A Kicky Finish : Shoeless Linebacker Billy Ray Smith Pinch-Kicks Field Goal as Chargers Save Their Best for Exhibition Finale

Times Staff Writer

The Chargers saved their best moment of the exhibition season for the last. And they hoped it was a portent of good things to come in the new season, which begins next Sunday in Buffalo.

In the 25-year history of the Chargers, there have been few sequences as strange as the final 10 seconds of Friday night's 21-20 win over the New Orleans Saints.

A 17-yard field goal by barefoot linebacker Billy Ray Smith, kicking in competition for the first time since high school, split the uprights with no time on the clock.

A 34-yard field goal by Smith had been disallowed only a few moments earlier because of a rare rule violation. The kicker had tape on his kicking shoe, which is illegal.

After a 17-yard penalty, the San Diego quarterback, Mark Herrmann, aimed a pass into the end zone, where tight end Eric Sievers was being covered by the Saints' David Rackley. The officials whistled Rackley for pass interference, and Smith, sans shoe and tape this time, came back for a second field goal.

"It goes to show you . . . anything can happen," Coach Don Coryell said. "If you keep working at it, something good will happen. This is a good omen for the season."

Smith, who earlier had suffered a painful hyperextended elbow, was the placekicker of the hour because of groin injuries to Rolf Benirschke and Ralf Mojsiejenko.

"Billy Ray likes to get out early . . . he thinks practicing is fun," Coryell said. "He practices kicking and catching passes. He's on the field all the time."

Special teams coach Marv Braden said he had worked with Smith in practice "in case of catastrophe. Confidence-wise, there's not a better prepared guy in the world. Ask people how they would like to be put in this spot, and 19 of 20 would say, 'Not me!' But Billy Ray is the first to say 'Try me!' "

It was a bizarre, but uplifting way to wrap up the exhibition season, which the Chargers ended with a 2-2 record, a lengthy list of wounded and the matter of the No. 2 quarterback still apparently unresolved.

Benirschke is expected to be ready to perform in the season opener, but Mojsiejenko is questionable. Coryell said Benirschke may have to handle kickoffs in addition to field goals, with Mojsiejenko limited to punts.

The linebacking corps suffered the loss of veteran Shane Nelson, who was attempting to come back from a three-year absence due to a knee injury. Nelson ruptured an Achilles tendon and is out for the year, which likely means his career is finished.

The offensive line, already thinned by injuries, suffered the loss of guard Bill Searcey with a bad knee, which will keep him out for a month.

The starters had to play virtually the entire game Friday, and they held up well, including 38-year-old Ed White, according to Coryell. Young Jerry Doerger, who has been slowed by a pulled hamstring and a broken hand, should be able to to go against Buffalo, providing a suggestion of depth. Tackle Jim Lachey, who suffered a concussion a week ago and didn't play Friday night, will be held out of contact this week but should be ready for the Buffalo game.

Wide receiver Jesse Bendross has tendinitis in his Achilles tendon and will be out indefinitely, according to Coryell.

Meanwhile, the No. 2 quarterback job remained up in the air as Coryell declined to comment Saturday because he had yet to confer with his assistants after reviewing films. Herrmann, who moved the team impressively in his first exhibition action, may have gained a slight edge on inexperienced Bruce Mathison, some observers speculated.

The Chargers beefed up their tight end corps by adding Chris Faulkner, who had been released by the Rams. His addition gives the Chargers the three tight ends they prefer to have while Kellen Winslow recuperates from a knee injury suffered last season.

Coryell seemed more than a little pleased with the progress of the defensive backfield in exhibition games. In particular he praised the development of cornerback Danny Walters, whose run support is markedly improved.

Rookie safety Jeff Dale was the secondary's leading hitter in the exhibition season, Coryell said.

Linebacker Derrie Nelson played well against New Orleans and made 13 hits as a special teams leader.

Veteran Woody Lowe, who was held out of the Saints game, will be back for the season opener, and Smith also should be able to perform, even with his injured elbow. His right foot, which now ranks as the team's not-so-secret weapon, probably won't be utilized again.

"Hopefully, we will not have to see him again," Benirschke said, mostly in jest. "And I know I am not going to hear the end of this, but you are never going to see me at linebacker."

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