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TOPSY TURVY IN DECLINE AND DISARRAY SINCE THEIR SUPER BOWL TURN, THE CHARGERS TRY TO RETOOL FOR THE FUTURE

Aug. 18, 1997
Aug. 18, 1997

Table of Contents
Aug. 18, 1997

TOPSY TURVY IN DECLINE AND DISARRAY SINCE THEIR SUPER BOWL TURN, THE CHARGERS TRY TO RETOOL FOR THE FUTURE

When Bobby Beathard jumps into the Pacific Ocean and swims in
its surly surf, he gets in touch with his inner child. Instead
of stressing out about noxious team chemistry or wasted draft
picks or his club's inexplicable implosion over the past 2 1/2
years, the 60-year-old general manager of the San Diego Chargers
smiles like a kid eating a freshly baked chocolate-chip cookie.

This is an article from the Aug. 18, 1997 issue

True peace comes inside the tube of a challenging wave, and
Beathard realized it last Thursday night at Ponto Beach, a sweet
strip of coastline about 15 miles north of the Chargers' La
Jolla training camp. Fighting through a strong northern rip
current and an unseasonably big surf brought on by Hurricane
Guillermo, Beathard maneuvered down the slope of a six-foot wave
and achieved a few seconds of nirvana before crashing merrily
into the whitewash.

The next morning, as he sat in his training-camp dorm room at UC
San Diego, Beathard's bodysurfing buzz was long gone. He was
being asked to explain the disintegration of a Chargers team
that only 30 months earlier had played in Super Bowl XXIX. After
being blown out in that game 49-26 by the San Francisco 49ers,
San Diego, one of the NFL's youngest teams, began a decline into
turmoil that brought down coach Bobby Ross and his staff. "I'm
not sure anybody--me, the coaches, the players--could tell you
exactly what went wrong," Beathard said, grimacing. "The Super
Bowl year was a magical thing, and it seems like everything went
to hell after that."

The Chargers who took the practice field later Friday morning
were a lively bunch, a team energized by their personable new
coach, Kevin Gilbride. On Saturday night they improved their
exhibition record to 2-0 with a 23-17 victory over the
Indianapolis Colts, whetting the appetites of 56,447 fans at San
Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. But all the optimism in the world
can't conceal the carnage of the past two years. Only seven
starters (plus injured-reserve-bound defensive tackle Reuben
Davis, who suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in July) and 11
other players remain from San Diego's Super Bowl roster. Since
their 17-13 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '94 AFC
Championship Game, the Chargers are 17-17.

How could something so promising turn so sour? Current and
former Chargers interviewed for this story say that injuries,
roster turnover and ill-advised front-office decisions
contributed to the franchise's fall from grace. But principally
they blame Ross, who was forced out following the '96 season and
now coaches the Detroit Lions, and his assistants. As masterly
as Ross was in prodding the Chargers to overachieve in '94, he
became an overbearing presence in the locker room. "By last
season it had gotten to a point where a respect factor was
gone," says cornerback Dwayne Harper. "Guys were just going
through the motions."

Ross's military background and old-school attitude made him seem
unapproachable, especially after the Super Bowl. "A lot of
people got a big head after the Super Bowl," says former
Chargers running back Ronnie Harmon, now with the Tennessee
Oilers. "Coach Ross started acting like he was the reason we got
there."

Other players believe Ross and his assistants changed. "Things
got a little bit more uptight, and there was very little
communication," says defensive tackle Shawn Lee.

According to several players, the tension actually began during
the week of the Super Bowl, when Ross apparently violated a
dictum of military behavior: Never let your charges know you're
rattled. "For some reason the coaches decided to work us into
the ground," Harmon recalls. "We were hitting in full pads every
day, even two days before the game. By the time Sunday came
around, we were worn out."

In addition, says receiver Tony Martin, a reserve on the '94
team who developed into a Pro Bowl player last season, Ross
"changed everything we had been doing and tried something
different. That's crazy. If nothing's wrong with your car, do
you say, 'Look here--let's take the air bag out and put it back
in'?"

The '95 season should have been a glorious one for the Chargers,
who lost no significant players and even gained a Pro Bowl
punter in Darren Bennett. But the team struggled early, and Ross
became frustrated with certain players he viewed as negative
influences, especially defensive end Chris Mims and running back
Natrone Means. Mims's lack of off-season conditioning angered
team officials, and Means earned their enmity by holding out
before the '95 season.

Some players resented Ross's use of team meetings to announce
fines and to criticize players' off-the-field behavior. "That
wasn't professional," Martin says. "We are grown men, and if
you're mad at someone, you should confront that person
one-on-one. That's not everybody's business."

