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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts joined the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s podcast “The Mission” this past week to discuss the National Football League’s 2021 schedule release and some of the exciting young quarterbacks leading teams today.
So many of the quarterbacks drafted today get thrown into the starting lineup whether they are ready or not. A third-round draft choice out of Oregon by the San Diego Chargers in 1973, Fouts saw limited action as a rookie.
The Chargers entered the ’73 season with optimism. The team had signed legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas and had visions of earning a playoff spot with Fouts learning as an understudy to one of the greatest ever to play the position. They staggered to a 2-11-1 record.
Fouts entered his second pro season as the starter, but that season also began roughly, with the Chargers at 1-6 after seven games. The losses seemed to sting even worse because four came by seven points or fewer. But then, on Nov. 3, 1974 in a Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns at San Diego Stadium, Fouts found the magic that would make him a future Hall of Famer.
The Browns entered halftime with a 21-7 lead and the game seemingly in the bag. Fouts, however, led the Chargers out of the locker room and into the end zone during a second half in which he threw four touchdown passes.
Fouts aired it out as San Diego opened the third-quarter scoring with a 43-yard strike to running back Don Woods, which cut the Browns lead to eight, 21-13 after Chargers' kicker Dennis Partee had his extra point blocked.
San Diego then recovered an onside kick at their own 47-yard line. From there, Fouts drove his team down the field in eight plays and flipped the ball to running back Glen Bonner for a 1-yard touchdown pass. Once again, Partee's kick was no good, and the Chargers trailed 21-19.
Just as the fourth quarter began, Cleveland went up by nine, 28-19, on a 6-yard touchdown run by Hugh McKinnis. Before the final period ended, it was Fouts who provided the fireworks with two huge bombs.
The first was a 70-yard touchdown pass to receiver Harrison Davis, which after a successful extra point cut the lead to two, 28-26.
The Browns then extended the lead back to nine on a Brian Sipe 1-yard touchdown run.
But Fouts wasn't done. He hit Woods for his second score of the day, this one on a 75-yarder that made the score 35-33 and set up the grand finale.
A Ray Wersching 40-yard field goal with 55 seconds remaining gave San Diego its first lead of the day, 36-35.
The Chargers were left stunned when on the ensuing kickoff, Browns' running back Greg Pruitt returned the kick 61 yards to the Chargers’ 31-yard line. Cleveland advanced to the San Diego 10-yard line with just 18 seconds left in the game. The plan was to run the clock down to three seconds and kick the game-winning field goal.
However, in a strange twist of fate, Sipe, who was making his first NFL start, fumbled the snap. San Diego recovered, sealing this wild victory.
In all, Fouts completed 12 of 21 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns in the Chargers’ 14-point come-from-behind win. It was the first of his 51 career 300-yard passing games.
While it was only the Chargers’ second win of the season, the organization knew the best from Fouts was yet to come. Fifteen years with him under center ended with 43,040 yards passing, 254 TDs and election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.