When free-agent defensive tackle Reuben Davis walked into San Diego Charger general manager Bobby Beathard's office last March, he expected a typical job interview. Beathard's first question—"Do you think you can play noseguard for us?"—went according to form. But questions posed over the next hour baffled him: "Where did you grow up?" "What did your father do for a living?" "What was your home life like?" "What are your hobbies?" "Do you get along with people fairly well?" "What are your plans for life after football?"
How odd. Davis thought at the time. But now when he looks back on that session, he is filled with admiration for the Chargers, his new employer. "They were trying to build a team, and trying to build a team doesn't mean getting every great player in the league," Davis says. "Football is a team game. I remember when I was a kid in North Carolina playing sandlot games. If you chose up sides and ended up with all the great players, you might lose anyway, because everybody always wanted the ball."
The biggest story from the first half of the NFL's 75th season is the simple lesson provided by San Diego, which won its first six games before losing to the Denver Broncos on Sunday: In football, money can certainly buy talent, but it doesn't necessarily buy wins. Several teams have tried to buy their way to the Super Bowl in this new era of free agency, with less than sterling results. The Denver Broncos opened their wallet over the last two years and bought lots of shiny, new offensive parts. They're 2-5. The Arizona Cardinals paid big bucks to entice the Buddy Ryan Alumni Association to move west. They're 2-5. The Detroit Lions bought the hottest quarterback on the free-agent market, Scott Mitchell (19, left), and enriched a bunch of veterans with big-money deals. They're 3-4.
The Chargers decided to do things differently. They let Anthony Miller, a superb but selfish wide receiver, leave town. They dealt Burt Grossman, a flighty pass rusher, to the Philadelphia Eagles. And using the $3.6 million saved from the Miller and Grossman contracts, San Diego built a defense around four low-key, small-ego role players. In came cornerback Dwayne Harper, who became the solid foundation of the secondary; strongside linebacker David Griggs, a no-nonsense tackier with an excellent head on his shoulders; inside linebacker Dennis Gibson; and Davis, a 325-pound earthmover. With fellow tackle Shawn Lee, Davis now clears paths for the Chargers' established defensive stars, pass rushers Junior Seau, Leslie O'Neal and Chris Mims.
"I don't want every player on my team to have a halo over his head," coach Bobby Ross says. "That's unrealistic. But I'd rather have good players who are good people than great players who are bad people. Sometimes you make decisions based on chemistry more than on talent."
In other words, Davis and Lee don't object to clearing holes for other people. "When I get double-teamed," Davis says, summing up the attitude of his team, "it frees Junior. I get my job done, he gets his job done. It sounds simple, but it's working."
San Diego is not the only team to have learned the lessons of free agency. When Atlanta Falcon coach June Jones addressed his players before training camp, he told them that losing four major contributors—cornerback Deion Sanders, wideout Michael Haynes, guard Chris Hinton and quarterback Chris Miller—would not be disastrous. The Falcons started last season 0-5. They're 4-4 now with a new cast that includes only one personnel mistake, who happens to be their most expensive off-season acquisition, defensive end Chris Doleman. The 10-year veteran, who cost the Falcons a $3 million signing bonus, has played without distinction. But the Falcons' bargain-basement purchases—wideouts Terance Mathis and Ricky Sanders, running back Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, cornerback D.J. Johnson and linebacker Clay Matthews—have grown in value quickly.
The Philadelphia Eagles, 4-2 going into Monday night's game against the Houston Oilers, have also benefited by junking the star system. During the past off-season the defense was shredded by the defections of expensive free agents, and the result appears to be a better team and certainly one with better team spirit. Ross, for one, would argue that those two things go hand in hand.
But in the end, doesn't talent rule? Don't the biggest bullies on the block still win? "We lost to Houston 31-3 in the preseason," Ross says, "and we were just awful. We turned it over eight or nine times, we got our quarterbacks hit, and I told the team it just wasn't acceptable. After the game I went back to the hotel and watched the tape until 5:30 in the morning. I told the team that day that we wouldn't stand for it. We were going to become a fundamentally sound team on which every player has a role and plays it well."
And that is what has happened to the Chargers. The moral of this story, and of this season, is that the most talented teams, like Dallas, should win if they aren't racked by injuries or strife; but the teams that balance unselfish play with solid, if unspectacular, personnel just may be able to rise up and knock off the big boys.
They Said It
"You can throw your skin up and be another 4-12 Cardinal team. Or you can be part of a miracle."—Arizona coach Buddy Ryan, addressing his 0-3 Cardinals.