The Epic In Miami: San Diego 41 Miami 38 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff

With the NFL turning 100 this year, it’s impossible not to have great players, great coaches, or great games to look back on. The lasting image in the minds of fans everywhere was this epic shot of Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow being helped off the field by T Billy Shields and TE Eric Sievers.

It came at the conclusion of of one of the greatest games in NFL history and was the signature game in a Hall of Fame career.

Yet if we flashed you back to the early 1980’s the San Diego Chargers had the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL. The legend of “Air Coryell” had taken flight with Coach Don coming over from St Louis and took full advantage of the liberal passing rule changes of 1978.

Beginning in 1979 Dan Fouts set the NFL ablaze becoming the first QB since Joe Namath in ’68 to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. His 4,082 yards in ’79, 4,715 in ’80, and finally 4,802 in ’81 were all NFL records as the Chargers chased a championship. Fouts had the league’s best arsenal in acrobatic receiver John Jefferson, route running Charlie Joiner, and the aforementioned Winslow. This was the original “Greatest Show on Turf” as Charger games became all the rage to watch for their ability to score from anywhere at any time. The league struggled to defend them as:

  • The ’79 Chargers were 1st team since the ’70 merger to pass more than run (541 att/481 rush)
  • In ’79, Jefferson (61 rec/ 1,090 yds 10 TDs) & Joiner (72 rec /1,008 yds 4 TDs) became 1st set of 1,000 yd seasons in NFL history. Both made Pro Bowl
  • On 10/19/80 the Chargers were 1st team in history to have both WR and TEs over 100 yds in 44-7 win over NY
  • In ’80 became the 1st team in history with 3- 1,000 yard receivers (Jefferson 1,340 yds, Winslow 1,290, Joiner 1,132) All 3 were Pro Bowl & All Pro…also 1st in NFL history.
  • Chuck Muncie in 1981 set an NFL record with 19 TDs rushing.

Wes Chandler raced 56 yards for a score with a first quarter punt return. The score was 10-0 (SD)
Heinz Kluetmeier

Despite all the records the Chargers couldn’t win in the postseason. They fashioned a 12-4 record in ’79 which included a 35-7 pounding of the eventual champion Steelers. Only to lose 17-14 in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history to a depleted Oiler team. Vernon Perry intercepted Fouts a playoff record 4 times.

The Chargers bounced back in ’80 with an 11-5 record and homefield advantage where they bested Buffalo 20-14. Then fell at home in the AFC Championship 34-27 to the eventual champion Oakland Raiders.

Having fallen to the last two Super Bowl champions the Chargers were on the doorstep although the clock was ticking. Their championship window was closing and once the front office traded All Pro WR John Jefferson to Green Bay and Pro Bowl DE Fred Dean to San Francisco, it appeared shut.

Down in Miami, Don Shula had rebuilt the Miami Dolphins from the smash mouth back to back champions that won Super Bowls VII & VIII. Up until 1980 he still had Hall of Fame QB Bob Griese to lead his offense as a new “No Name Defense” emerged.

The Dolphins made the playoffs in ’78 behind Delvin Williams spectacular 1,258 yard season running the football. In that year Griese was injured for an extended period and the Dolphins won with backup Don Strock. He had a record of 5-2 while outperforming the vet tossing 12 TDs to only 6 interceptions. Griese had a more efficient season when it came to completion percentage and this hurt Strock.

He was hot & cold yet showed enough flash to get on the field but didn’t engender enough confidence to turn the offense over to him. When Griese returned from injury in ’78 and ’79 he always got his job back.

Then in 1980 Griese’s career ended with a shoulder injury early in the season. Shula worked in rookie QB David Woodley along with Strock as he searched for that perfect chemistry on offense. By this time Delvin Williams had moved on as Shula raised Larry Csonka from the dead and paired the two in the backfield to mixed results the season before.

