This is the latest post in Kurt’s continuing series to identify the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player of All-Time. For an explanation of his methodology for choosing each franchise’s ultimate franchise player, and then how you and he will choose the NFL’s Ultimate Franchise Player from that list, click here.
The more recent installments of Ultimate Franchise Player have been getting much tougher. The San Diego Chargers may be the most daunting of all.
Many greats of donned the lightning bolt, starting from the very early days of the American Football League. Through the generations to the current day, there has been at least one standout whom deserves consideration for the All-Time #1 slot.
These were certainly fun brackets to fill out that are mostly distributed through the various eras.
Before I start, let me say ‘San Diego Super Chargers’ remains the coolest fight song ever.
SID GILLMAN BRACKET
#1 Lance Alworth (WR 1962-70, HOF) v. #8 Ernie Ladd (DT 1961-65)
Alworth is the number one overall seed. He was ranked 31st on the Sporting News all-time top 100 list in 1999 and #38 on the NFL Network Top-100 list, the highest rank of any Charger, and of any AFL player. Alworth is the all-time AFL MVP.
Alworth had the handle Bambi in part for his blonde hair, and his ability to go from zero to in front of your windshield no-time flat. As a Charger, Alworth would catch 83 touchdown passes.
Lance couldn’t possibly have a tougher first-round out though. Ernie Ladd was one of the most intimidating physical specimens of his day at 6’9”, 315 lbs. Eventually Ladd would become a Hall of Famer as well, in the WWF, as he would later find the professional wrestling world to be more lucrative than football.
One of Ladd’s wrestling gimmicks would be to walk out of the arena during a match in which it appeared inevitable that he would lose. Some would argue that’s what Ernie did with Chargers management following the 1965 season in a contract dispute. In his somewhat brief tenure in powder blue, Ladd would earn all-AFL honors in four of his five seasons.
#4 John Hadl (QB 1962-72) v. #5 Keith Lincoln (RB 1961-66, 68)
Hadl gets a four seed on longevity, 11 years in all including most of the AFL years. Threw 201 touchdowns v. 211 INTs as a Charger. Fans of the Green Bay Packers remember the team insanely trading five top draft choices for Hadl late in his career.
Keith Lincoln stills holds the most impressive performance in pro football playoff history. In the 1963 AFL Championship Lincoln rushed 13 times for 206 yards, and also added 123 yards receiving. The 329 yards from scrimmage remains a post-season record to this day. The Chargers chances of repeating in 1964 were basically shot after Lincoln was knocked out early in the title game that year.
Many old Chargers fans feel that San Diego would have defeated the NFL Champion Chicago Bears in a hypothetical Super Bowl. Playing a 7-game series on WhatIfSports, I had the Chargers winning Game 7 by a score of 24-7. The Chargers other three wins in the series were all by 3-0 scores.
#3 Russ Washington (OT 1968-82) v. #6 Gary Garrison (WR 1966-76)
These are a couple of players who get lost in the shuffle as most of their careers were in a down cycle in Chargers history. Russ gets a high seed based on 15 years/5 Pro Bowls, he actually started his career on defense.
Gary ‘The Ghost’ Garrison was a San Diego State product who earned All-Star/Pro Bowl recognition four times in the late 1960’s/early 70’s.
#2 Ron Mix (OT 1960-69, HOF) v. #7 Walt Sweeney (OG 1963-73)
The big uglies of the O-line take center stage in the #2/#7 match-up. Both were first round picks by the Chargers and were fortunate enough to out-bid the NFL to get the services of both.
Mix is a strong second to Lance Alworth in regards to the AFL era, and one of the best AFL-era players period. The USC product was considered far ahead of his time in using weightlifting as an off-season regimen. In his 10 years with the team, it’s said that Mix was called for holding only twice.
Sweeney I admittedly have under-seeded here. He earned All-Star/Pro Bowl recognition on nine occasions. His career would become marked with controversy over drug use, and is an early case of an athlete allegedly using performance enhancers. Sweeney battled the league for years following his retirement and was very outspoken while involved in litigation against the league. It was said that coach Sid Gillman and his staff handed out a drug called Dianabol to players during a rugged training camp held in the high desert 70 miles east of San Diego in 1963, before arguably the franchises best season ever.
As I write this, Sweeney recently passed away in February 2013.
AIR CORYALL BRACKET
#1 Dan Fouts (QB 1973-87, HOF) v. #8 ‘PLAY-IN’ Fred Dean (DE 1975-81, HOF)/John Jefferson (WR 1978-80)
Fouts needs little introduction — he obliterated previous NFL single-season records in Don Coryall’s offense and threw over 1,200 regular season passes in 1980-81 while pushing the 5,000 yard passing mark both years.
