Down through the years, I have spent considerable time talking offense with an assortment on certifiable geniuses on Level 1A at the stadium. It is there that the Chargers make their home, or at least concoct their schemes.
I have chatted with Don Coryell, the mastermind himself, as well as aides-de-camp such as Ray Perkins, Joe Gibbs and, of course, Ernie Zampese.
These have been fascinating discussions, akin to talking painting with Michelangelo or sculpting with Rodin.
These guys never felt they had developed anything "state of the art." They never felt like what they had was perfect, or ever would be. They lived (and live) with the paranoia of a nuclear scientist, always fearful that The Other Guys would somehow get to the next step first.
This collective concern always was two-pronged. While they worked passionately to make the next offensive breakthrough, they worried that someone would some day come upon a successful defensive device. There could be no success without accompanying insecurity.
Something has happened to this attack, and no one seems to know what.
How often has it been written that the Chargers' offensive philosophy is to have a bomb built into every play? How much has been written about the cleverly devised passing tree?
And now I see that the Chargers' are not really interested in going deep. That's what I read Friday. That's what Ernie Zampese said: "Well, we never did try to go deep very much in the past."
Sorry, Ernie. I guess my eyes were deceiving me.
However, the Chargers' problem is not just the absence, planned or otherwise, of a deep passing game. The short patterns seem discombobulated.
It seems that the Chargers are now running an offense with a blunder built into every play. The old passing tree has become a stump.
Incredibly, the defense has become more entertaining to watch.
The other evening, in fact, with a collection of colleagues at the house watching the game at Seattle, we came up with an idea to make the game more interesting. We tossed quarters into a cup and drew names, the pot going to the "owner" of the player who scored the next touchdown.
Sitting at one end of the room with my neighbor Valencia and my wife, I turned over my slips. They included Charlie Joiner, Lionel James and Buford McGee. Valencia had Gary Anderson and Wes Chandler. My wife tossed in one quarter and came away with Kellen Winslow.
On any other evening, or maybe any other year, the three of us would have had the market cornered. We would have had in our hands virtually every weapon in the National Football League's most awesome arsenal.
On this occasion, we winced.
A guy across the room was gloating. His slip said, "Seattle Defense."
That's what it has come to. Folks think the other team is more of a threat to score than the Chargers are . . . when the Chargers have the ball. Fourteen second-half turnovers in the last four games, all losses, will erode confidence just a little bit.
Why is all this happening?
I have a couple of theories, both of which have to do with the fabled passing tree being turned into a stump . . . or at least severely pruned.
The Chargers' offense, as I always understood it, was designed to spread the defense as thin as possible. The Chargers wanted to threaten from sideline to sideline for the length of field. The defense had to be made to feel that it was trying to cover a large pizza with a spoonful of sauce, preferably a teaspoon.
This year's Chargers have presented no such threat. They got away with what they are doing in the season opener against Miami because (a) the Dolphins had no time to adjust to a different Charger offensive philosophy and (b) the Dolphins have since been unmasked as a woeful defensive bunch.
In the weeks since, opponents have made adjustments. It certainly will not get any easier Sunday against Denver.
As to the theories, the Chargers have lost their ability to spread the defense because either the wide receivers do not represent deep threats or Dan Fouts' arm is tired and/or sore. It could well be a combination.
Regardless, opponents have discovered they must still defend sideline to sideline but only for a depth of maybe 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. This is much easier to do.
Because there are more receivers \o7 and \f7 defenders in this much more compact area, Fouts will almost always be throwing into traffic of some sort. There are too many folks populating too small a patch of landscape. Interceptions will be more frequent, as they have been, and even tipped balls will be fair game because someone is always in the neighborhood. Long gains off short passes also will be inhibited because of the congestion.
Even the running game is hurt, because more defenders are in position to abandon their duties in the secondary and come up for support.
This is a dilemma for this heretofore most prolific of offenses, particularly if it does not have the physical capability to change. If the receivers cannot get deep, it makes no sense to throw where there is no one to catch. If Fouts' arm (or shoulder) cannot throw deep, it makes no sense to send receivers beyond his range.
Consequently, if the Chargers simply do not have a deep passing game, they are essentially playing without the Charger offense. The guys on Level 1A had better circle the wagons and hope for the best, because they are no longer playing with a space-age arsenal.