By Zane Miller
After being drafted with the 64th overall pick of the 1973 NFL Draft by the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers, quarterback Dan Fouts was hit with his fair share of struggles before getting his first winning record as a starter. After coming on in relief of Johnny Unitas in his final season before retirement, Fouts would fail to win a single one of his starts, going 0-5-1 as the Chargers were unable to get their first winning record since becoming members of the NFL.
The mediocrity would continue for the Chargers for the next few seasons, as Fouts dealt with injuries and inconsistent play to take just 10 wins combined between 1974 and 1976. However, the tide would begin to turn for San Diego in 1977 as they finally had their first non-losing season since their American Football League days, finishing at 7-7. However, the bad news for Fouts was that he would only play in four games during the season, taking a 2-2 record, due to an ugly contract dispute which put him in a holdout for most of the year while former double-digit game winner James Harris took the reins. Amidst the turmoil, however, Fouts would finally produce both his and the Chargers’ first winning season in 1978, starting every game as the team went 9-5 on the season. Although this left one item of business, that being the team’s first NFL playoff appearance, still on the table, this would no longer be the case after the 1979 campaign.
Fouts had his best game of the season on October 14th at home against the Seattle Seahawks, throwing for three touchdowns and 318 yards as the Chargers went on to win 20-10. Following this victory, the team would go on to win seven of their final nine games to earn their first AFC West title in franchise history at an impressive 12-4 record. Fouts, of course, played a major part in San Diego being ranked as the second-best offense in the league, with his 24 touchdown passes placing him sixth overall, two behind the fourth-place duo of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. However, Fouts’ biggest statistical triumph would be a league-leading 4,082 passing yards, becoming the first quarterback to cross the 4,000-yard mark in a single season. Although Fouts would come up one spot short in the MVP race, he would still be named as a first-team All-Pro.
As the Chargers earned a first-round bye, they would remain in southern California to face the wild card Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) on December 29th, who entered the postseason with an 11-5 finish. However, this record would be misleading as Houston had even more of an uphill battle, as their MVP running back Earl Campbell and starting quarterback Dan Pastorini both went down with injuries as they squeaked by the Denver Broncos 13-7 to make it to the second-round matchup against the Chargers. Despite San Diego having the odds in their favor, however, the Oilers would prove to be a troublesome team to play against, injuries or not.
The Chargers offense initially came out firing on all cylinders, with Fouts leading an opening drive which ended with a punch-in touchdown run from running back Clarence Williams. However, the offense would sputter throughout much of the first half afterwards, enabling Houston to grab a 10-7 advantage at halftime.
Once the third quarter got underway, Fouts and the Chargers took advantage of a short field, finding wide receiver Charlie Joiner and tight end Bob Klein for long gains to set up a short touchdown rush by backup running back Lydell Mitchell to retake the lead. The 14-10 score would hold up until late in the quarter, when an interception gave Houston a short field of their own. The Oilers would waste little time in reclaiming the lead, getting a 47-yard touchdown pass to once again go ahead by three points going into the final frame.
Although the 15 minutes remaining in regulation time gave the Chargers’ highly explosive offense plenty of opportunity to get back out in front, the Oilers defense, or more specifically, defensive back Vernon Perry, had other plans. After the first drive for the Chargers ended with a punt, Houston used their running game to masterfully burn critical minutes off the clock.
Nevertheless, Fouts would get the ball back with enough time to engineer a game-winning or game-tying drive, started off nicely with a long passing play to Joiner. After hitting rookie wide receiver John Floyd to get inside Oilers territory, however, the drive would go awry as Perry secured a crushing interception. The Oilers promptly ran the clock down before giving the ball back with just over a minute to go, pinning the Chargers at their own five-yard line. After moving the ball out to near midfield with just seconds left, however, a desperation heave from Fouts would again end up in the arms of Perry, this time to seal the Oilers’ 17-14 victory and the Chargers’ elimination.
While Fouts did pass for an impressive 333 yards, this contribution would be undone by five interceptions thrown over the course of the game. Four of these would be forced by Perry, who had the best game of his career without a doubt, setting a postseason single-game record which remains untouched as of this writing. While Oilers quarterback Gifford Nielsen had a far more modest 111 yards through the air in Pastorini’s absence, he would score the only touchdown pass of the afternoon to help move on to what would be the team’s final AFC Championship Game appearance in Houston.
As for Fouts, though he would never again reach the 12-win mark, he would provide the Chargers with arguably the best three-year stretch in franchise history since joining the NFL. Fouts led the team to the AFC Championship Game in both 1980 and 1981, though they would lose to the Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals respectively, while 1982 saw him make another second-round postseason appearance and earn Offensive Player of the Year honors to go along with another runner-up in MVP voting. Throughout all of this, Fouts led the league in passing yards in every season from 1979 to 1982, still standing as the consecutive seasons record as of this writing, while leading the league in touchdown passes in 1981 and 1982 as well.
Fouts spent his entire career with the Chargers, playing as the primary starter for the team until his retirement after the 1987 season, finishing his career with 86 regular season victories, an OPoY award and two first-team All-Pros. To this day, he regarded as one of the best Super Bowl-era quarterbacks to never play in said Super Bowl.
Following his retirement announcement, Fouts pretty much immediately jumped into the broadcast booth as a color commentator, starting out in 1988 with NFL on CBS until the end of the network’s original tenure with the league in 1993. Fouts’ broadcasting endeavors took a brief change of direction, as he instead served as sports programming director for KPIX 5, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, from 1994 to 1997 before rejoining the booth with ABC to commentate college football games, staying on in the role through the 1999 season before being moved up to the network’s Monday Night Football coverage.
Unfortunately for Fouts, this was also during the infamously awkward phase of MNF where the network was doing several shake-ups in a misguided effort to boost ratings, thus likely leading to him only staying on ABC’s NFL coverage until the end of the 2001 season before moving back to college football broadcasts, where he would stay through 2007. After a 15-year gap, Fouts once again returned to NFL on CBS as a commentator in 2008, keeping the position through the 2019 campaign before joining the booth for Los Angeles Chargers preseason games in 2021, which is his current role as of this writing.
In 1993, Fouts was entered into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Chargers Hall of Fame, to go along with his #14 jersey being officially retired by the Chargers on March 24th, 1988. Fouts also campaigned for the inclusion of Don Coryell, the team’s head coach for the majority of his NFL career, who himself was inducted to the team’s Hall of Fame in 1994 and Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2023.