Mims, who was released in April and has since signed with the
Washington Redskins, says Ross's public reprimands helped
deflate a once jovial locker room. "The year of the Super Bowl,
everybody enjoyed being at practice," Mims says. "There was a
lot of joking around, and everyone felt free. The next year
everybody started separating. You'd go to a meeting, and Coach
Ross would confront you about being out the night before. You'd
say, 'How did he know?' Pretty soon we stopped trusting each
other." The paranoia soon extended beyond the locker room.
Sources say Ross began to view Beathard as disruptive, and he
chastised the general manager for discussing personnel and
strategy with coaching assistants, especially offensive
coordinator Ralph Friedgen.

After starting the '95 season 4-7, the Chargers won four
straight games and needed a road victory in their season finale
against the New York Giants to clinch a playoff spot. San Diego
won 27-17, but it was an unimpressive performance. Says
Beathard, "I remember thinking during that game, Why aren't
people into it? We didn't have that burning desire, but both
teams played badly, and we won."

The following week the Chargers lost a first-round playoff game
at home to the Colts 35-20, and the bloodletting began. The team
did not re-sign two free agents: Harmon and Pro Bowl pass rusher
Leslie O'Neal. Both were demanding more money than Beathard
believed they merited, and both were viewed by management as
being disruptive in the locker room. Many former teammates
believe that Harmon, a quiet sort, did not deserve that rap, but
O'Neal was outspoken and headstrong; one source says that he
badmouthed the Super Bowl game plan to teammates before the
game. O'Neal is now with the St. Louis Rams.

Then, in February '96, Beathard shockingly waived Means, who as
a second-year back in 1994 had rushed for 1,350 yards but had
struggled with a groin injury for much of the '95 season.
Chargers executives believed Means had reported to the team out
of shape following his '95 contract holdout, and Beathard was
expecting another holdout during the summer of '96. "We didn't
have a good feeling about anything that would happen," Beathard
says. "Natrone's agent and I had some big differences."

This apparently was one decision on which Ross and Beathard
agreed. Means, who was claimed by the Jacksonville Jaguars in
March 1996 and gained 358 yards during the team's three-game
playoff run last season, remains bitter toward both men, whom he
accuses of character assassination. "Coach Ross always told us
he'd never rip us in the papers, and the thing I'll never
forgive him for is talking bad about me after they released me,"
Means says. "They [Ross and Beathard] were making it seem like I
was going around San Diego boozing it up every night."

Ross, who had two years left on his contract when he resigned in
January, has repeatedly refused to rehash the events that led to
his departure. Asked for his views on the Chargers' precipitous
drop, he said last week, "It would take too long [to explain].
It goes back too far for me to even remember." On Sunday,
through a Lions spokesman, he declined to address the complaints
of his former players.

Ross and Beathard did praise Means in recent interviews, and
Beathard says he would gladly take Means back if he became
available. "What happened was good for Natrone and bad for the
Chargers," Beathard says. At the time of Means's release,
Beathard said the team would rely on second-year back Aaron
Hayden. But Hayden was beaten out by journeyman Leonard Russell
in training camp and was waived after the '96 season. (San Diego
has penciled in Gary Brown as the new starter. Brown played for
the Houston Oilers from 1990 to '95 but was out of football last
year.)

To San Francisco linebacker Gary Plummer, who played for San
Diego from 1986 to '93, the pattern was familiar. Plummer cites
Means, receiver Yancey Thigpen of the Steelers and defensive
tackle Joe Phillips of the Kansas City Chiefs as examples of
players who were allowed to leave San Diego too early. "It's
unfortunately been an organizational trend for as long as I can
remember," Plummer says. "We called it the revolving door. You
look around the league, and rosters are littered with former
Chargers who are productive. It just seems as if there's a brief
window when you're the new kid on the block and everybody's
excited about you, and after three or four years there's another
kid to take your place."

Despite his reputation as a superb franchise builder, Beathard
has made some regrettable personnel decisions. His penchant for
drafting fast but relatively small receivers has resulted in
some notable busts, including 5'10" Jimmy Oliver, a second-round
pick in '95 who was waived earlier this summer. Beathard traded
his '97 first-round selection to Tampa Bay for the Buccaneers'
second-round choice in '96, which he used on Virginia Tech
wideout Bryan Still. The 5'11" Still caught six passes as a
rookie and currently plays behind Charlie Jones, a fourth-round
pick in '96.

Injuries also have played a part in the Chargers' decline,
especially on the line, which had difficulty protecting
quarterback Stan Humphries during last year's 8-8 campaign. San
Diego's once vaunted running game slipped to 29th in the league,
and as the burden fell increasingly on Humphries, his leadership
skills were questioned. On Dec. 1, Humphries left in the third
quarter of a 45-7 loss to New England with a concussion, and in
an article last month in The San Diego Union-Tribune some
players questioned his toughness. In the same article Russell,
who was not re-signed after last season, said Humphries was not
a team leader and was "not respected in the locker room." The
story said nearly a dozen other players agreed with Russell but
declined to go on the record. Ross and Beathard stood behind the
quarterback, and Humphries said that he was hurt by the
allegations, adding, "I don't think I've ever tried to take the
easy way out. If I've been hurt, it's been because I've been
hurt."

