When Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Diego after being traded to the
Chargers in March, he got a bigger welcome in his new team's
locker room than George W. Bush at an NRA convention. A
similarly buoyant reception awaited Erik Kramer upon his signing
with San Diego in July, including this warm welcome from All-Pro
linebacker Junior Seau: "I'm glad you're here, but why didn't
you come last year?"
If Seau sounds a tad bitter, he's not alone. Quarterback Ryan
Leaf's rocky rookie season created a rift in the Chargers' locker
room last season that has yet to heal. The biggest charge coming
out of San Diego in '98 was generated by the friction between the
team's top-ranked defense and a sickly offense that produced a
touchdown or less in all but four games.
Harbaugh, 35, and Kramer, 34, may not be the most talented
quarterbacks in the NFL, but they're regarded as saviors by the
Chargers, whose 5-11 record was directly traceable to a dearth
of poise and leadership at the game's most important position.
With the immature Leaf and overwhelmed Craig Whelihan taking
turns flailing, San Diego defenders such as Pro Bowl strong
safety Rodney Harrison experienced "a nightmare you can't even
"If I had to go through another year like that," Harrison says,
"I'd probably quit playing." A repeat of that horror show was
ruled out when Leaf, 15 minutes into his first training camp
practice, tore cartilage in his right shoulder. He will almost
certainly be placed on season-ending injured reserve.
General manager Bobby Beathard had already made some key moves
in the off-season, including the hiring of coach Mike Riley, an
offensive guru from Oregon State, but without the addition of at
least one proven quarterback, there might have been mutiny.
"They had to do something, because that s--- had to stop,"
outside linebacker Lew Bush says. "Try going into a game you
have no chance of winning, knowing that if you give up more than
one touchdown, it's over."
The Chargers might say they're hoping to turn over a new leaf in
'99, except the mention of Leaf and turnover in the same
sentence brings back too many bad memories. The team's NFL-high
51 giveaways in '98 included an appalling 34 interceptions, and
though Leaf was responsible for a mere 15 of them in 10
games--against two touchdown passes--the No. 2 pick's aloof
behavior and sense of entitlement made him a symbol for the
franchise's futility. Now, says Seau, "you can't imagine the
security we feel as teammates knowing we have two quarterbacks
who have performed in this league and know how to handle
themselves as players and as leaders."
The crafty Harbaugh, coming off a mediocre year with the Ravens,
and Kramer, coming back from knee and shoulder injuries that
limited him to eight starts with the Bears last season, will
compete for the right to hand off to feature back Natrone Means
and to throw high-percentage passes. Means appeared to be headed
for the Pro Bowl last year before a broken foot sidelined him in
the 10th game, and the Chargers' above-average offensive line
should provide ample running room as well as good pass
protection. Third-year tight end Freddie Jones is a huge target
(6'5", 270 pounds) who caught a team-high 57 passes last year
and seems headed for stardom.
In addition to undoing the damage caused by Leaf, there has also
been a concerted effort to wash away the vestiges of Kevin
Gilbride's short but salty 22-game reign as the Chargers' coach.
After enduring the grumpy Gilbride, who was fired six games into
the '98 season, San Diego's players are aglow over nice-guy
Riley, probably the NFL's most player-friendly coach since Marv
Levy retired. Of more significance is Riley's offense, which is
less intricate and, theoretically, easier to run than
Gilbride's. Says Kramer, "They've tried to simplify the offense
so that one day Ryan could step in and run this thing."
