Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006 | The Chargers took the field Sunday for their home opener against the Tennessee Titans to a roar unlike any ever heard at the aging Mission Valley stadium.
Oh, sure, there have been roars as loud or louder.
Just about anytime the Air Coryell offense and pilot/Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Fouts took the field in their AFC West championship glory days, for example.
When the Padres beat the Chicago Cubs in the 1984 National League Division Championship series and famed baseball poet laureate Roger Angell said he had never heard a louder crowd (that’s for all those misinformed/relocated East Coast geek sports fans who measure a sports town by the goofs walking around town in a Boston Bruins sweater or venting on sports talk radio).
But this roar was for the Chargers’ defense – before their first defensive series of the game!
In Air Coryell’s town – a persona that has permeated college and pro football since Don Coryell coached at San Diego State and the Chargers – defense is a second-class citizen. Defense has to make a game-saving play before it’s appreciated.
Here’s what happened before the Chargers’ first defensive series in what would become a 40-7 romp over the Titans:
After the Chargers ended their first possession with a punt, pinning the Titans at their 16-yard line, the defenders took their positions. The accompanying roar was so loud, I looked to the scoreboard to see if fans were following one of those trite prompts to get loud!”
Nope, the message board featured an ad about redeeming your tickets at Carl’s Jr. And San Diego fans, smarter than East Coast fans, don’t fall for “get loud” video prompts.
The fans did respond with a roar to the scoreboard when a message was flashed with the final score of the Padres’ 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers to move into first place in the National League West, but that was much later in the day.
The Titans game started with a plain, old-fashioned sports roar of eager anticipation from fans that a week earlier had reveled in the Chargers’ nine sacks in the season-opening 27-0 win over the Oakland Raiders. It was the kind of sustained roar previously reserved for monsignors Fouts, Muncie, J.J., Joiner and Winslow.
After the game I saw Willie Buchanon, the former Pro Bowl cornerback out of Oceanside High and San Diego State who played defense on those Air Coryell championship teams. He knows what it’s like to play in the shadow of a Chargers offense. I asked him if he was surprised to hear such a roar for a Chargers defense.
“After a game like this defense had against the Raiders, you can expect things like that,” he said while working the game in his role as the NFL’s uniform police. “This IS a great defense.”
This defense has linebackers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips and defensive linemen Jamal Williams and Luis Castillo as its frightening lightning flash points.
Next, I approached Chargers free safety Marlon McCree, the free agent acquisition from the Carolina Panthers. I explained to him how unusual this is in San Diego. He was born in Kentucky a year before Air Coryell took flight and couldn’t otherwise be expected to understand San Diego’s football history, but he would have none of what I was saying.
“This city eventually will be known for defense,” McCree said. “We’ve got the No. 1 defense in the NFL. The fans jumped on our backs and that always gives you a second wind. You hardly ever get tired when you’ve got 65,000 fans screaming for you.”
Even Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow, a recognized wizard, couldn’t find a hole in the Chargers’ defense until the Bolts began resting starters.
The Titans had 19 total yards and one first down (by penalty) in the first half. Sometimes being a wizard isn’t enough to move the ball when you’re outmanned (that’s for all those misguided San Diego State fans who couldn’t understand it wasn’t former head coach Tom Craft’s lack of headset that prevented the Aztecs from winning more games and those SDSU fans in the minority who resemble East Coast-like fans by foolishly questioning new head coach Chuck Long).
Still wanting to comprehend this remarkable stadium roar, I went to another San Diego guy, like Buchanon, for his perspective. Chargers linebacker Donnie Edwards grew up in National City and played for Chula Vista High. He’s old enough to have cheered for Air Coryell as a kid.
But he wanted to convince me San Diego in 2006 is big enough for offense and defense.
“It was great,” Edwards said. “I think people are finally starting to look at our defense.”
This isn’t the first time the Chargers have fielded a stingy defense. Those Junior Seau defenses of the 1990s were punishing, but the Chargers lacked a complementing offense in those seasons and lost too many games yielding last-minute scores. Even the Super Bowl team in the 1994 season was a big-play, grind-it-out offense. That’s not the case in 2006 with Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates.
Move over Air Coryell. If the Chargers attach a 2006 title to their defense, you’ve finally got some company on the other side of the ball.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.