A few days after Chargers coach Bobby Ross and his staff
resigned and vacated their offices last January, a huge chunk of
concrete, the by-product of renovations to Qualcomm (ne Jack
Murphy) Stadium, crashed onto the desk that had belonged to
assistant coach Frank Falks. "It was lucky we were out of
there," Ross said.
In more ways than one. The roof is caving in on the Chargers.
While Ross's overall record in four years with the team was
50-36, San Diego is 17-16 since losing the 1995 Super Bowl. Last
season the Chargers ranked no higher than 14th in the league in
any major offensive category.
Fifteen days after Ross resigned, San Diego introduced its new
head coach, Kevin Gilbride. The offense-minded Gilbride is
coming off two seasons as an assistant with Jacksonville and,
before that, six with Houston. His sole head coaching
experience, however, was in the early '80s, at Southern
Gilbride is charged with revving up an H-back offense that some
veterans have described as prehistoric. He plans to go with a
more sophisticated system, full of multiple sets, which newly
acquired veteran quarterback Jim Everett has described as "very
cool." (How starting quarterback Stan Humphries describes the
system will depend on how well he can throw the touch passes the
new scheme demands.) Free-agent signee Eric Metcalf should
provide a squirt of octane and bolster an already strong
receiving crew that includes All-Pro Tony Martin and
up-and-comer Charlie Jones. "I expect to be the steal of the
century," says Metcalf, who was seeking $3 million for his
services this season but is getting less than half that.
Metcalf missed the team's minicamp in June. Well, he was there,
but he couldn't work out because of a strained hamstring
suffered while participating in the NFL's Run to Daylight
competition in May. Apparently it didn't matter that the
competition was for running backs and Metcalf is a wideout. "The
timing could not have been worse," Gilbride said at the
minicamp. "I am not happy."
That statement could also sum up Gilbride's feelings about the
Chargers' running game, which finished a lame 29th in the NFL
last season. The addition of Gary Brown, an acquaintance of
Gilbride's from his Houston days, should help. Brown, who spent
1991 through '95 with the Oilers (in 1993 he rushed for 1,002
yards) but was out of football last season recuperating from a
knee injury, has dropped 42 pounds over the past year and has
plenty of incentive to stay fit: a reported $1 million bonus if
he tops 1,000 yards rushing.
On defense the big news is the addition of 35-year-old William
Fuller, who also played in Houston when Gilbride was there. The
Chargers signed him after releasing Chris Mims, a 1992
first-round pick. Fuller, who has played in the Pro Bowl four
times, led all defensive ends with 36 1/2 sacks over the last
three seasons, while with the Eagles. "He's an old man, but he's
got a lot of juice left," says center (and, at 34, fellow old
man) Raleigh McKenzie, who played with Fuller last year and has
also signed with San Diego. "Sometimes people get lulled to
sleep looking at the birth date instead of the performance."
With Mims gone, All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau (who,
incidentally, is in the final year of his contract) is the only
former first-round San Diego draft pick on the roster. Still,
the Chargers have chosen some winners in the past. This year
general manager Bobby Beathard put together another of his
collections of obscure draft selections. When he chose South
Carolina State running back Kenny Bynum in the fifth round,
Bynum quickly proclaimed his excitement at being part of a West
Coast offense. Informed that the Chargers didn't run that
system, Bynum said he'd just figured they did, since they played
on the West Coast. He could be helpful in any offense, though.
Last season he set a school rushing record with 1,648 yards.
Of the team's eight picks, Freddie Jones, a tight end from North
Carolina, is the only one who played in Division I-A last year.
With '96 starter Alfred Pupunu coming off ankle surgery, Jones
should be in the hunt for playing time immediately.
Gilbride is the first to admit that retooling the Chargers, like
renovating the stadium, will not come without complications.
