As time wound down on the San Diego Chargers, the call went out
for the Jack Murphy Stadium security force to hit the field.
Dressed in bright yellow jackets and some 75 members strong, the
group made a tight circle around the turf then turned around to
watch, with the rest of the crowd, the final, miserable moments
of the Chargers' 25-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday. Stunned,
perhaps, by the upset, the guards in the west end zone had no
idea that a fan had slipped past their ranks until he was
dancing a jig at the 50-yard line.
Although wearing heavy work boots and apparently inebriated, the
fan still juked several members of the security detail before
reinforcements arrived to manhandle him near the Chargers'
bench. As he was cuffed and led away to a standing ovation, the
Buccaneers' Michael Husted finished off San Diego with a 19-yard
field goal. At that moment the fan's mad dash in the spotlight
mimicked that of the Chargers' recent run: It was spectacular
but brief, and when it ended, it ended brutally.
In the 27 games since their 49-26 loss to the 49ers in Super
Bowl XXIX, the Chargers have rapidly short-circuited. They won
their final five games last year to salvage a playoff spot, only
to be bounced out in the wild-card round by Indianapolis, 35-20.
Now, after Sunday's upset, which was Tampa Bay's third win of
the season and only the franchise's second win ever in 21 trips
to the West Coast, 6-5 San Diego looks like a long shot to be
playing after Christmas. Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh,
Chicago and Denver lie ahead on the schedule.
"This is the worst loss I've been associated with as a Charger,"
said wideout Tony Martin, who joined the team in 1994 and was
held to one catch on Sunday. "The intensity level is not here
anymore, and it's the wrong time of the season to be ducking and
hiding." Yet against the Bucs that seemed to be the
thunderstruck Chargers' game plan: While the defense ducked, the
offense went into hiding.
San Diego's D lined up in the wrong formation on three of its
first four plays and proceeded to give up 327 passing yards to
quarterback Trent Dilfer, the NFL's lowest-rated starting
quarterback. San Diego was also caught flat-footed by a fake
punt that gained the Bucs 25 yards and a first down in the third
quarter, a play that elicited a loud chorus of boos and might
have marked the end of an era--albeit an extremely short one.
"In 1994 we had less talk and more action; now it's the other
way around," said cornerback Darrien Gordon after the game.
"There's a sense of panic here, and we still have five games to
Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries, meanwhile, threw three
interceptions. The final two came on consecutive possessions in
the fourth quarter, and the Bucs converted them into nine points
to take a 22-17 lead with 6:02 to play. "We're not able to talk,
or even think, about the playoffs right now," said San Diego
coach Bobby Ross, whose team blew a 14-0 first-quarter
advantage. "We just have to get our pride back and go from there."
But Ross and general manager Bobby Beathard may have stripped
the team of that essential element during the off-season. They
cleaned house during the off-season by letting go Leslie O'Neal,
the Chargers' alltime leader in sacks; Natrone Means, their
leading rusher the past two seasons; and three of their four
leading receivers, including running back Ronnie Harmon. The
moves were meant to give the Chargers some breathing room under
the salary cap while ridding them of the malcontents who all but
sabotaged the '95 season. "We were scraping and clawing to try
to get back to the Super Bowl last year," said Martin. "And we
had guys saying stuff like, 'Oh, man, I just wish the season was
But the Bobbies' strategy hasn't had the desired effect.
Instead, the two have stripped the team of its renegade spirit
and its core of talent. Nor have they replenished either through
the draft: San Diego hasn't had a first-round pick in four of
the last five years. Against lowly Tampa Bay, the Chargers
mustered one sack, misfired on 18 pass plays and showed time and
again why their rushing attack ranks next to last in the league.
"We had a chance to get ourselves back in the playoffs with this
game, and we didn't," said Ross. "It bothers me that we could
play this poorly at this time of the season."
What really irks Ross, though, are the constant rumors that,
frustrated by his team's rapid decline since the Super Bowl,
he's considering leaving to coach in the college ranks next
season. It's a charge both he and Beathard deny. When asked at
his postgame press conference if he had spoken with Notre Dame,
Ross became irate. "I've got a job right here," he said. "And
I've got enough damn things to deal with right now."
But in about a month, if the Chargers continue to fizzle, Ross
will have plenty of time to reconsider.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Junior Seau (55) couldn't keep Errict Rhett from scoring the game-winning touchdown for the Bucs.
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS CAPOZZOLA Undrafted and underappreciated, Chrebet leads the Jets with 57 grabs. [Wayne Chrebet]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER STEVE YOUNG
COLOR CHART [Chart not available--chart depicting the decrease in yards per pass attempt for Steve Young from 1991 to 1996 and Elvis Grbac's yards per pass attempt for 1996]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH ELVIS GRBAC
49ERS at REDSKINS
The outcome hinges on whether Washington's defense can contain a
San Francisco attack that ranks second in the NFC. Will the
league's most porous unit rise up as it did on Sunday, when the
Skins shut down the Eagles late in the fourth quarter?
BRONCOS at VIKINGS
Running back Leroy Hoard, picked up on Nov. 6 as a free agent,
gained 108 yards against the Raiders in his Twin Cities debut.
On a team that owns the two worst single-game rushing totals
this year (11 and 15 yards), Minnesota needs Hoard to make some
headway against the NFL's top-rated run defense.
