EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It is one of pro football's most deliciously ironic moments when the San Diego Charger defense feels compelled to stick up for the San Diego Charger offense.
Only a week after the Charger offense gained 500 yards, made no turnovers and routed Miami, 50-28, the San Diego defense was called upon to deflect criticism of the Charger attack.
"They've bailed us out so many times, we're not going to say anything bad about them now," linebacker Billy Ray Smith said Sunday after a 20-7 loss to the New York Giants marred by five interceptions and two fumbles.
"They pay us to stop the other team," safety Jeff Dale said. "We can't control our own offense. We did our part as a defense, but we can't cry about our offense. I'm not putting down our offense. This is discouraging, but we have to live with it. Hey, the NFL is weird sometimes." Weird, and then some.
Unlike the previous Sunday, there were no halfbacks somersaulting poetically into the end zone from five yards out. There were no rave reviews from the rival coach proclaiming this the most sophisticated offense in existence.
Instead, the Charger attack was more a sandlot production than state of the art before a Giants Stadium crowd of 74,921.
Dan Fouts, the Charger quarterback, suffered perhaps his worst regular-season game of the decade. He threw five interceptions, matching his career high--last achieved exactly six years ago against the Raiders.
The Chargers, whose high-tech attack normally carries the weight of a defense that for years has been pro football's weakest, were harsh in their assessment of their offensive performance.
Fouts said, "I played poorly." Tight end Kellen Winslow said, "We were pitiful." Assistant head coach Al Saunders said, "Our execution was awful."
The Giants, of course, had analyzed the Chargers' nearly flawless victory over Miami and implemented a defensive scheme that seemed to confuse Fouts, who at least maintained an attempt at humor after the game.
When an inquisitor wondered if the Giants had rushed only three men and dropped eight into their coverage at times, Fouts quipped: "I thought they rushed four most of the time, but you might have read their defense better than I did."
Film of this game will be must viewing around the National Football League in coming weeks. What the Giants did was provide a host of clues as to how the Chargers can be contained.
"What we did was the exact best way to play them," New York Coach Bill Parcells said. "People say you have to go all-out and blitz Fouts. But if you do that, you may give up 50 points."
The Giants maintained pressure with a four-man rush, mixed their coverages and even managed to decipher where Fouts was going to throw several passes.
The Giants also borrowed from San Diego's scheme of a week ago, when the Chargers kept the ball for 38 minutes 50 seconds and thus kept it away from Miami quarterback Dan Marino. The Giants controlled the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, 39 minutes 44 seconds.
Following Parcells' dictate, they stayed away from an all-out blitz, often denying Fouts with two deep cover men and five players underneath. They were even able to read Fouts a few times.
"He was telegraphing where he was throwing sometimes," said linebacker Harry Carson, who wouldn't disclose precisely how Fouts signaled the direction of his throws. "He's a rhythm quarterback and we got him out of his rhythm," Carson said.
The contrast with last week's victory over Miami was striking.
The Chargers, playing a game free of turnovers, had struck a balance between passing (276 yards) and running (224) against the Dolphins.
There was no balance in this game. Fouts, completing only 19 of 43 passes, threw for 224 yards, while San Diego runners gained only 41 yards.
It was easily the poorest game by Fouts since a 34-21 loss to the Raiders last October when he completed only 23 of 50 passes.
"My momma said there would be days like this," Fouts said. "I knew early in the game it wasn't going to be my day. We couldn't get any rhythm or tempo. Our first two series were three plays, then off the field. We never established anything."
One of the game's most futile and embarrassing moments for the Chargers came late in the first half with the Giants ahead on a 21-yard field goal by Joe Cooper. The Giants, in an emergency move to replace injured kicker Bob Thomas, had signed Cooper only Saturday.
The Chargers missed a chance to at least tie the game.
They reached the New York 20 with 18 seconds--and no timeouts--remaining.
Fouts threw a 13-yard pass over the middle to Winslow, but then confusion set in as the field goal unit headed onto the field and members of the offense failed to leave.
Fouts, with no recourse, aimed a wild pass into the end zone and the Giants' lead was safe as the half ended.
The Charger postgame explanation was as confused as the actual sequence.