The Chargers' version of a quarterback controversy was to be the keynote event of the season's exhibition finale Friday night. But the kicking game produced a couple of surprises and a wildly improbable ending.
A 17-yard field goal by barefoot linebacker Billy Ray Smith, with no time left on the clock, gave the Chargers a 21-20 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Eight seconds earlier, Smith had kicked a 34-yarder which was disallowed because of a technicality.
The Chargers were penalized 17 yards because Smith had tape on his shoe. A kicker is not allowed to have tape or any foreign substance on his foot.
It appeared the Chargers were doomed, but quarterback Mark Herrmann heaved a desperation pass to tight end Eric Sievers. New Orleans defensive back David Rackley was whistled for pass interference, and a barefoot Smith came back onto the field for his climactic moment.
"You guys didn't talk to me when I was a linebacker," Smith said. " . . . It was time for me to put up or shut up. I always thought there was more pressure when a 300-pound guard was coming your way rather than kicking a little football.
"This was the most fun I've had without getting banged up in a long time. The funny thing was, they didn't say anything (about the tape) after I missed (an earlier field goal)."
"Controversy" may be a bit strong for the quarterback situation, but there was a job to be settled in a duel between reserves Bruce Mathison and Herrmann.
No. 1 quarterback Dan Fouts watched in street clothes to protect a slightly pulled groin.
Herrmann, who had not played previously in the exhibition season, produced two touchdowns, while Mathison rallied from a dismal showing last weekend in a loss to San Francisco.
Coach Don Coryell declined to decide the outcome of their battle, but a judgment likely will be rendered by Tuesday, when the Chargers must trim their roster to 45 players for the start of the regular season. It's believed the Chargers will carry only two quarterbacks.
"I think Mathison played pretty well, better than in San Francisco," Coryell said. "Mark made something happen. It's going to be a tough decision. We have so many injuries, we'll have to see about possibly keeping both of them."
Easily the most surprising development of the humid evening came in the kicking department.
There was a missed 32-yard field goal attempt by Smith, the first of his pro career, plus a 45-yard punt by wide receiver Wes Chandler.
Smith and Chandler were utilized after rookie Ralf Mojsiejenko had some problems, suffering a slight groin strain, missing a 47-yard field goal and an extra point and having two PATs blocked.
Smith's kick came after the injury to Mojsiejenko, who was handling all the kicking because of a groin injury to Rolf Benirschke last week.
The comeback attempt by linebacker Shane Nelson suffered a possibly terminal setback when he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the first half.
Nelson, obtained by the Chargers from Buffalo in the off-season, had not played since 1981, when he sustained a serious knee injury.
Nelson had apparently recovered from the knee problems and was at one time considered a likely starter this season. But that was before an Achilles injury forced him to miss much of summer camp.
Nelson wasn't completely healed when he took the field Friday night in an attempt to impress the Charger coaching staff.
The Charger offense, which has been somnolent much of the preseason, continued at the same pace in the first half.
The Saints had grabbed a 10-0 lead before the Chargers managed a touchdown with only 18 seconds left in the half.
Earnest Jackson's one-yard run got the Chargers on the scoreboard, but Mojsiejenko's extra point was blocked by defensive end James Geathers.
A 26-yard pass from Mathison to Lionel James set up the score.
The Saints had scored on a short pass from Dave Wilson to Eric Martin, and added a 22-yard field goal by Morten Andersen.
Mathison, who was playing with a sprained finger he suffered in practice Wednesday, completed 8 of 12 throws for 73 yards, and was not intercepted. His passing was significantly improved over last Saturday, when he went for 10 for 29 against San Francisco.
Herrmann entered the lineup for his first action in exhibition at the outset of the second half.
On his first pass attempt, he was sacked for an 11-yard loss. But he came back with a 19-yard completion to Curtis Adams as the Chargers advanced into position for a 47-yard field goal try by Mojsiejenko, which failed.
A Bobby Hebert fumble gave the Chargers another opportunity, and this time Herrmann fired a 15-yard scoring pass to Anthony Steels to put San Diego ahead, 12-10. Mojsiejenko suffered his second blocked PAT by Geathers.
San Diego defensive end Earl Wilson stripped the ball from Hebert and gave Herrmann another scoring chance, which the Chargers converted with a 32-yard drive.
Steels ran one yard for the score to make it 18-10 as Mojsiejenko again missed the extra point.
A 30-yard punt return by Martin set up a fourth quarter New Orleans touchdown, scored by Wayne Wilson on a 1-yard run, which brought the Saints to within a point with 4:06 left.