It will be forever debated whether the Chargers would have gone over the hump and won a Super Bowl if owner Gene Klein had not played hardball with Fred Dean and John Jefferson during training camp in 1981. The careers of the two players would take drastically different turns after they were both traded.
Fred Dean would go on to win two Super Bowls and get in the Hall of Fame as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. John Jefferson would be a different story, he appeared destined for super-stardom catching 36 TD passes in his first three years in the league, and in 1980 led the league with 1,340 yards receiving.
JJ would be traded to the Green Bay Packers after not reporting to camp early in the ’81 season, and would be an awful fit playing second-fiddle to James Lofton in Green Bay. Jefferson would never come close to duplicating the numbers of his first three years in San Diego and his career ended quietly a few years later.
#4 Wes Chandler (WR 1981-87) v. #5 Gary Johnson (DT 1975-84)
After drawing a line in the sand with John Jefferson, the Chargers would subsequently acquire Wes Chandler from the New Orleans Saints. Chandler had a solid career in San Diego and his stat-lines were very comparable to that of John Jefferson.
The #8 overall pick of the 1975 Draft, Gary ‘Big Hands’ Johnson made the Pro Bowl four consecutive years at the height of his career. In 1980 Johnson recorded 17 ½ sacks, with the Chargers recording 60 sacks as a team, leading the NFL.
#3 Charlie Joiner (WR 1976-86, HOF) v. #6 Ed White (OG 1978-85)
Two players who were blessed with having incredibly long careers. In all Joiner played 18 years in the league while Ed White’s career spanned 17 seasons.
By the time Joiner retired he had owned league career records in receptions, receiving yards, and games played. Ed White was a local product from La Mesa whop played the second half of his career with the Chargers after being with the Minnesota Vikings.
Most of Winslow’s video resume involves the ‘Epic in Miami’ playoff game in 1981, which was his finest hour. From 1980-84 Winslow was by far the best tight end of his generation and was headed for his greatest season yet (55 catches in just seven games) when he shredded his knee in a game against the Raiders.
Winslow is ranked #67 on the NFL Network Top-100 list. It would be a lot higher if not for that catastrophic injury.
Kelcher was a fan favorite and part of the great 1980 defensive line, three of which (Louis/Big Hands Johnson/Fred Dean) would late reunite with the 1985 Super Bowl Champion 49ers. Louis stood 6’5”, 285 lbs, and wore size 17EEE shoes.
BOBBY ROSS BRACKET
#1 Junior Seau (OLB 1990-2002) v. #8 Hank Bauer (RB 1977-82)
Seau is the most popular and most decorated player in team history. A top-five overall pick in 1990, Junior proved to be every bit of his advance clippings. He would make All-Pro six times and make the Pro Bowl in each of his final 12 seasons with the team. Seau’s career lasted 20 years in all. I remember him and Brett Favre embracing after a play once – those two competitors were very similar on opposite sides of the ball: They both wanted to play forever.
Hank Bauer has his own place in team history just for his special teams prowess. In 1981 Bauer recorded an amazing 52 tackles on kickoff/punt returns, which has to be a league record. Bauer also had a short-yardage role, scoring eight times in both the 1978 and 1979 seasons.
#4 Billy Ray Smith (ILB 1983-92) v. #5 Doug Wilkerson (OG 1971-84)
A couple of longevity selections here. Billy Ray was the number five overall pick in 1983 and had a solid decade-long career, all with the Chargers. He intercepted 15 passes and recorded 11.5 sacks in 1986.
Wilkerson played 195 games with the team and finally got Pro Bowl recognition late in his career helping to protect Dan Fouts during his best years.
#3 Gill Byrd (CB 1983-92) v. #6 ‘PLAY-IN’ Paul Lowe (HB 1960-68)/Chuck Muncie (HB 1980-84)
Gill Byrd was a steady presence in the Chargers secondary for a decade and still is the team’s leading career interceptor by far with 42.
I decided to send halfbacks Paul Lowe and Chuck Muncie to Dayton for a First Four at-large Play-In game. Lowe was the team’s running back for most of its AFL existence and led the league in rushing with 1,121 yards in 1965. If you had Muncie on your fantasy football team in 1981, you probably did pretty good. He scored 19 times that year.
