On Sept. 25 the Cinderella season of the San Diego Chargers took a scary turn, along with the left knee of quarterback Stan Humphries. After he unloaded a fourth-quarter pass that was tipped, intercepted and returned for the Los Angeles Raiders' go-ahead touchdown, Humphries was torpedoed from behind by 310-pound tackle Chester McGlockton. "I heard something in the knee pop," says Humphries. "I was lying there thinking, That's my season, right there."
Surely by now you've heard what ensued: Against the wishes of his trainers and coaches. Humphries hobbled back in for the next Charger series, telling his putative replacement, Gale Gilbert, "This is my game." Humphries then drove his inspired teammates 65 yards for a last-second, game-winning field goal.
The thriller against the Raiders marked the second time in four games that Humphries had rallied his team to a final-possession victory on the road. So far this season he has completed 61% of his passes. Before Sunday's 20-15 loss to the Denver Broncos, he had thrown a minuscule two interceptions. But his accomplishments transcend mere stats. He has been able to infuse a team that has 10 new starters—a team that had been widely picked to bring up the rear in the AFC West—with a confidence that makes it better than the sum of its parts. Of the guts and the determination that Humphries displayed in refusing to leave the game in Los Angeles, Kansas City Chief coach Marty Schottenheimer said, "Those are the kinds of qualities you build a team around."
Of course, the name Stan Humphries had long been associated with guts. At 6'2" and 223 pounds, Humphries's physique is more Tom Arnold than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The panda-shaped signal-caller fell out of favor with his last boss, Joe Gibbs, then coach of the Washington Redskins, because Humphries preferred to spend his summers water-skiing in his native Louisiana to pumping iron at the Redskins' training facility. Humphries, who was traded to San Diego for a third-round pick before the '92 season, admits that his idea of a grueling off-season workout is to walk 18 holes.
It is fitting that Humphries, 29, should have his greatest success as a Charger: One of his trademarks has always been the lightning strike, the ability to make the big play. Oddly, his success this season is due largely to his willingness to stop trying to make big plays. "He's always been a riverboat gambler," says Charger offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen. "Now he's not trying to force a play if it's not there." Friedgen points to a pass Humphries threw away against the Broncos on Sept. 4 and a sack he took against the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 16 as evidence of a maturing quarterback.
"The way we've got the running game going right now," says Humphries, "I don't have to try to make big plays."
Such a mature attitude, a visitor points out.
"Hey, it's my seventh year in the NFL, but just my third as a starter," he says. "Of course I'm still growing, still learning." What the courageous Humphries has finally learned is that discretion can be the better part of valor.
WALTER IOOSS JR.