A few days after the nightmare of Super Bowl XXIX, San Diego
Charger quarterback Stan Humphries headed up the California
coast to play in the Pebble Beach pro-am golf tournament. He
needed a break after his team's humiliating 49-26 loss to the
San Francisco 49ers. Humphries settled in on the practice range,
and on his ninth or 10th drive he felt an intense pain shoot
through his left elbow. I dislocated the elbow again, he thought
to himself. Looking down, he saw that the bone was cleanly
dislodged from the socket.
And so San Diego's off-season began. During the next seven
months Humphries underwent reconstructive surgery on his
nonthrowing elbow; a stalwart defensive player was killed in an
auto accident; the team failed to sign either of the free-agent
linebackers it needed; the star running back had a nasty
contract holdout; the premier pass rusher announced that he
wanted to leave San Diego; and the best cornerback ignored the
team doctor's counsel and aggravated an injury that will keep
him out until at least November.
A couple of shoddy preseason performances at home, including
Sunday night's 17-6 loss to the 49ers, have further reminded
the Chargers that the rosy glow of their unexpected success in
winning the 1994 AFC title is long gone. Says G.M. Bobby
Beathard, "When you don't see that same single-mindedness, that
same dedication--and when a few other things seem to be going
wrong--it worries you."
In fact, a lot has gone wrong for the Chargers lately:
Under the contract he signed as a rookie in 1993, tailback
Natrone Means was to have made $330,000 this season, but he held
out for 11 days last month, seeking to have the contract
replaced by a five-year, $16.6 million deal. When Beathard
balked at Means's demands, the player ripped him in a statement
issued by Means's agent. "I have a severe problem with the way
Beathard has betrayed me," the statement read. The rhetoric was
absurd. Means did gain 1,350 yards last year, but he had only
one 100-yard performance in the Chargers' last 10 games, and he
averaged a measly 3.39 yards per carry in November and December.
Means settled for $7.337 million over four years, and he
extracted a promise from Beathard that if he has a "good" year
San Diego will draw up yet another contract in '96.
On June 19 David Griggs, the starting strongside linebacker,
was killed in a one-car accident in Florida. He was later
determined to have been drunk. Having been outbid for free
agents Kurt Gouveia and Rod Stephens, the Chargers were already
weak at linebacker. To replace Griggs, San Diego has had to move
up third-year pro Lewis Bush from his spot as backup to Junior
Seau. But Bush has been hobbled by a bruised right leg, and one
of the two linebackers drafted in April, Preston Harrison, has
been hurt throughout training camp.
The Charger brass awoke last Friday to read in the morning
Union-Tribune that defensive end Leslie O'Neal, the NFL's sack
leader of the '90s, had said "it would be lovely" to play
elsewhere. O'Neal is bitter because last year's secondary coach,
Willie Shaw, who is black, was passed over for the defensive
coordinator's job in favor of former Kansas City Chief assistant
Dave Adolph, who is white. "They make a big deal about
continuity and loyalty here," O'Neal said to SI last week. "What
happened to continuity and loyalty with Willie Shaw? Then I talk
about it, and I'm the bad guy." San Diego chose Adolph because
he has spent the past 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator, the
last six of them in the Chargers' AFC West. Shaw had never been
an NFL defensive coordinator, though after San Diego passed him
over he was hired at that position by the St. Louis Rams.
Darrien Gordon, the 1994 AFC punt-return leader and a rising
star at cornerback, finished the season with a torn right
rotator cuff, but he spurned the advice of Charger physician
Gary Losse, who recommended major shoulder surgery, and instead
chose to undergo less radical surgery. In the Chargers' first
preseason game, against the Minnesota Vikings on Aug. 7, Gordon
reinjured the shoulder. He has now had the operation that Losse
suggested in the first place.
"There are so many different people who have such an impact on
your team who aren't under your control," says coach Bobby Ross,
who spent 17 years supervising far more malleable players in the
college ranks before joining the Chargers in 1992. "Frankly,
it's one of the things I don't like about the NFL."
There were several things Ross did not like about Sunday's game.
Means, for example, dropped the only pass thrown his way and
rushed eight times for all of two yards. But there were also a
few rays of hope. The Charger offensive line protected Humphries
well, letting the 49ers knock him down only once, and the
struggling linebacker corps got an interception and 12 tackles
from free agent Glen Young.
Despite their deficiencies, the Chargers are still the best team
in the AFC West. They have an offensive line capable of
controlling the line of scrimmage, especially with the return of
guard-tackle Eric Moten from a 1993 knee injury. On defense, the
strong pass rush may compensate for the shaky units behind it.
"We just want to get back to the Super Bowl so we can show the
type of team we really are," says Humphries.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Charger Rodney Harrison took a header while stripping quarterback Steve Young of his helmet.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Rookie Terrell Fletcher (41) and his backfield mates ran smack into an unyielding San Francisco defense.