Somehow in ’81 Shula willed the Dolphins to an AFC East title with “Woodstrock” and the combination of rookie FB Andra Franklin and solid RB Tony Nathan each rushing for 700 yards. This was a team of “no names” as Miami fielded only 1 Pro Bowl player on their entire roster in NT Bob Baumhower #73. Who were these guys??

This hodge podge group ranked 16th on offense and 15th overall on defense. It was a testament to Shula’s coaching they were even winning. Somehow they went 11-4-1 & made it into the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. Hosting a playoff game for the 1st time since 1973.

Their opponent would be the Chargers who were falling from the elite when they pulled a coup and traded for electrifying wideout Wes Chandler. On the strength of Dan Fouts’ record 4,802 yard season, the Chargers limped to a 10-6 record.

Limped?? Well yes their defense never recovered from the Fred Dean trade. In ’79 the Chargers were 5th overall in defense then were ranked 6th in ’80 while leading the NFL in sacks. Without their prime time pass rusher the Charger’s defense plummeted to a ranking of 27th. Consequently San Francisco, where Dean was traded to, rose to 2nd overall…yet I digress

Dean’s absence had an affect on both the Chargers defense in ’81 and what was about to happen as these two teams staggered into the ’81 AFC Divisional playoff…

 

A playoff game that nearly went to 6 quarters at 75* in high humidity that had everything. Multiple blocked field goals, a dramatic comeback from the home team after falling down 24-0 early. The Chargers fighting to stave off a valiant comeback only to have to make a dramatic drive themselves to tie it 38-38 just to go into overtime.

Fouts 433 yds passing was a playoff record until Bernie Kosar threw for 489 yards in an ’86 double overtime epic against the New York Jets.

Kellen Winslow’s 13 receptions established another as he went for 166 rec yards, 1 TD and the blocked kick to send the game into overtime. He left the game several times due to injury where he was suffering from cramps and dehydration.

Each team left it out on the field in one of the greatest games in NFL history. The toll it took on the Chargers having traveled cross country was immense. The following week they had to play in a 140 degree variance when they played the AFC Championship in Cincinnati at -59* wind chill. A game known as The Freezer Bowl. The coldest game in NFL history.

Hall of Fame Member Fred Dean & The Chancellor at the PFHoF in ’18. Ironically behind us was Dan Fouts & Kellen Winslow at a table.

The no name Dolphins had proven their mettle and would go on as one of the elite teams in the AFC, playing in 2 of the next 3 Super Bowls. As for the Chargers, the loss of Fred Dean had caused a season long collapse of their defense culminating in allowing Miami a season high of 478 total yards. It marked the 8th time San Diego’s defense allowed their competitors over 400 total yards in a game over the ’81 campaign.

Ultimately this spectacular game became the crowning jewel in the career of Coach Don Coryell and Air Coryell’s legacy. Having lost the ’80 and ’81 AFC Championship Games they fell back to the pack as other teams would rise to elite status. However this team was reincarnated as The Greatest Show on Turf resurrected their playbook winning Super Bowl XXXIV while becoming one of history’s greatest offenses two football generations later.

Yet this was The Epic in Miami… one of the great games in NFL history.

Dedicated to the memories of Don Coryell, Chuck Muncie, David Woodley, and Larry Gordon, Steve Sabol, and narrator Harry Kalas.

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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 at -59*. This was where  Air Coryell unceremoniously crash landed.

One man that happened to be in both games was Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg. He was the starting Tackle for the Green Bay Packers in the ’67 NFL Championship. Then he was the Head Coach of the Bengals in 1981 when they advanced to the AFC Championship Game. In a game where the winner would make the trek to Super Bowl XVI, they first had to endure the coldest game in NFL history.

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From the perspective of the ’81 San Diego Chargers

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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 81* weather for 6 quarters in a 41-38 thriller. The other was The Catch or the NFC Championship between San Francisco and Dallas later that same day.

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. Cincinnati won the game and went on to Pontiac, Michigan to face the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. Yet it’s hard to forget -59* below zero.

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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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