After the Quarterback injury disaster in Week 9 of the 1977 season, the Chargers had just one healthy Quarterback on their roster: rookie Cliff Olander. Oakland was coming to town the following Sunday, so things began to look rather dire. During a week of crisis, the lightning that fans were promised at the beginning of the year struck off the field.
In an incredible coincidence, Dan Fouts’ grievance claim was rejected by the NFL on the Tuesday after the Denver game. For reasons we can only guess — Fouts has refused to talk about the 1977 hold out to this day — Fouts applied with the NFL for reinstatement on Thursday and flew into San Diego to rejoin the team. This took the front office and Prothro completely by surprise. The NFL approved his reinstatement on Friday, he passed his physical, and Dan Fouts was once again a member of the San Diego Chargers, which he had vowed 125 days earlier would never happen again.
Dan Fouts was once again a member of the San Diego Chargers
The coaches did not believe that Fouts was ready to start. Prothro decided to start rookie Cliff Olander for the Oakland game. Given that Fouts had not practiced or played organized football for 10 months, it was an easy decision to make.
In one of the most improbable wins the team has pulled off in its history, the 1977 home game against Oakland in November has to rank close to the top. The defense never played better. The tone was set in the first quarter when Louie Kelcher slammed Kenny Stabler into the ground, spraining Stabler’s knee and knocking him out of the game. Rickey Young scored San Diego’s only touchdown in the first quarter (rookie kicker Rolf Benirschke had his PAT attempt blocked), the defense held the rivals to one touchdown and a laughable 30 passing yards, and Benirschke added two FG’s for a 12-7 win.
The team was 5-5 and headed to Seattle for the 11th game of the season. Dan Fouts started and had one of the best games of his career (up to that point).
A 34-14 win against Cleveland at home the next week got Fouts (mostly) right with the fans again. It took a little longer for him to get right with his teammates.
Fans started believing
The Chargers were 7-5 and a wildcard slot looked possible. In each of the final two games, the Chargers offense was held to just 9 points, thanks to a defensive buzzsaw in Denver, and turnovers at the worst possible moments against Pittsburgh. The home game against the Steelers was a particularly nasty, gritty defensive game with both sides dishing out a pounding on each other in a 10-9 Chargers loss. The playoff drought continued, but the team had avoided its eighth consecutive losing season.
With Fouts signed to a long term-deal and the team looking as though it could finally battle with the best teams in the league on even terms, things seemed to be looking up for the Chargers. Fans started believing that the playoff drought might just end in 1978.
The offseason between 1977 and 1978 was an important one for football. The 1978 season would have 16 games. Rosters were increased to 53. Bump & Run coverage was now pass interference, with a defender being allowed one “chuck” or contact within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Offensive linemen could now extend their arms and open their hands without getting called for holding. The linemen were still prohibited from using their open hand to grasp and their hands had to stay in front; a hand outside the width of the lineman’s shoulders was holding. The infraction itself was now a 10 yard penalty, instead of 15 yards. Defenders were no longer allowed to head slap offensive linemen.
What the rule changes did was make passing the football easier to do
These changes, added to ones made in 1973 — moving the goal posts back 10 yards, narrowing the hash marks, adopting a position–based standardized player–numbering system, and adding overtime rules to cut down on the ties — created football that would be recognizable to a fan in the new millennium.
The changes in the coverage and holding rules were strongly supported by several coaches on the competition committee, including the St. Louis Cardinals head coach Don Coryell. Chuck Noll bitterly complained that the NFL was turning into flag football, and then he opened up his offense and won two straight Super Bowls.
What the rule changes did was make passing the football easier to do. Quarterbacks were better protected and receivers could get room to work once they got off the line of scrimmage. Looking back, the 12 seasons from 1966 through 1977 was the NFL’s equivalent to baseball’s “dead ball” era. Defenses reigned supreme and offenses were predictable; a power running game to “set up” a deep ball passing offense. Touchdowns were a BIG DEAL. That was all about to change, as the NFL’s next two offensive geniuses would be in place on the West Coast right before the 1980's arrived.
The 1977–1978 Offseason
Coach Prothro had done a remarkable job of drafting defensive players and had also added some great offensive linemen to the mix during his drafts. Acquiring talent at the skill positions that could stay healthy, though, was something that eluded him in the first 4 drafts he made for the Chargers. That trend was broken in the 1978 draft with the selection of John Jefferson (known from Day 1 as “JJ”), a WR out of Arizona St. in the first round. JJ had a remarkable combination of size and speed. He was also blessed with some of the best hands in the game. (Just keep watching #83.)
