SAN DIEGO — In his former life, as a slightly deranged special teams star for the Chargers, Hank Bauer learned to distinguish the multiple threats to his job and physical well-being.
For six years, he was one of pro football's most maniacal special teams performers. The threat of permanent crippling injury to his back forced his retirement in 1983.
"One thing I never did was worry about making the team," Bauer said. "If I'd paid attention to what other players were doing, I'd have been trampled by the crowd. I learned that if you spend time worrying about things, it will affect your performance in a negative way."
It's a lesson that has stayed with him since he joined the San Diego coaching staff in 1983, but it wasn't until he was put in charge of special teams this year that Bauer realized how many things a guy could legitimately worry about if he were so inclined.
Bauer is responsible for coordinating all the Chargers' special teams: kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt protection, field goal/extra point and kick block.
Each team has different starters along with two to four backup players designated for each position. The personnel changes from week to week because of injuries, but Bauer keeps all the names in his head.
He also prepares a game plan that consists of about 20 densely packed pages containing detailed breakdowns of the opponent's tendencies and personnel, plus diagrams of the Chargers' formations for each area of the kicking game. He also has to memorize the opposing side's lineup for each of its special teams--a minimum of 66 names covering six teams.
"It's really mind boggling," Bauer said, removing his glasses and putting his feet up on his desk. "And the average fan wonders why we work 16 hours a day. . . .
"When a scheme works right on Sunday, it's a very rewarding feeling, maybe better than anything I had as a player. I guess it's the same thing a school teacher feels when she gets something across to a pupil."
Bauer's responsibilities doubled last week when Al Saunders replaced Don Coryell as head coach. Bauer, a former Charger running back, was put in charge of coaching the team's running backs, while retaining responsibility for special teams.
To help him and increase the efficiency of the Chargers' kicking game, Saunders has delegated one or more coaches to assist Bauer, depending upon which special team.
"Hank heads it all up, with assistance in specialized areas," Saunders said. "We want to pay more attention to detail throughout our football team, and particularly the kicking game. The Seattle Seahawks win games with their special teams. A primary reason the Denver Broncos are 8-1 is their special teams."
Covering a wall in Bauer's office is a board depicting the personnel, listed by number, on each of the special teams. On many of the teams, there have been several new starters each week this season.
He wishes it were different. Fewer injuries would greatly simplify his life--and increase the effectiveness of special teams.
"From our first game against Miami, we have only four of the same starters on the kickoff return team," Bauer said. "We have had six new guys on our punt protection team, eight new players on punt return, seven on kickoff cover and seven on kickoff return. Just since last week, we have three new starters on punt return.
"Now contrast this with Seattle, which has had zero--no changes--on their punt returns. The Washington Redskins have made only one substitution on all their special teams the last three weeks. When a team is healthy, it makes a hell of a big difference."
Former offensive guard Ed White, who is now an assistant coach, is Bauer's on-field organizer on game day. Bauer stays upstairs in the press box, directing special teams and charting the opposing side's defensive secondary coverages.
White, armed with a typed list of the personnel at each position, rounds up the appropriate players and sends them onto the field at just the right moment, so the opponent can't tell in advance what the Chargers have in mind.
It sounds complicated, and it is.
Consider a situation in the second half of last week's game against Kansas City. The Chiefs had the ball, fourth down and two, deep in Charger territory. Bauer knew Nick Lowery had never missed from inside the 30-yard line.
"When it was still third down, I got on the line and told Ed to get ready to send in our hammer (kick block) team," Bauer said. "I had several things to think about--could we get to Lowery and block his kick? Would they fake the kick and run a play? We had to be prepared for all the possibilities with our hammer team personnel."
Lineman Jeff Walker was able to move three steps into the Kansas City backfield, throw up his hands and block the kick, all in a time span of 1.25 to 1.45 seconds. Later, he almost blocked Lowery's 37-yard field goal that won the game for the Chiefs, 24-23.
Bauer argued that it has been a reasonably good year for the Chargers' special teams. With all the possibility for missed assignments, he has had to fine only three players all year for failing to be on the field at the proper time.
For a player whose trademark was naked aggression, Bauer has become downright cerebral as a coach. He has come to enjoy the relatively serene atmosphere in the press box on game day.
"I like being upstairs," he said. "It's less emotional and there is more time to think clearly."
He may need his glasses, but he knows all the players, all the time, without a program.