Legendary Days: The Freezer Bowl- 1981 AFC Championship Game

For all the romanticized hyperbole when The Ice Bowl is brought up, The Freezer Bowl is largely forgotten about. The 1981 AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers was colder from a wind chill factor perspective at -59*.  Do you realize that is 90* below freezing?? This was where Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed for good and became the ultimate lesson on why achieving home field advantage is so important.

It was a hard earned lesson and we covered this in the championship rings for Cincinnati… so this one is being told from the Chargers’ perspective

Head Coach Forrest Gregg carried off by his Cincinnati Bengals players.

One man happened to be involved in both games.  Hall of Fame Tackle Forrest Gregg started for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he went into coaching where he was the Bengals head man when they advanced to the ’81 AFC Championship Game. The winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI in frozen Pontiac Michigan, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

A frozen Dan Fouts.

Coming into 1981 the San Diego Chargers had been the vanguard of the new passing offenses that dominated with the rules of 1978, which liberalized the passing game. Head coach Don Coryell had revived the passing attack with many of Sid Gillman’s principles from the old AFL Chargers and forged a passing game that became the scourge of the league.

Now the head slap was outlawed on the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms in pass protection, and receivers weren’t allowed to be hit after 5 yards. Offenses had been liberated from the thunderclap of defense which had dominated both the AFL & NFL since the mid 60’s.

Dan Fouts became the 1st QB to challenge and break Joe Namath’s all time record 4,007 yards passing when he broke it with 4,082 in 1979. Then he pushed it to new heights throwing for 4,715 yds in 1980, and finally 4,802 in 1981. However his Charger teams fell short of greatness by short circuiting in the playoffs. First they stumbled in a mind numbing 17-14 upset loss at home to the Houston Oilers in ’79, then again to the arch rival Oakland Raiders in the 1980 AFC Championship Game.

Also a loss at home in sunny San Diego. In all reality this team was losing it’s prime and not capitalizing on the championship window that was before them.

Armed with 3, 1,000 yard receivers in TE Kellen Winslow, WR Charlie Joiner, and now WR Wes Chandler, it was interesting to watch individual battles. Fouts led the league with 33 TDs, the late Chuck Muncie led the league with 19 rushing TDs to go with his 1,144 yards and James Brooks had nearly 900 yds from scrimmage and 6 more scores. Nevertheless they fell to 10-6 and had to go on the road in the ’81 playoffs.

One reason this game wasn’t remembered with the reverence of The Ice Bowl is it didn’t produce a champion. Another reason is it was buffered against 2 other memorable playoff games in January 1982. One was the Epic In Miami where the Dolphins and the Chargers played in 76* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 divisional thriller. The other was The Catch in the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas the following week. Yet earlier on January 10, 1982 San Diego’s 2nd straight road affair took them to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game.

If you’re keeping score at home, yes the San Diego Chargers had to play in 140 degree temperature difference in one week’s time.  There were heated buses outside Riverfront Stadium in case fans needed to get warm. A Sports Illustrated article the following week reported 43 fans suffered heart attacks at the game.

Temperature difference withstanding, the divisional game against Miami went into 6 quarters in high humidity, so the Chargers were exhausted.

It was the end of an era for Charger power. Sure they made the playoffs in 1982 but so did everyone else in the strike shortened year where 16 teams were in a single elimination tournament. Proof?? They beat a Pittsburgh team in the 1st round that had been shut out twice by non playoff teams. In one of them they lost to Buffalo 13-0 and finished the day with -2 yards passing. Yes that is with Terry Bradshaw….yet I digress

Age and injuries caught up to the Chargers as well as AFC West opponents to their air attack. John Elway and Marcus Allen came in and the balance of power shifted toward the Broncos and Raiders. In 3 of the next 5 years, Fouts watched those teams play on the Super Bowl stage he so desperately wanted to lead the Chargers to. He retired after the 1987 season and when you look back to the 2 AFC Championship Games lost it was this one that produces the most what ifs.

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Legends of The Fall: Wes Chandler & John Jefferson

During the glory years of Air Coryell, the receivers were John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner, and Tight End Kellen Winslow. Head Coach Don Coryell had taken full advantage of the rule changes in 1978 to produce the most prolific passing offense in league history. His San Diego Chargers were the evolutionary link between Sid Gillman’s high scoring AFL version of the Chargers and the offenses we know today.

