Every summer the Chargers share their training site, the UC San
Diego campus, with a group of husky adolescents who attend a
camp designed to teach them how to manage their weight. The
campers might be interested in the advice of San Diego running
back Gary Brown, who would tell them, Don't put away eight
Philadelphia cheese steaks a day.
That was a typical day's fare last fall for Brown, who after
being released by the Oilers in training camp blimped out in his
hometown of Williamsport, Pa. Recalls Brown, who ballooned from
233 to 262 pounds during his sabbatical, "I'd be sitting
there"--often, he admits, with a pizza in his lap--"watching
other teams' running backs on TV, thinking, I know in my heart
I'm as good as that guy."
Had he watched any Chargers games, Brown would have been
particularly unimpressed with their rushing attack. San Diego
averaged 3.2 yards per rush last season, 26th in the league. Its
oft-injured, seldom-in-sync line opened few holes for plodding
journeyman Leonard Russell, who is now out of football, and
offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen's shopworn H-back offense
had grown predictable. "We'd be in our stances, and the guys on
the other team would start calling out the play," says guard
Isaac Davis. "Stevie Wonder could have seen what we were going
to run half the time."
Out are Friedgen and coach Bobby Ross. In as coach is erstwhile
Jaguars offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who also held that
title with the Oilers in 1993, when Brown rushed for 1,002 yards
on just 195 carries. Around the time Ross was getting fired,
Brown was back in Williamsport, experiencing an epiphany. "I
looked at myself in the mirror one morning, and I said, 'Are you
He wasn't. Working out at the Williamsport YMCA--"People think
you need a personal trainer and a nutritionist, but all you
really need is the right attitude," he says--Brown whipped
himself into the best shape of his life. After signing with the
Chargers for the league minimum in March (he gets a $1 million
bonus if he rushes for 1,000 yards), Brown reported to camp at
219 pounds with 4% body fat, and he won a starting job. He will
be spelled by former Steeler Erric Pegram, who averaged 5.2
yards per carry last season while backing up Jerome Bettis; and
rookie Kenny Bynum, a fifth-round draft choice from South
Carolina State who was dazzling in training camp before he tore
his right Achilles tendon during an Aug. 9 preseason game
against the Colts. He's expected back for the opener.
Without similar improvement along the line, however, the new
backs will be able to produce just so much. The only new face is
center Raleigh McKenzie, a 13-year veteran who started for the
Eagles in '96; he's flanked by guard Troy Sienkiewicz and tackle
Tony Berti on the left side, and Davis and tackle Vaughn Parker
on the right. No stars here.
"We don't really know how the offensive line's going to turn
out," general manager Bobby Beathard said during camp, as he sat
barefoot in his dorm room watching video of college prospects.
Of his new running backs, he said, "You can't look at anybody
there and say, 'We're riding this guy to the playoffs.'"
Ah, but there's hope. Two days later, in the game against the
Colts, the slimmed-down Brown busted a 62-yard touchdown run.
"He's in great shape," Gilbride says of his new meal ticket.
"He's hungry for success."
And has less of a craving, presumably, for cheese steaks.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER San Diego hopes Brown, who was out of the league last year, displays the form that made him a 1,000-yard rusher with the Oilers in '93. [Gary Brown carrying football in game against Indianapolis Colts]
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 coaches to begin the
1997 season. In a profession with an ever-decreasing margin for
error, the grace period for Gilbride, the Giants' Jim Fassel and
the 49ers' Steve Mariucci will be shorter than ever. 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*
1973 Chuck Knox, Rams 12-2*
1975 Ted Marchibroda, Colts 10-4*
1977 Red Miller, Broncos 12-2*
1982 Ron Meyer, Patriots 5-4
1983 John Robinson, Rams 9-7
1989 Bud Carson, Browns[**] 9-6-1*
1989 George Seifert, 49ers[**]14-2*
1992 Bill Cowher, Steelers 11-5*
1992 Dennis Green, Vikings 11-5*
1992 Bobby Ross, Chargers 11-5*
1994 Barry Switzer, Cowboys[**]12-4*
1995 Ray Rhodes, Eagles 10-6
*Won division title
[**]Team had made playoffs in previous season
The Chargers don't get any early breaks, with five of their
first seven on the road. They do play five of their final seven
at Qualcomm Stadium, site of the Super Bowl, but by the time the
coin is flipped for that one, the Chargers will have been idle
for more than a month.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 4 (tie)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Kevin Gilbride
QB Stan Humphries 416 att. 232 comp. 55.8% 2,670 yds.
18 TDs 13 int. 76.7 rtg.
RB Gary Brown*[**] 86 att. 293 yds. 3.4 avg. 6 rec.
16 yds. 2.7 avg. 0 TDs
FB Aaron Craver[**] 59 att. 232 yds. 3.9 avg. 39 rec.
297 yds. 7.6 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Tony Martin 85 rec. 1,171 yds. 14 TDs
WR Charlie Jones 41 rec. 524 yds. 4 TDs
WR Eric Metcalf[**] 54 rec. 599 yds. 6 TDs
TE Alfred Pupunu 24 rec. 271 yds. 1 TD
PK John Carney 31/31 PATs 29/36 FGs 118 pts.
KR Eric Metcalf[**] 49 ret. 21.0 avg. 0 TDs
PR Eric Metcalf[**] 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[**] 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[**] 34 tackles 13 sacks
LT John Parrella 38 tackles 2 sacks
RT Shawn Lee 17 tackles 1 sack
RE Marco Coleman 42 tackles 4 sacks
OLB Lew 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 Rodney Harrison 125 tackles 5 int.
FS Greg Jackson[**] 92 tackles 3 int.
CB Terrance Shaw 85 tackles 3 int.
P Darren Bennett 87 punts 45.6 avg.
[**]New acquisition Rookie statistics for final college year