to your advantage."
The Chargers also will rely on explosive bursts by their linemen to penetrate the offensive backfield and throw runners for losses. They want to create second-and-11 situations instead of second and 4.
To accomplish all this, the Chargers will line up differently, and with different personnel, on virtually every play.
If it sounds a bit complicated, it is.
"We want to do all we can without confusing the coaches," Lynn said, laughing. "The players probably can adjust to as much as we throw at them. We just don't want it to become over-saturated."
All the planning and scheming will mean little or nothing if new players like O'Neal and Unrein, plus veterans like Billy Ray Smith and Danny Walters, don't have big years.
"We'll rely on a total team concept," Lynn said. "We had a meeting the other night, and I asked for a show of hands of every defensive player who had been to the Pro Bowl. Not a single player raised his hand.
"To compensate, we've got to respect each other and be confident in each other. Every player has to be able to be aggressive without worrying about having to cover up for someone else's mistake."
Assistant head coach Al Saunders provided a similar perspective.