STEELERS at DOLPHINS
A defense that has an NFL-best 38 sacks is the soul of this
Steelers team and a potential headache to Miami quarterback Dan
Marino, who has been knocked out of two Monday-night games in as
many years, including once in '95 by Pittsburgh. The Dolphins
must run successfully to win.
PANTHERS at OILERS
A matchup between coaches each in his second full year--Dom
Capers of Carolina and Jeff Fisher of Houston. This could be
double trouble for the Panthers, who are only 1-3 outside the
NFC West and average 13 fewer points away from Ericsson Stadium.
JAGUARS at RAVENS
Thank heavens this game, a showcase for two of the league's most
dangerous passers of '96, Baltimore's Vinny Testaverde and
Jacksonville's Mark Brunell, isn't at a neutral site. Both clubs
are 0-6 on the road.
All that stood between Wayne Chrebet and a brilliant NFL future
was Harry Fisher. This was July 1995, the first day of the New
York Jets' training camp. Chrebet, a rookie free-agent wide
receiver, approached the gate of the team's practice complex.
"Players only," said Fisher, the sentry at the Jets' Hofstra
"But I'm on the team," said the 5'10", 185-pound Chrebet
"'Like hell you are,' I told him," Fisher recalls. "I thought
Wayne was just another kid from Hofstra."
Funny thing, Chrebet was. Fisher and a Division I-AA pedigree
from Hofstra are two of the many obstacles Chrebet has had to
overcome in forging an identity as the league's most dependable
clutch receiver. Chrebet leads the NFL this season with 23
third-down catches, 17 of which have moved the chains.
Chrebet has met skepticism since his sophomore year at Garfield
(N.J.) High. Says his dad, Wayne Sr., "We eventually signed the
consent waiver for football because we never thought Wayne would
get in to play."
After Chrebet caught 66 passes as a rookie, the team showed its
faith in him by drafting wideouts Keyshawn Johnson and Alex Van
Dyke with their top two picks, then signing free agents Webster
Slaughter and Jeff Graham. Chrebet, whose '96 income ($350,000)
is less than what Johnson will pay in taxes, was undaunted. "I
don't care if they bring in Jerry Rice," says Chrebet. "My role
is the same: to be the league's best third-down receiver."
If Elvis Grbac is, as San Francisco mayor Willie Brown stated,
"an embarrassment to humankind," then fellow 49ers quarterback
Steve Young is rapidly on his way to becoming one. Grbac's
figure for yards per pass attempt (including yardage lost on
sacks) was 5.74 for the season when Brown blasted him after the
Niners' Nov. 10 loss to Dallas. But Young, at 5.88, has been
scarcely better. In fact, his production has fallen steadily
since 1991, when he replaced Joe Montana at the helm. Why has
the two-time MVP plummeted toward Grbacian depths? Here are two
Personnel changes. Jerry Rice is still Jerry Rice, but John
Taylor is gone as his complement at wideout. The San Francisco
running backs can't turn short passes into big gainers the way
ex-Niner Ricky Watters could. And Mike Shanahan, the coordinator
of the 49ers' prolific offense from 1992 to '94, is now coaching
the Broncos. "All those things play into it," says coach George
Injuries. After starting 55 games in a row, Young injured his
left shoulder in October '95 at Indianapolis and sat out five
straight. Since that injury he has missed all or part of 13 of
the Niners' 22 games. In the last month he has suffered the
fourth and fifth concussions of his career, prompting his agent,
Leigh Steinberg, to say Young, 35, should consider retiring.
"Everyone who loves him," Steinberg says, "is concerned."
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said disgruntled Eagles
running back Ricky Watters last week after his reduced number of
carries (19) in Philadelphia's Nov. 10 loss to Buffalo. Against
the Redskins, Watters had 26 carries for 87 yards but also
fumbled for the 17th time since the beginning of 1994, the most
by any NFL back in that span....The only team that has held
opponents to fewer than 18 points in each of its last six games?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers....Pittsburgh linebacker Chad Brown,
who took over for All-Pro Greg Lloyd at the outside spot after
Lloyd was injured in Week 1, has 10 sacks. Lloyd's single-season
high for sacks was 10, in '94....The Lions' Barry Sanders is 18
yards from becoming the first player in league history to rush
for 1,000 in eight straight seasons. Thurman Thomas is 117 yards
shy of reaching the same milestone. Sanders was Thomas's backup
at Oklahoma State for one season....Bengals cornerback Ashley
Ambrose returned his league-leading eighth interception for a
touchdown in Cincinnati's 31-17 loss at Buffalo. Cincy's 25
picks are tops in the NFL....In their last two losses the
hard-luck Oilers have been beaten on the game's final play from
scrimmage; in their last three defeats the defense has allowed a
total of three touchdowns. Houston has dropped 14 games in the
past two years, but only three of those losses have been by more
than a TD.... With the possible exception of second-year punter
Todd Sauerbrun (46.7 yards a kick), the Bears will fail to send
one of their players to the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive
season....Saints interim coach Rick Venturi, 0-3 since replacing
Jim Mora, is 2-44-1 in stints with New Orleans, Indianapolis and
Quote of the Week
"My nose is my tattoo."
--Chargers coach Bobby Ross, when asked why, unlike 14 of his
players, he has not gotten a tattoo.