If you enjoy hearing about problems, Sid Gillman could give you a list that would fill the San Diego phone book. Tackle Ernie Ladd, the man who makes the Charger defense work, is threatening to play out his option. Ladd was late in reporting to camp, was fined, worked a few days, argued with Gillman, walked out, was fined and suspended and finally came back muttering that he would rather wrestle, anyhow. Defensive End Earl Faison, who can terrify quarterbacks when he wishes to, has a bad knee and also has threatened to play out his option. Several other players are angry at Gillman the General Manager, although they are satisfied enough with Gillman the Coach. Gillman himself is not satisfied with some of the players. He has tried to trade Ladd, Faison, Quarterback John Hadl and Halfback Paul Lowe, among others. And still the Chargers should be the Western Division champions again, as they have been four of the past five years. Despite the problems, the Chargers have some of the league's most impressive athletes, and whatever faults the players may find with Gillman's front-office management they realize he is a smart coach and a winner.
The retirement of Tobin Rote left Hadl, a four-year man, as Gillman's only experienced quarterback. Hadl is the sort who can be very good or very bad, but he did win six of his eight starts last year and that is reasonable consistency. The crucial test for Hadl this year was in the early exhibitions. If he had not done well, Gillman (who had already offered Hadl and Lowe for Babe Parilli) most likely would have shipped him out. But Hadl did, in fact, do well and kept his job ahead of journeyman Don Breaux and rookie Steve Tensi of Florida State. Tensi is Hadl's eventual replacement. Gillman considers him the equal of Joe Namath as a pro prospect and that is high praise.
If there is such a thing as the perfect back he might be Keith Lincoln, who runs, blocks, catches passes and throws the option pass and plays with injuries that would keep lesser men in the dispensary. And Lincoln does it all out of position. He is a natural halfback but operates at fullback so that Lowe, who has chronic leg trouble but is a tear-away threat, can be in the game at the same time. Gene Foster, a 212-pound rookie from Arizona State, is the fastest of the backs and makes Lowe expendable for trade. At flanker the Chargers have one of the very best—the remarkable Lance Alworth. One of Alworth's main talents is the ability to hang in the air longer than the defensive backs can stay up with him. It is an ability that some outstanding basketball players have. Alworth is fast and graceful and has the soft hands an exceptional receiver must have, but because of his natural talents he has not yet been forced to learn the moves he should know. Don Norton is a good split end, and Dave Kocourek and Jacque MacKinnon give the Chargers depth at tight end. The offensive line has the perennial All-AFL selection Ron Mix at right tackle. At left tackle young Gary Kirner seems to have displaced veteran Ernie Wright. Five-year Center Don Rogers has been moved aside by Sam Gruneisen. The Chargers usually have quite a string of injuries, but the offensive line is solid enough.
On defense, regular Right Corner Back Dick Westmoreland is out until midseason with a broken arm and will be replaced by second-year man Leslie Duncan. But Bob Zeman has returned at left safety to help strengthen a good secondary. The linebacking should be the best in the Chargers' history, with Ron Carpenter on the strong side, Chuck Allen in the middle and Frank Buncom on the right. Rookie Rick Redman, who will challenge Hadl for the punting job, will stick as a linebacker. The top rookie on defense is 250-pound Steve DeLong, an end. With Ladd on the field, the Chargers' front four presents a fierce rush and is tough to run against. The kicking game is spotty and the quarterbacking questionable, but San Diego will bull through again.