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San Diego Sportscene / Dave Distel

To Saunders, Winning Ugly Beats Getting No Wins at All

November 12, 1986|DAVE DISTEL

When the Dallas Cowboys dimmed the lights and turned on the projector to take a look at this Sunday's opponent, they had to be thinking someone was pulling a Nixonesque dirty trick.

I can just hear Tom Landry.

"OK," he would say, "enough of this. You guys are 6 and 4 and you're pulling pranks? Where's the film of the San Diego Chargers?"

The guys on the screen would be wearing lightning bolts, but they would be running up the middle, running off left tackle, running off right tackle and throwing passes as cautiously as they would drive a new car in Tijuana.

These were the Chargers?

Landry would probably stop the film and ask for a closer examination.

"Are they wearing leather helmets?" he would ask. "How about the shoes? Are they wearing high tops? Are we sure this isn't an old Ronald Reagan film?"

Landry would have been just as surprised when he switched to the defensive reels. The guys in lightning bolts were harassing the quarterback in orange, shadowing the receivers in orange and crunching the running backs in orange.

These were the Chargers?

"Turn on the lights," Landry would say. "This is a waste of time. If we don't have the films of the real Chargers playing Denver, get me some films from last year."

None of the above will really transpire, of course. The Cowboys need only look at the final score--San Diego 9, Denver 3--to understand that something is different hereabouts.

After all these years of scoring orgies, a game such as this seemed as out of place as a Rembrandt on a wall of Picassos.

It was time to visit Al Saunders, the new coach.

I had heard that this fellow had taken charge with an assortment of rules seemingly straight from a military prep school. I didn't know what to expect, but I figured the guy would come in with either jack boots, pearl-handled revolvers and a spiked helmet or a baggy T-shirt, 5 o'clock shadow and a paddle. Either way, I was all set to say, "Yes sir" and "No sir" and "Whatever you say, sir."

As I was awaiting his arrival, this fellow stepped out of the pages of Gentleman's Quarterly and into the room. Just as I was about to ask when Mr. Saunders was going to be free I realized it was Mr. Saunders.

This fellow was about as intimidating as a doting older brother.

Al Saunders was bemused by the way folks (such as me) had perceived the rules he implemented when he took command of what was a 1-7 team. He laughed and said even his wife had been alarmed enough to demand an explanation.

"When you've lost seven straight games," he said, "you have to do things a little different just to give everyone a sense of changing direction. When you've lost seven straight games, you don't want to keep going in the same direction."

The Chargers lost to Kansas City in their first game under Saunders, and then really changed directions against Denver. They won by taking football to its most primeval state.

"You do what you can with the people you have," Saunders said.

Available personnel dictated the conservative game plan designed to consume great chunks of time and little chunks of yardage. It mandated high-percentage, low-yield passes. It demanded that the Chargers protect the football as though it contained the Hope diamond.

This all worked, but this style of hoarding the football will last only until the offensive unit is restored to good health.

But there was more to the way the Chargers played this game. There was the defensive side. This game was a harbinger of how Saunders sees games being won.

"The idea of winning is the key concept," he said. "It's nice if you look good winning, but that can't always be the case. In San Diego, we have been treated to one of the most magnificent, eye-appealing offensive shows of any franchise in the National Football League. Anything less than that is hard for people to accept, but the bottom line is winning."

So the win over Denver was not pretty, but it has to be recognized as a masterpiece just the same. However, in spite of the fact that this win snapped an eight-game losing streak, I still heard folks grumbling that this wasn't really Charger football.

Get used to it. To Saunders' way of thinking, defense can be much more of a constant than offense.

And here's why:

"When you rely on offense week after week too many things beyond your control can affect the ability of the offense to be productive," he said. "If you run into inclement weather, the chances of being productive are diminished. If the No. 1 quarterback is unable to play, your chances of being productive are diminished. If your quarterback is not having a great day, your chances of winning are lessened because you're depending totally on that man's ability."

Scary, huh? But true. How many times has this most explosive of offenses self-destructed?

But defense . . .

"The tempo, intensity, aggressiveness and mind-set of a game are controlled by defense," Saunders said. "A team that plays strong defensive football controls the factors an offense can't control. Bad weather inhibits the offense, but helps the defense. If your best defensive player is unable to play, you can be productive with your scheme and other players . . . and the player who replaces him isn't going to have to handle the ball every down or even be attacked every play. If an individual isn't having a good day, you can give him help or give him a rest. You have so much more control in so many different areas."

Al Saunders has obviously given this some thought. He has seen pretty losses and ugly wins, and he prefers the latter.

As far as the Cowboys are concerned, they would be wise to dim the lights and pay attention to those films. They really were shot just last Sunday.

Those guys really were the Chargers.

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