It's questionable whether that will ever happen--last week Leaf
told USA Today he plans to void his contract and leave as a free
agent after next season--but this much is clear: The Chargers
aren't standing around waiting for him to grow up. They want
results now, and they've even taken the drastic step of turning
the 6'3", 255-pound Seau into a two-way player by his own
request. Riley created the "Junior" package, featuring Seau as
an H-back behind Jones, and has visions of putting Seau's
pass-catching and drive-blocking skills on display for up to 10
plays a game.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Sight for sore eyes Although Harbaugh was rated 22nd among NFL passers last year, the frazzled Chargers welcome his leadership.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Sept. 12 Open date
19 at Cincinnati
Oct. 3 KANSAS CITY
10 at Detroit
24 GREEN BAY
31 at Kansas City
Nov. 7 DENVER
14 at Oakland
28 at Minnesota
Dec. 5 CLEVELAND
12 at Seattle
19 at Miami
Jan. 2 at Denver
1998 Record 5-11 (5th in AFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 15/26/24; defense 1/11/1
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 9 Opponents' 1998 winning
percentage: .521 Games against playoff teams: 5
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
Last season the Chargers' defense held its opponents without a
first down on 47.2% of their drives, the highest percentage in
the NFL. But San Diego's offense evened things out by failing to
produce a first down on 46.2% of its drives, also the highest
rate in the league.
defense Drives No first down Pct.
Chargers 214 101 47.2
Bills 189 78 41.3
Buccaneers 189 77 40.7
offense Drives No first down Pct.
Chargers 212 98 46.2
Raiders 216 92 42.6
Rams 200 83 41.5
PLAYER TO WATCH
He's a mountain of a man, but when it comes right down to it,
tight end Freddie Jones would rather dash than mash. An adequate
blocker with soft hands and a smooth, deceptively swift stride,
Jones led the Chargers last year with 57 receptions, the most by
a Chargers tight end since Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow had 64
in 1986. Jones's numbers should rise in '99: The Chargers lack a
big-play wideout, and new coach Mike Riley's offense favors
high-percentage passes underneath zone coverages. "You don't
normally think of a tight end as being a go-to receiver, but
this guy is," Riley says. "We plan to build on our strengths."
Quarterback Jim Harbaugh, a master of play action who leaned
heavily on tight end Ken Dilger in Indianapolis, is excited
about the potential of Jones, a second-round pick out of North
Carolina in '97. "If this guy's not going to be a star in this
league," Harbaugh says, "then I've never seen one."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Mike Riley
First season with Chargers (0-0 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Jim Harbaugh 119
293 att. 164 comp. 56.0% 1,839 yds. 12 TDs 11 int. 72.9 rtg.
RB Natrone Means 28
212 att. 883 yds. 4.2 avg. 16 rec. 91 yds. 5.7 avg. 5 TDs
RB Terrell Fletcher 198
153 att. 543 yds. 3.5 avg. 30 rec. 188 yds. 6.3 avg. 5 TDs
FB Jermaine Fazande (R) 332
42 att. 161 yds. 3.8 avg. 1 rec. 12 yds. 12 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Jeff Graham 162 47 rec. 600 yds. 2 TDs
WR Mikhael Ricks 173 30 rec. 450 yds. 2 TDs
WR Ryan Thelwell 181 16 rec. 268 yds. 1 TD
TE Freddie Jones 141 57 rec. 602 yds. 3 TDs
K John Carney 164 19/19 XPs 26/30 FGs 97 pts.
PR Tony Gaiter 326 13 ret. 11.9 avg. 0 TDs
KR Tony Gaiter 326 16 ret. 18.4 avg. 0 TDs
LT John Jackson 6'6" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Aaron Taylor 6'4" 305 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Roman Fortin 6'5" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Raleigh Roundtree 6'4" 295 lbs. 15 games 5 starts
RT Vaughn Parker 6'3" 300 lbs. 6 games 6 starts
LE Chris Mims 6 tackles 2 sacks
LT Norman Hand 49 tackles 6 sacks
RT John Parrella 37 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RE Raylee Johnson 29 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
OLB Lew Bush 18 tackles 1 sack
MLB Eric Hill 73 tackles 1 int.
OLB Junior Seau 115 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
CB Charles Dimry 63 tackles 3 int.
SS Rodney Harrison 117 tackles 3 int.
FS Mike Dumas 11 tackles 0 int.
CB Terrance Shaw 45 tackles 2 int.
P Darren Bennett 95 punts 43.9 avg.
New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)