The acrobatic John Jefferson was Lynn Swann 3.0

The acrobatic John Jefferson was Lynn Swann 3.0

Quarterback Dan Fouts was the trigger-man and was in the midst of building a Hall of Fame resume. In 1979 he broke Joe Namath’s single season passing record with 4,082 yards. Then shattered it with 4,715 yards the following year. So it was imperative that management keep top level receivers for Fouts to throw to. As a team they won the AFC West in ’79 and made it to the AFC Championship Game in 1980.

 

However going into 1981, several players desired new contracts and were holdouts. Upset with the inability to bring WR John Jefferson and DE Fred Dean to camp, each man was traded to teams thought to be NFC wastelands in San Francisco and Green Bay. Although they were the odds on favorite to make it to Super Bowl XVI before this, management pulled the trigger that could have brought down Air Coryell.

Wes Chandler scoring on a punt return in the

Wes Chandler scoring on a punt return in the “Epic In Miami” 1981 AFC playoff against the Dolphins.

Yet they had an ace up their sleeve and traded for Wes Chandler a few weeks later. Whom they were sure could fill the shoes of former All Pro John Jefferson. You have to understand Jefferson was the most electrifying talent in the league. His circus catches and boundless enthusiasm was the lightning rod spirit of those Charger teams.

Asking Chandler to fill his shoes was not going to be easy. Yet week 6 of 1981, right before the trade deadline, the Chargers turned in their trade papers to Pete Rozelle’s office.

Yet first you need to understand the man he was going to replace. John Jefferson’s first 3 seasons with San Diego, they set the record and broke it for passing offense each season. His years from 1978-1980 were the most electric of any incoming receiver in NFL history. The acrobatic Jefferson produced highlight reel after highlight reel level catches. He amassed 199 rec. for 3,431 yards and 36 TDs as 1/3 of Air Coryell!! In this vignette about the ’80 Chargers you’ll get a better glimpse.

His battles with Lester Hayes that year were epic. Hayes was NFL Defensive Player of the year as he amassed 13 interceptions. Jefferson had 2-100 yard receiving games against him and 3TDs. Both were voted All Pro as he had a career best 1,340 yards on 82 receptions and 13 touchdowns.

In fact, the 1980 Chargers were the first team in history to have the standard set of receivers (2 wideouts and tight end) go over 1,000 yards in the same season. Against the Giants in week 7, they became the first standard set to all go over 100 receiving yards in the same game. Now they were going on without his services. How would the Chargers fare?

Well over in the NFC, another wideout from the 1978 draft was toiling away in New Orleans:

That 1982 season by Chandler ranks in The Chancellor of Football’s top five all time seasons by a receiver. He caught 49 passes for 1032 yards and 9 touchdowns in that strike shortened season. Just 8 games. Projected over a full season he would have had 98 receptions for 2064 yards and 18 TDs. At the time, 101 was the record for catches by Charley Hennigan back in the AFL in 1964. The TD record in a season was 17 held by Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch from 1951. He would have become the first and only 2,000 yard receiver and come close to or broken the other two records.

jefferson inspired figurine

jefferson inspired figurine

John Jefferson went on to team with James Lofton and made the Packers a formidable passing team for several years. In fact he made his fourth and final Pro Bowl in 1982 when he and Lofton went as teammates. However his best days were left in the team he should have helped to a Super Bowl in San Diego. Contract disputes kept that team from it’s greatest triumph.

For their careers

  • John Jefferson 351 rec. 5,714 yds 47TDs
  • Wes Chandler 559 rec. 8,966 yds 56TDs

When you picture Air Coryell in your mind, these two and their acrobatic catches are the first you envision. They were the spectacular performers of the group where Hall of Fame voting went with the numbers and impact of Charlie Joiner, Dan Fouts, and Kellen Winslow.

Amazingly Head Coach Don Coryell also sits outside the Hall of Fame. Too much is made of a coach not winning a Super Bowl yet Joe Gibbs left his staff and won 3 in Washington. He deserves to be in as well.

The high flying Chargers of the early 1980s. Just as we remembered them.

The high flying Chargers of the early 1980s. Just as we remembered them.

Although Chandler and Jefferson didn’t have Hall of Fame numbers, these two shouldn’t be forgotten for their contributions were just as great. Definitely legends of the fall.

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