Today, we’re going to talk about the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who turned in one of the strangest single seasons in NFL history. You’ll learn why shortly.
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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be.
A Little Backstory
The San Diego Chargers are, of course, now in Los Angeles, the greatest injustice of the modern-day NFL. Now that I got that off my chest, on with the rest of the story: in the late 1970s and early 80s, the Chargers fielded one of the most exciting offenses in the history of pro football.
Led by Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, they were known as “Air Coryell,” named after their head coach, Don Coryell, and for their propensity for utilizing the passing game. Fouts threw to such dynamic receivers as Kellen Winslow, Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner, and John Jefferson. In the rare opportunity that San Diego ran the ball, they ran it well with Chuck Muncie.
Unfortunately for the Bolts, the offense was always there, but the defense rarely was. On several occasions, the Chargers would lose despite scoring 30 or more points. They also were never able to get over the hump in the postseason.
They won the AFC West three consecutive times from 1979 to 1981, and had home-field advantage twice, but never made it to the Super Bowl. Gradually, “Air Coryell” came back down to earth. Don Coryell was fired in 1986 after starting 1-7, and Dan Fouts retired after 1987, leaving football on a sour note.
After starting the ’87 season 8-1, the Chargers lost each of their final six games and missed the playoffs. This marked the beginning of a dry spell in San Diego. The Chargers finished 6-10 in 1988, ’89, and ’90, and went 4-12 in 1991.
Head coach Dan Henning was fired as a result and was replaced by Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Ross, who had led the Yellow Jackets to a share of the national championship in 1990. Ross replaced quarterback John Friesz with Stan Humphries, who would never be mistaken for Dan Marino, but was a solid field general for the Chargers.
Ross also saw the potential that San Diego’s defense had, particularly the defensive line, led by Leslie O’Neal and rookie Chris Mims, and the linebacking corps, led by third-year star Junior Seau. Ross brought in veteran defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger to guide them. Arnsparger had been the defensive coordinator for both Miami Dolphins teams that won the Super Bowl in 1972 and ’73.
Despite all of these offseason improvements, things didn’t get off to a great start in 1992. The Chargers lost each of their first four games to the Chiefs, Broncos, Steelers, and Oilers, getting shut out that day in Houston, 27-0.
However, San Diego got back to .500 by winning each of their next four over the Seahawks, Colts, Broncos, and Colts again, shutting out Indianapolis in week nine, 26-0. After a heartbreaking 16-14 loss at Kansas City in week ten, the Chargers were 4-5, and their playoff hopes looked dim.
However, their seesaw season was not over yet. In week 11 at Cleveland, with the Browns leading late, 13-7, Humphries threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Miller that gave San Diego a 14-13 victory. After a 29-14 home victory over Tampa Bay, the Chargers easily dispatched of one of their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Raiders, 27-3, before a near-sellout crowd at Jack Murphy Stadium, a rarity in this era of Charger football.
San Diego narrowly avoided an upset in week 14 by beating the Cardinals in Arizona, 27-21. After a 27-10 home win over Cincinnati in week 15, the Chargers and the Chiefs were tied atop the AFC West with matching 9-5 records. The Bolts had already won their most games in a single season since 1981 but were looking for far more than that.
That next Saturday, they got an assist from the slumping New York Giants, who handed Kansas City a 35-21 upset defeat at the Meadowlands. Galvanized by their good fortune, the Chargers went into Los Angeles the next day and crushed the Raiders, 36-14, blowing away the Silver and Black for the second time that season.
In the final week of the year, San Diego wrapped up the AFC West with a 31-14 victory in Seattle over the two-win Seahawks. When all was said and done, the Chargers won each of their final seven games, and 11 of their last 12, to reach the playoffs for the first time in ten years.
The Chargers’ first home playoff game in 13 years was that next Saturday. Their opponents: none other than the Kansas City Chiefs, who had beaten San Diego both times they played that season. After a scoreless first half, Charger running back Marion Butts gave the fans life with a 54-yard touchdown run, and the Bolts never looked back.
The defense terrorized Chiefs quarterback Dave Krieg, sacking him seven times and intercepting him twice. The final score was San Diego 17, Kansas City 0, the first time in ten years that an AFC playoff game had ended in a shutout. The Chargers advanced to the AFC Divisional round the next week, having to travel to Miami to face the Dolphins.
Despite having matching 11-5 records, the Dolphins were a much more experienced team when it came to the postseason. Dan Marino was playing in his ninth career playoff game, and Don Shula was coaching his 32nd. This experience would turn out to humiliate San Diego.
The offense never got anything going. Stan Humphries finished 18-of-44 with no touchdown passes and four interceptions. The defense turned in its worst performance of the season, with Marino throwing three touchdown passes. The final score: Dolphins 31, Chargers 0.
That’s right, San Diego won a playoff shutout, then lost a playoff shutout the very next week. Oddly enough, they actually became the second team in NFL history to do this, joining the 1985 Los Angeles Rams. Thus ended one of the more bizarre single seasons pro football has ever seen: losing each of your first four, winning 11 of your last 12, shutting out a postseason opponent, then being on the opposite end of a shutout the next week.
The Chargers would reach the Super Bowl two seasons later, but were routed by the San Francisco 49ers, 49-26. It is still the only time that one of the unluckiest franchises in all of sports has made it to the Super Bowl.
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