“We have a stick of dynamite here. We just need somebody to set it off.”
The team looked to be complete going into 1978. The biggest question going into the season was with the coaching. For all his acumen in talent evaluation, and the skill Prothro had in teaching the game of football to young players, he had not shown any real ability to motivate and inspire the team. Even in 1976 and 1977, Charlie Joiner (coached at Grambling by the legendary Eddie Robinson and Paul Brown with the Bengals), made comments like: “We have a stick of dynamite here. We just need somebody to set it off.” Prothro’s record with the Chargers was 20-36 going into 1978.
Those concerns were set aside after a 24-10 opening–week road win against division–rival Seattle. And for the first 59:50 of the season’s home opener against the rivals, it looked like the Chargers would go 2-0 to start 1978. Then, THIS happened:
With the referees ruling this play a fumble instead of the incomplete forward pass it was (clearly Stabler’s arms were moving forward when he let go of the ball) and further blowing the call on the incomplete pass that Pete Banazak made after picking up the first incomplete pass, satan’s favorite team was given a gift win. (Not that I remain bitter or angry about it after 35 years or anything…)
An inspirational, motivating coach might have been able to transform this morale crushing loss into outrage; that chip on a good team’s shoulder that breeds 10 game winning streaks. To the team's and its coaches own detriment, that was just not part of Prothro's skill set.
The 3rd game of the season was in Denver (Mile High Stadium was a House of Horrors for the Chargers from the late ‘60’s until the Oh-Happy-Day it was demolished) and the 27-14 loss certainly did not raise team spirit. Nobody in San Diego hit the panic button at 1-2; week 4 would bring Green Bay into San Diego and 14-2 would be good enough to win the division, right? Not quite:
After the 24-3 loss to the Packers, featuring a grotesque 11–turnover “effort” by the offense, the panic button was officially hit in the Charger’s front office. The team's play in the previous two weeks had looked like 1973 all over again and that just could not be ignored.
The panic button was officially hit in the Charger’s front office
Prothro and Klein met on Monday morning and Prothro resigned as Chargers head coach. Klein offered Prothro a job in the front office. Both men later agreed that Klein practically begged Prothro to stay on in any capacity that kept one of the finest eyes for talent in the 1970’s NFL within the organization. Prothro spent a few weeks thinking it over and then declined the offer. Prothro later resurfaced in the front office of the Browns and drafted many of the players that set up the Brown’s late 80’s playoff teams under Marty Schottenheimer.
After the season, published reports appeared in the San Diego papers that said Prothro had told Klein and Sanders in training camp that the 1978 season would be his last as head coach, no matter what. Prothro had even suggested potential replacements. Bill Walsh, heading into his second season as Stanford’s Head Coach in 1978 was one of Prothro’s suggestions. The front office had been quietly exploring one possibility since training camp had opened, perhaps even before.
Prothro's .350 winning percentage does not nearly tell the whole story
Prothro admitted later that he preferred coaching younger teams. Younger players needed teaching. Once the player had been in the league for more than 2 years, there was not too much more in the way of fundamentals to teach him. The rookies of 1975 and 1976 had become veterans in 1978 and Prothro just did not have anything more to give them. Prothro’s final record as the Chargers Head Coach was 21-39.
The .350 winning percentage does not nearly tell the whole story of what Prothro accomplished as Head Coach. The poor drafts and bad trades of the previous 10 years had been erased in 5 off-seasons. The roster had been turned over from the 40 has-beens, never-weres, drug abusers, and poor attitudes that produced a 2-11-1 season in 1973.
The players on the 1978 team included 3 future Hall–of–Famers and several more All-Pro and Pro-Bowl caliber men that, with the exception of Fouts and Russ Washington, had been acquired by a man with an uncanny gift for figuring out who could be a superior football player in the NFL. The entire team had been taught how to play the game by one of the best teachers of football in the 1970’s. The team played smart, disciplined football; rarely panicking and never giving up. Penalties and turnovers were uncommon for the Charger teams from 1977 through the mid-80's, when the last of the young men Prothro had drafted in the '70's were gone.
I think of Prothro as sort of a master sword-maker. He had crafted nearly the perfect blade; balanced, honed to a fine edge, and lethal when properly used. The craftsman had made the instrument and could use it, but not as effectively as a skilled warrior could.
The front office had heard some of the whispers and rumblings from the team since 1976. Al Sanders and Tank Younger (with the permission of Klein) had been quietly setting up a potential replacement. For once, Gene Klein’s front office executed a perfect play.