#2 Leslie O’Neal (DE 1986-95 v. #7 Don Macek (OG 1976-89)
A top-ten overall pick in the 1986 Draft, Leslie O’Neal was on his way to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors until destroying his knee late that season, which kept him off the field until 1988. O’Neal came back though, was a six-time Pro Bowler, and recorded 105.5 sacks with the team.
Don Macek’s career was compared much to that of Ed White, very solid and dependable, just not in the way of Pro Bowl appearances. Fittingly, Macek and White were inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame together in 2004.
NORV TURNER BRACKET
#1 LaDainian Tomlinson (RB 2001-09) v. #8 Kris Dielman (OG 2003-11)
I say LT is pretty deserving of the number one seed among recent players, 138 touchdowns, over 16,000 yards from scrimmage – trading down from #1 overall (Michael Vick) to the number five slot in 2001 turned out to be a shrewd move.
Dielman being all the way down in the eight-slot proves how deep the crop of recent players produced by John Butler/A.J. Smith has been. Dielman made All-Pro his final four full seasons with the team. His career ended after a concussion after a subsequent seizure on the team flight home during the 2011 season.
#4 Shawn Merriman (OLB 2005-10) v. #5 Jamal Williams (DT 1998-2009)
It is amazing that Merriman recently walked away from the game and is still just age 28. From 2005-07 Merriman recorded 39.5 sacks, more than any other player during that period.
It appeared that ‘Lights Out’ would ultimately go down alongside LaDainian Tomlinson from this era in Chargers lore. However, a 2008 knee injury took away much of his ability and was clearly not the same from that point. Merriman’s brief career was also marred by a positive drug test in 2006 that earned him a four-game suspension.
Jamal Williams was listed at 350 lbs, and ol ‘76er’ was at the peak of his game in the mid-2000s, earning three consecutive All-Pro selections.
#3 Philip Rivers (QB 2004-present) v. #6 Drew Brees (QB 2001-05)
These two will be forever linked – both have proven to be great talents – but if hindsight was 20/20, the Chargers would have gone a different direction rather than selecting Rivers after having its hand forced trading number one overall pick Eli Manning.
Rivers was spectacular from 2008-10, finishing with a QB rating over 100 during those three seasons, but his play has declined somewhat since.
Brees already has a ticket punched in the 64-player overall field after being named New Orleans Saints Ultimate Franchise Player.
#2 Antonio Gates (TE 2003-present) v. #7 Rodney Harrison (S 1994-2002)
Is Gates one of the best undrafted players ever?? One thing is for certain, Gates career has changed the thinking of scouts on a couple of levels, one of them being that significant college experience is not exactly a prerequisite to finding talent capable of playing at the professional level.
Like Drew Brees, Rodney Harrison is another player now better remembered for playing with another team. I bet there are not many who remember Harrison spending the bulk of his career (nine years) not only playing with the Chargers but also playing very well.
CHARGERS UFP SELECTION
There are no less than 5-6 players I could make a strong case for. As mentioned earlier, Lance Alworth checks in at #38 on the NFL Top 100 list with LaDainian Tomlinson at #61 and Kellen Winslow at #67. Somehow Junior Seau was an omission from the top 100, as was Dan Fouts.
I’ll advance Alworth out of his bracket. I have Fouts slightly over Winslow out of the Coryall bracket, and actually I have Antionio Gates total body of work now near that of Winslow.
Junior Seau wins his bracket, likewise with Tomlinson over Gates.
That leaves me with Alworth, Fouts, Seau, and LT.
Fouts gets voted first off the island, a Hall-of-Famer and borderline top-100 all-time player. He just happens to hit the rails in fourth.
We’re now left with Alworth/Seau/Tomlinson, and you can make a strong argument for any of the three.
If you go by his Sporting News (#31) and NFL Top-100 (#38) rankings, then the pick would be Alworth – obviously Bambi has a hell of a legacy.
I just do not feel he’s the franchises best ever compared to the accomplishments of the other two.
There is no way I could possibly ignore LaDainian Tomlinson’s 31 touchdowns in a single season, a mark that could go generations without being approached in the current 16-game regular season. I’ll admit, Tomlinson would be a very strong choice as the Bolts best-ever.
Finally, there’s Seau. I don’t argue with much from the NFL All-Time 100 series, but Seau not being included was monumentally glaring (along with Derrick Thomas). Pro Football Reference in my opinion has it much more accurate, ranking #55 at number 30.
Junior Seau remains the San Diego Chargers; that was proven in the local outpouring of grief and support after his unfortunate passing in 2012. Anyone who watched him knew that #55 left it all on the field.
Tragically, perhaps too much.
My selection for San Diego Chargers Ultimate Franchise Player is…