4 San Diego Chargers Wanted: a running game that can carry a fair share of the load

September 02, 2001

One of the Chargers' priorities during the off-season was to
upgrade a rushing attack that ranked last in the NFL in 2000.
But as training camp dragged on, San Diego's corps of runners
looked anything but new and improved. Battered and bruised
better described its state. Not only did rookie running back and
No. 1 draft choice LaDainian Tomlinson hold out for a good
portion of the preseason, but the two players behind him on the
depth chart--Jermaine Fazande (groin and ankle) and Terrell
Fletcher (hernia)--were also sidelined with injuries. The
Chargers got so thin at the position that general manager John
Butler signed Madre Hill, who couldn't make it with the
ground-game-challenged Browns, so the Chargers would have enough
healthy rushers to practice.

San Diego entered camp with high expectations for an offense that
was largely to blame for a 1-15 record last season. Thanks to a
league-leading 50 turnovers, the Chargers lost eight games by
eight points or less, and the newly hired Butler, who had helped
build the Bills' Super Bowl teams, got busy as soon as he arrived
in January. He signed free-agent quarterback Doug Flutie. Then he
traded the first pick in the draft (and the opportunity to select
Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick) to the Falcons, but still
got Tomlinson, an All-America from TCU, with the fifth selection
and Purdue quarterback Drew Brees with the first choice in the
second round. Nevertheless, with so many key players missing time
in camp--tight end Freddie Jones was also on the shelf after
undergoing surgery for a hernia on Aug. 1 that was expected to
sideline him for six to eight weeks--don't expect the offense to
show that much improvement in Week 1.

"If there's any good in this, it's that all these injuries have
happened early," says wide receiver Jeff Graham. "We still expect
to get the offense rolling when all these guys come back, and I
think with Doug, our receivers and a true featured back, we'll
create some good matchups."

Tomlinson is the key. At 5'10", 221 pounds, he's a durable runner
who also impressed teammates with his receiving and blocking
during off-season workouts. How dire is the Chargers' need for a
productive back? Well, Tomlinson holds the Division I single-game
rushing record of 406 yards. Last season Fletcher was San Diego's
leading rusher, with 384 yards, and the Chargers' total was only
1,062 yards, a figure that was eclipsed by 19 players in the NFL.
The coaching staff's chief concern is how far Tomlinson has been
set back by his missed time in camp. "I'm sure LaDainian is in
great shape, but you can't simulate the physical part of this
game--putting on the gear, getting hit, running and changing
direction at full speed," says coach Mike Riley. "Our worst fear
is that he'll get hurt."

The Chargers would like to make Tomlinson the fulcrum of a
ball-control attack, but to do that they must also rely heavily
on a suspect line. Left tackle Vaughn Parker and center Roman
Fortin are the only proven talents, while right tackle Ed Ellis
and right guard DeMingo Graham have a combined 12 career starts.
Left guard Kendyl Jacox is a fourth-year player who made starts
at both guard spots and H-back last season.

The 38-year-old Flutie has already excited teammates with his
ingenuity and improvisational skills, and if he can cut down on
the mistakes that have been typical of San Diego quarterbacks
(since 1997 the Chargers have thrown 54 touchdown passes and 109
interceptions), he'll gain even more favor. His upbeat approach
has been a welcome contrast to the dour attitude exhibited by his
predecessor, the banished Ryan Leaf.

"Our whole team was defined by Ryan," says strong safety Rodney
Harrison. "The first thing people would ask was whether he really
was that bad. That's not right when you have other guys working
hard and trying to win. With his departure, it feels like a black
cloud has been lifted."

On defense the Chargers upgraded a unit that ranked fourth in the
league last year against the run with the free-agent signings of
end Marcellus Wiley, linebacker John Holecek and cornerback Alex
Molden. End Raylee Johnson has looked good in camp after missing
all of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Still, San
Diego will need a break or two to contend in a talented AFC West.

"It feels like I've been saying for years that we have a breath
of fresh air around here, but it really seems that way now," says
Parker, who has been with the Chargers since 1994. "I think we're
moving in the right direction, and things can't get much worse.
When we get our offense together, we'll be fine. It's time for us
to hold up our end of the bargain."

