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For $2.6 Million, Luther Can Be Bullish About the USFL : Former Charger Quarterback Gets His Chance to Start in Jacksonville

Times Staff Writer

The Chargers, who have lost their starting quarterback to injuries for significant portions of the past two seasons, lost their top reserve at that position on Monday when Ed Luther opted to join the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League.

Luther signed a four-year contract worth an estimated $2.6 million and immediately achieved what he had never been able to do in five years with the Chargers.

He became the No. 1 quarterback.

He also achieved something else that would have been unlikely in San Diego. Signing his contract in the office of Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold, Luther was presented the key to the city.

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What’s more, Luther pledged to donate $100 to charity for every touchdown pass he throws--and the good mayor vowed to match Luther dollar for dollar. The Bulls promptly followed suit.

Jacksonville Coach Lindy Infante said Brian Sipe, who was injured in the team’s season opener, will work with Luther to help him learn the Bulls’ offense, which Infante said was similar to the Chargers’. Luther is not expected to play until March 11, when the Bulls travel to Arizona.

“I think the transition will be real easy for him,” Infante said.

Luther had hungered for the chance to prove himself in San Diego and now, without donning pads, he has attained a measure of fame in north Florida.

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“Pride, commitment, spirit. To me that’s what it’s all about,” Luther said. “In San Diego, I knew no matter what I did I would never see the field. I wanted the opportunity to start and make a contribution.”

Said Luther’s agent, Leigh Steinberg: “It’s an uprooting experience for Ed to leave Southern California, but Jacksonville is a football-crazy area. Ed was ready for the fun and excitement of a starting job. He knew that no matter what level of performance he reached in San Diego, he would never beat out his friend, Dan Fouts, who is an immortal.”

It’s possible Luther might one day return to the Chargers, who still own his National Football League rights, but in the meantime they will have to make do with Bruce Mathison, a third-year pro with a strong arm, good mobility and utterly no experience.

Now Mathison will endure some of what was so frustrating for Luther: the necessity to be ready at all times, and be content to enter the game only when Fouts is hurt.

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Mathison, who was also a backup quarterback during his collegiate career at Nebraska, has thrown a total of five passes with three completions during his two seasons in San Diego. He hasn’t started a game anywhere since high school.

He isn’t a household name, as he readily admits.

“Not many people know me if they see me somewhere,” he said. “Only the real fans. Only the true nuts.”

Mathison, who is in equal measure humble and amiable, said his wife has already threatened to deflate his ego if she detects any change in his personality.

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The Chargers seem reasonably confident he will make an adequate fill-in for Fouts, who has imparted tips on throwing with touch and anticipation. Mathison said he needs work on staying in the pocket and reading defenses.

Assistant coach Ernie Zampese, one of the chief offensive strategists, said the Chargers probably will look for a third quarterback, either through a trade or in the draft.

“Bruce is bright and he can throw the ball, but you never really know about a guy until he plays in a game that counts,” Zampese said. “He has all the physical attributes, including a live arm, and he looks good in a workout atmosphere. One thing is sure: he will get a whole heck of a lot more work now.”

Zampese said he sees no reason why Fouts can’t be a superior quarterback for another five years, barring crippling injury.

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Luther must have agreed.

“We felt Ed did a fine job when Dan went down the last two years,” Zampese said, “but the reality is, this offense was built to match the abilities of Dan Fouts. We would have changed some things around if Ed had been the No. 1 man. We would have thrown more deep outs and play action passes to fit his abilities.

“But you can’t change things overnight in the middle of the year when the starter gets hurt. And we certainly felt Ed did a more than adequate job under the circumstances.”

They just didn’t feel he did well enough to merit a salary of $650,000, which is what he will receive from Jacksonville.

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Charger General Manager Johnny Sanders had tendered Luther more than one offer during the past six months and may have sweetened it a bit in talks last Saturday, shortly after Luther was contacted by Jacksonville.

But Charger Owner Alex Spanos had set a limit on what the team would give Luther, and there was never much question about what the 28-year-old quarterback would do.

“We are sorry to see Ed leave,” Spanos said, “but if a second-team quarterback can get an offer better than ours, he should take it. We made him an excellent offer.”

Sanders said Luther, who came to the Chargers as their first selection, but on the fourth round of the 1980 draft, told him he wanted to leave on good terms.

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“When we talked over the weekend, Ed told me, ‘Johnny, I only have one life and I want to play,’ ” Sanders said.

The Chargers apparently aren’t going to alter their draft outlook because of the defection of Luther.

Ron Nay, who last week was elevated to chief of scouting and will have a large say in the draft, doesn’t plan to step up the search for a quarterback.

“We will take the best player, regardless of position, at least in the early rounds,” he said. “This isn’t as good a year as two years ago, when Dan Marino and John Elway were in the draft, but there are a couple of decent guys available.

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“And who knows--that other league may fold and Ed Luther may be back here in July.”

That possibility also occurred to Steinberg, who said Luther would receive substantial compensation if the USFL went out of business.


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