Bobby Ross talked about that day in Houston 25 years ago with an inflection in his voice, the kind you’d use when remembering, say, your worst bout of food poisoning.
“Horrible,” he said. “We didn’t score a point.”
The 1992 San Diego Chargers had lost four games in a row, the most recent a 17-0 walloping against the Oilers, and the general feeling was the season was lost. But it wasn’t.
Thanks to a coach who kept believing, a locker room that didn’t crack and potential that finally became realized, those Chargers won 11 of their next 12 games, winning their division, advancing in the playoffs and building the greatest in-season turnaround in league history.
It’s a template no one in the NFL has been able to duplicate. And, it’s the only hope 0-4 teams such as the 2017 Chargers can cling to.
“It’s the 25th anniversary. Sounds like a good time to change that,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “You just start grasping for things to get fired up.”
It’s quite a grasp at that. No team other than the 1992 Chargers has been able to turn an 0-4 start into a playoff berth. And no one on that team — not Ross, not the players — thought they could be the first.
The hope was to stay competitive, to win football games and to begin building a culture that could lead to wins down the road.
In a lot of ways, the ’92 team’s season seemed like it was over before it began. Starting quarterback John Friesz injured his knee in the preseason and would miss the entire year. The team had to acquire a former sixth-round pick, Stan Humphries, who was backing up Mark Rypien in Washington.
And while he learned the offense, the team took plenty of lumps.
“We get into the season, lose four straight and I’m thinking, ‘Boy, this isn’t going too well.’ It was really … We weren’t doing too well,” Ross remembered. “And, obviously, a lot of people were really upset. What I tried to do was, first of all, stay real positive. I really did.”
But it wasn’t easy — especially when the team’s own play-by-play guy was getting his shots in.
On the Friday before the team’s game in Week 5, Ross met with the “Chargers Backers,” the team’s fan club, for a weekly 10-minute chalk talk. But before he could begin, Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, the team’s play-by-play voice, gave him a memorable introduction.
“Hacksaw introduced me as the director of the ‘Laurel and Hardy Show.’ I probably had smoke coming out of my nose when it happened,” Ross said. “But I didn’t let it rile me. I really tried to stay focused and move on.”
That was his message to his team as well.
Center Courtney Hall, one of the locker room leaders, remembered how Ross wouldn’t focus on the major errors that cost them big.
“We all knew we lost,” Hall said.
Instead, the focus would be on more minor details — incorrect fundamentals, a six-inch miss in lining up — all correctable errors. And he’d surround those plays with highlights.
“The way I did that was I would cut out good things in games and good things in practice. And then I tried to stress team unity and finish — full and complete effort,” he said. “I stressed them in a very positive way. If we had a fumble, I probably didn’t show it.
“I felt like we could get on track. But I didn’t know we could accomplish what we did.”
The Chargers, two days after Ross’ “Laurel and Hardy” introduction, beat the Seattle Seahawks. After a bye, they won their next three games, winning in Indianapolis and at home against Denver and the Colts.
“When we started 0-4, the locker room didn’t get divided. We weren’t pointing fingers. It just seemed like we weren’t getting the breaks. When you’re losing games, you don’t get the breaks. … The other games, we were right there,” receiver Anthony Miller said. “When we started turning it around, we were getting all the breaks. Everything was kind of just flowing our way. We just got on a roll.”
Their record now at .500, the Chargers were set to face Kansas City for a second time. As Ross walked into the locker room after the game, he saw the effects of an incredibly physical 16-14 loss where 250-pound running backs Marion Butts and Christian Okoye took turns crashing into the opposing defensive line.
The loss had snapped a four-game winning streak, but in the process, it told Ross that he had a special team on his hands — one that was maybe about to do something unprecedented. He saw the cuts and scrapes, the turf-stained uniforms and the exhaustion in his players.
It was the total effort he’d been after.
“I felt good because we really played hard. Kansas City, at that time, was a pretty darn good football team. … I thought the things that we were talking about and preaching about were starting to show. And I really think, to me, that was one of our big games,” Ross said. “I remember talking to them and telling them we’re going to be fine.
“From that point on, we just won them all.”
With Humphries now in full command of the offense, with Hall and the offensive line clearing a path for Butts, with Miller streaking down the field and with Junior Seau and Leslie O’Neal leading a dominant defense, the Chargers won their next seven games, setting up a rematch with the Chiefs in the AFC wild-card game.
The defense held the Chiefs scoreless, and the Chargers scored 16 unanswered points in the second half to put the team two wins away from the Super Bowl. But Miami and Dan Marino put an end to the run, beating them 31-0.
Two years later, the team beat Pittsburgh to win the AFC title for the first — and only — time, sending them to the Super Bowl, where they lost to San Francisco.
“I grew up in L.A. and went to Banning High School, and we were perennial L.A. City Champions,” Hall said. “From there, I went to Rice University, where my senior year we were 0-11 and then to the Chargers, where I’m on an 0-4 team that goes to the playoffs and wins a playoff game, to being the only team in Chargers history to go to the Super Bowl.
“Those were all experiences, but that 0-4 experience does hold a special place in my heart because it really taught me, in my life in business and venture capital, [getting] a JD and a MBA [degree], you really do have to keep your nose down and keep pounding away. Never lose confidence.”
A quarter-century later, Miller sees similarities between his Chargers team that made history and the winless one that plays the 0-4 Giants on Sunday.
“Hopefully, they’re a team, in the locker room, that’s not divided. You can easily start pointing fingers and certain things like that, but if they stick together, anything can happen,” Miller said. “And I think that team is just as talented as our team was.
“You can’t say this happens all the time. It really doesn’t — it happened once. But it’s not like it can’t happen again.”
Rookie running back Austin Ekeler, who scored a 35-yard touchdown on the first carry of his NFL career last Sunday, was already in line for a bigger workload against the Giants. Ekeler, though, should be an even bigger part of the offense with Melvin Gordon’s backup, Branden Oliver, ruled out because of a hamstring injury. The team also could sign running back Andre Williams from the practice squad. … Linebacker Jatavis Brown, the team’s leading tackler, was a limited participant Friday and is questionable for the game against New York. If Brown can’t play, linebacker Nick Dzubnar will start and call the defensive plays. … Wide receiver Tyrell Williams is listed as questionable on the injury report because of a neck injury, but coach Anthony Lynn expects him to play. … Starting right tackle Joe Barksdale is questionable because of a foot injury and, if he can’t go, Lynn said he’s comfortable with backup Michael Schofield.