Humphries is back for his sixth season as the Chargers' starting
quarterback, and over the past several weeks the funk that
gripped the Chargers has given way to optimism. The off-season
signings of several veteran free agents, notably defensive end
William Fuller and slot receiver Eric Metcalf, and the trade for
halfback Erric Pegram have improved the team and encouraged the
players. "All I heard was how morale was at a low, how there was
no enthusiasm among the players," Gilbride says. "But from the
day I got here, all I saw were upbeat, hardworking players and a
supportive organization."

Gilbride's relaxed off-the-field demeanor has jibed nicely with
his no-nonsense style during practice. "We're working harder
this year, but it's more of an open approach," tight end Brian
Roche says. "Coach Ross's approach was more conservative and
militaristic."

Beathard, while careful to praise Ross--"He's a great person and
a hell of a football coach," the general manager says--clearly
is more comfortable with Gilbride. "The guy is a great
communicator, and he's got a great sense of humor, but I think
there is also a slight element of fear [among the players],"
Beathard says. "I don't think he's the type of guy the players
want to test, because they know he means it. But he's put the
fun back into it."

Qualcomm was a fun house last Saturday night. Gilbride's team
took the field while a song that was a staple in '94, San Diego
SuperChargers, blared over the sound system. Late in the first
quarter Humphries hummed a perfect 40-yard spiral to Martin, who
caught it, split a pair of Colts defensive backs and raced to a
touchdown on a play that covered 80 yards. In the game's final
minutes Beathard stood behind the north end zone, his
sun-weathered face flashing a hearty grin. It wasn't quite the
same as getting tubed, but he was enjoying the ride.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER San Diego got a charge out of upending Leon Neal and the Colts to go 2-0 in the preseason. [Leon Neal with ball and several others in game]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2) After being shown the door by the Chargers, Means (20) rushed to Jacksonville, while Ross (far right, with Brad Ford) landed in Detroit. [Natrone Means and others in game; Brad Ford and Bobby Ross]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Brown proved he still has some bounce in his step when he scored on a 62-yard run against the Colts. [Gary Brown and others in game]

LIGHTNING JOLT

Of the 22 players who started for San Diego against the 49ers in
Super Bowl XXIX on Jan. 29, 1995, only eight are still on the
roster. Here's a look at where the 22 are today:

OFFENSE

POS. PLAYER STATUS

WR SHAWN JEFFERSON Left after '95 season; caught 50 passes
as a starter in New England last year

TE DUANE YOUNG Waived in February '96; had short camp
stay with Cardinals later that year

LT HARRY SWAYNE Played two more seasons in San Diego;
fighting for a starting job in Denver

LG ISAAC DAVIS[*] A rookie in '94, has started 15 games for
Chargers over the past two seasons

C COURTNEY HALL A starter since his rookie year in '89,
released after injury-plagued '96 season

RG JOE COCOZZO[*] A part-time starter the past two years,
has been relegated to backup duty

RT STAN BROCK Retired following '95 season after 16
years in the league

TE ALFRED PUPUNU[*] Caught 24 passes in '96 before fracturing
ankle on Nov. 11

WR MARK SEAY Left after '95 season; fighting for
roster spot with Eagles

QB STAN HUMPHRIES[*] Leadership skills and toughness recently
criticized by teammates

RB NATRONE MEANS Waived after '95 season; ran for 315
yards in Jaguars' two playoff victories
last year

DEFENSE

POS. PLAYER STATUS

LE CHRIS MIMS Waived in off-season; signed with
Redskins but has been slowed by knee
injury

LT SHAWN LEE[*] Back in the starting lineup after
losing job during '96 season

RT REUBEN DAVIS[*] Out for season after tearing Achilles
tendon in July

RE LESLIE O'NEAL Signed with Rams after '95 season but had
only seven sacks in '96

OLB DAVID GRIGGS Died in 1995 car accident in Florida at
age 33

ILB JUNIOR SEAU[*] Perennial All-Pro; out four to six weeks
after arthroscopic knee surgery

ILB DENNIS GIBSON Hero of '94 AFC Championship Game;
retired after '95 season at age 32

LCB DARRIEN GORDON Former No. 1 pick, plagued by injuries;
signed as free agent with Broncos in
off-season

RCB DWAYNE HARPER[*] Hampered by nagging hamstring injury in
'96 after superb '95 season

SS DARREN CARRINGTON Picked by Jaguars in expansion draft
after '94 season; was with Raiders in '96

FS STANLEY RICHARD Former No. 1 pick; signed as free agent
with Redskins after '94 season

[*]STILL WITH TEAM