--J.C.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Flutie is winning over his new teammates with some of his old tricks.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD BIGELOW/AURORA DWIGHT

ENEMY LINES
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Chargers

"They aren't as bad a team as their record showed last season,
mostly because they play good defense. Adding Marcellus Wiley
gives them two pass rushers [with Raylee Johnson] who can get
double-digit sacks, and their tackles, John Parella and Jamal
Williams, have nonstop motors....You still have to know where
Junior Seau is on every play if you want to beat them....Rodney
Harrison has a reputation for being dirty, but he's tough and
knows where he's supposed to be. I don't see any reason why
their defense shouldn't be as good as or better than last
year's....One of their best pickups could be Wade Richey. He had
13 touchbacks for the 49ers last year, and that's big for a team
trying to set up its defense with good field position....On
offense Doug Flutie is a leader and a playmaker, and I also like
Tim Dwight. He can give them a spark as a punt returner and a
third receiver....But they've got all kinds of question marks.
They don't have a stud receiver. Curtis Conway is supposed to be
their deep threat, but he's injury-prone. Jeff Graham is a real
pro, but he doesn't have a lot of speed. Once Freddie Jones gets
healthy, he'll be the star of the passing game....They've moved
Vaughn Parker from right to left tackle, replaced Kevin Gogan
with Kendyl Jacox and put Ed Ellis at right tackle, but he's
hurt....Injuries are killing their chances of having a strong
running game. I'd be feeling pretty queasy if I were [general
manager] John Butler."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 9 WASHINGTON
16 Open date
23 at Dallas
30 CINCINNATI
Oct. 7 at Cleveland
14 at New England
21 DENVER
28 BUFFALO
Nov. 4 KANSAS CITY
11 at Denver
18 at Oakland
25 ARIZONA
Dec. 2 at Seattle
9 at Philadelphia
15 OAKLAND (Sat.)
23 at Kansas City
30 SEATTLE

2001 Schedule Strength
NFL rank: 28 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 5

PROJECTED LINEUP
with 2000 statistics

COACH: Mike Riley; third season with San Diego (9-23 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 1-15 (fifth in AFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 31/18/28; defense 4/22/13

OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*

QB Doug Flutie[N] 45 231 att. 132 comp. 57.1% 1,700 yds.
8 TDs 3 int. 86.5 rtg.

RB LaDainian 16 369 att. 2,158 yds. 5.8 avg. 10 rec.
Tomlinson(R)[N] 40 yds. 4.0 avg. 22 TDs

RB Terrell Fletcher 237 116 att. 384 yds. 3.3 avg. 48 rec.
355 yds. 7.4 avg. 4 TDs

FB Fred McCrary 135 7 att. 8 yds. 1.1 avg. 18 rec.
141 yds. 7.8 avg. 2 TDs

RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

[PVR*]

WR Jeff Graham 131 55 rec. 907 yds. 4 TDs
WR Curtis Conway 185 53 rec. 712 yds. 5 TDs
WR Tim Dwight[N] 190 26 rec. 406 yds. 3 TDs
TE Freddie Jones 76 71 rec. 766 yds. 5 TDs
K Wade Richey[N] 246 43/45 XPs 15/22 FGs 88 pts.
PR Tim Dwight[N] 190 33 ret. 9.4 avg. 1 TD
KR Ronney Jenkins 348 67 ret. 22.9 avg. 1 TD

LT Vaughn Parker 6'3" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Kendyl Jacox 6'2" 330 lbs. 16 games 3 starts
C Roman Fortin 6'5" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG DeMingo Graham 6'3" 310 lbs. 14 games 1 start
RT Ed Ellis[N] 6'7" 325 lbs. 12 games 0 starts

DEFENSE

LE Marcellus Wiley[N] 65 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
LT Jamal Williams 52 tackles 1 sack
RT John Parrella 66 tackles 7 sacks
RE Raylee Johnson[1] 41 tackles 101 /2 sacks
OLB Gerald Dixon 62 tackles 5 sacks
MLB Orlando Ruff 71 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Junior Seau 122 tackles 3 1/2 sacks

CB Alex Molden[N] 33 tackles 3 int.
SS Rodney Harrison 126 tackles 6 int.
FS Rogers Beckett 48 tackles 1 int.
CB Ryan McNeil[N] 76 tackles 2 int.
P Darren Bennett 92 punts 46.2 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
[1]1999 Statistics

"You still have to know where Seau is on every play if you want
to beat them."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)