"We're rebuilding," he says. "This is not going to be an
overnight deal. There's some work that needs to be done." --D.G.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Even if Seau is in top form, new coach Gilbride inherits a team that is not. [Junior Seau]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (third in AFC West)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 82.0 (29) 209.9 (14) 291.9 (26)
DEFENSE 109.7 (17) 229.1 (25) 338.8 (23)
Kevin Gilbride will be one of three rookie head coaches to begin
the 1997 season. In a profession with ever decreasing margin for
error, the grace period for Gilbride, the Giants' Jim Fassel and
the 49ers' Steve Mariucci will be shorter than ever. But there
is some precedent for success (though not much): Since the 1970
AFL-NFL merger, 13 of the 114 rookie coaches who began the
season took their teams to the playoffs, including Gilbride's
predecessor, Bobby Ross.
Rookie Coaches Who Have Led Their Teams to the Playoffs since 1970
1970 Don McCafferty, Colts 11-2-1*
1989 George Seifert, 49ers 14-2*
1973 Chuck Knox, Rams 12-2*
1992 Bill Cowher, Steelers 11-5*
1975 Ted Marchibroda, Colts 10-4*
1992 Dennis Green, Vikings 11-5*
1977 Red Miller, Broncos 12-2*
1992 Bobby Ross, Chargers 11-5*
1982 Ron Meyer, Patriots 5-4
1994 Barry Switzer, Cowboys[**] 12-4*
1983 John Robinson, Rams 9-7
1995 Ray Rhodes, Eagles 10-6
1989 Bud Carson, Browns 9-6-1*
*Won division title [**]Team had made playoffs in previous season
PLAYER TO WATCH
Raylee Johnson, a fourth-round pick out of Arkansas, was the
toast of the Chargers' training camp in 1993. But after starting
just two games in four years, he became a free agent in 1996. He
re-signed with San Diego in March, however, in hopes of getting
more playing time. Now he will: He is slated to be the Chargers'
rush end. "I will try to lead the team in sacks," Johnson says.
"This year I have that opportunity."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Kevin Gilbride
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Stan Humphries 28[*] 416 att. 232 comp. 55.8% 2,670 yds.
18 TDs 13 int. 76.7 rtg.
RB Gary Brown**[A] 85[*] 86 att. 293 yds. 3.4 avg. 6 rec.
16 yds. 2.7 avg. 0 TDs
FB Aaron Craver[A] 218[*] 59 att. 232 yds. 3.9 avg. 39 rec.
297 yds. 7.6 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Tony Martin 14[*] 85 rec. 1,171 yds. 14 TDs
WR Eric Metcalf[A] 27[*] 54 rec. 599 yds. 6 TDs
WR Bryan Still 213[*] 6 rec. 142 yds. 0 TDs
TE Alfred Pupunu 245[*] 24 rec. 271 yds. 1 TD
PK John Carney 291[*] 31/31 XPs 29/36 FGs 118 pts.
KR Andre Coleman 296[*] 55 ret. 22.0 avg. 0 TDs
PR Eric Metcalf[A] 27[*] 27 ret. 11.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Tony Berti 6'6" 300 lbs. 16 games 14 starts
LG Isaac Davis 6'3" 325 lbs. 14 games 5 starts
C Raleigh McKenzie[A] 6'2" 283 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Joe Cocozzo 6'4" 300 lbs. 16 games 11 starts
RT Vaughn Parker 6'3" 296 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE William Fuller[A] 34 tackles 13 sacks
LT Shawn Lee 17 tackles 1 sack
RT Reuben Davis 30 tackles 3 sacks
RE Marco Coleman 42 tackles 4 sacks
OLB Lewis Bush 64 tackles 1 sack
MLB Kurt Gouveia 81 tackles 3 int.
OLB Junior Seau 138 tackles 7 sacks
CB Dwayne Harper 19 tackles 1 int.
SS Greg Jackson[A] 92 tackles 3 int.
FS Rodney Harrison 125 tackles 5 int.
CB Terrance Shaw 85 tackles 3 int.
P Darren Bennett 87 punts 45.6 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)