SAN DIEGO — It started innocently enough with a harmless-looking flare pass.
It ended with a halfback's instinctive move that wouldn't be out of place in an Olympic highlight film of the floor exercises or maybe the three-meter dive.
Gary Anderson of the Chargers caught a short pass from Dan Fouts and looked upfield at the Miami goal line, 19 yards away. There was only one Dolphin to contend with--safety Bud Brown.
Their paths intersected at the 5, when the Charger back went airborne, vaulted over Brown and somersaulted into the endzone. Anderson decided in midair that the ball might be jarred loose if he landed on his stomach, so he casually opted to do a flip into the endzone.
Anderson's safe landing provided the first touchdown in a 50-28 victory for the Chargers, marking the most points ever scored on a Miami team coached by Don Shula.
Anderson's sidekick, Lionel (Little Train) James, was taken aback by the play, which underscored the enormity of Miami's task in trying to contain the Chargers.
"I'm still looking for the phone booth he jumped out of to become Superman," James said. "He jumped from 15 feet out, must have gone up about 10 feet and came down with no splash. I give him a 10.5 on the dive. The only man who can compete with him is Greg Louganis."
Fouts also was moderately impressed.
"I thought he'd at least make contact with the guy he was leaping over, but he didn't," the Charger quarterback said. "That play set the tone for the rest of the day."
The bedazzled Dolphins watched as the Chargers:
--Ran for 224 yards and controlled the ball for 38 minutes 50 seconds. It was the most rushing yardage by a San Diego team in six years.
--Passed for 276 yards and three touchdowns, negating the 294 yards and three touchdowns by Miami's new millionaire quarterback, Dan Marino.
--Gave a credible imitation of a respectable defense, sacking Marino four times, pressuring him throughout the game and confining the Miami running attack to 45 yards.
"When you get beat as badly as we did, about all you can do is congratulate the other team," Shula said. "The Chargers have one of the most sophisticated offenses you'll ever see . . . I hope."
Marino, who just signed a five-year, $9-million contract, also saluted the San Diego offense.
"They played an incredible game," he said. "What we had to do today was score every time we had the ball . . . and we couldn't. When a team gets ahead like that, they usually play more zones, but they kept blitzing."
Marino touched upon two significant points. At one stage, the Chargers had scored on seven of nine possessions and ended nine for 12.
The Dolphins are one of the few teams in pro football capable of matching those figures, but they were stymied Sunday by the aggressive new Charger defense.
Linebacker Billy Ray Smith, who got to Marino twice and each time forced a fumble, said he was satisfied, sort of.
"About one-sixteenth," he said. "We've played only one game and I won't be satisfied until we're in the playoffs.
"When I say my prayers at night, I'm thankful I'm on this team. It's got to be the most difficult offense to try to stop for any defense in the league. We've got so many skilled players and the formations our coaches dream up are really mind-scramblers."
The Charger defense got its Xs and Os scrambled a couple of times but didn't lose its composure.
"Two of the Dolphins' first three touchdowns came because we made mental mistakes," Charger safety Jeff Dale said. "They probably shouldn't have had but seven points until they got their last touchdown (with 58 seconds left in the game).
"This defense hasn't had any respect, and maybe that's justified, because it's been at the bottom four or five years. But I think this is a starting point toward getting some respect."
Cornerback Donald Brown put it more emphatically.
"We proved we can play with the best in the league," he said. "We also proved that our shutout against Dallas in the preseason wasn't a fluke. We proved we can dog and blitz and stunt and all those things."
Miami got an early taste of what lay ahead as the Chargers played an impeccable first quarter that netted a 17-0 lead en route to a 26-14 halftime spread.
Offense, defense, special teams--rarely has a San Diego team packaged all the elements so effectively in a single 15-minute span.
The Chargers controlled the ball for 11 minutes 23 seconds and amassed eight first downs while surrendering none in the first period.
Anderson electrified the crowd, as well as the Dolphin defense, with a 19-yard scoring catch for the first Charger touchdown.
Not to be outdone, the punting unit set up a Rolf Benirschke field goal by forcing Mark Clayton to fumble at the Miami 29.
And the new blitz package produced a Smith sack of Marino, whose fumble led to a touchdown that installed the Chargers in their 17-0 lead.
The Dolphins, after running only six plays in the first quarter, momentarily got back in the game on two scoring passes from Marino to Clayton in the second quarter.