It’s possible to survive the loss of a premier running back and prosper. Witness the Seattle Seahawks’ 12-4 record of 1984 after a knee injury to Curt Warner in the season opener.
The Chargers aren’t faced with having to replace a back of Warner’s eminence, but they were forced to hold auditions for a reserve back in the wake of a knee injury suffered Sunday by rookie Curtis Adams. He had beaten out last year’s leading rusher in the AFC, Earnest Jackson, who was traded last week to Philadelphia.
The Chargers, at the same time, were forced to search for a temporary replacement for placekicker Rolf Benirschke, who likely will miss a month with a groin strain. Benirschke and Adams were put on injured reserve Thursday.
The names of the running hopefuls who auditioned Wednesday aren’t going to dazzle anyone. They included Chris Brewer, who averaged 2.8 yards on 10 carries with Denver last year, and Anthony Corley, who averaged 4.9 yards on 18 carries as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Corley won the job and was signed Thursday.
The kicking prospects are veteran Bob Thomas, formerly with the Chicago Bears, and lesser-knowns Eddie Garcia and Dean Biasucci. As expected, Thomas was added to the roster Thursday.
The Chargers have withdrawn their contract offer to the runner of choice, Gary Anderson, who failed to respond to a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline mandated by owner Alex Spanos. Coach Don Coryell indicated Corley likely would be used only for spot duty and possibly on kick coverage in this week’s home opener against Seattle
Where does all this leave the San Diego ground game?
Offensive backfield coach Earnel Durden has been pondering the matter since Adams underwent surgery for cartilage damage Tuesday. The starters this week will be Tim Spencer and Anthony Steels, with Lionel James also in line for action as a runner and pass receiver.
The Chargers were more than a little excited about the development of Adams.
“He had the long, galloping strides of a Gale Sayers,” Durden said. “He ran like a young pony with an extra burst of speed you don’t find too often.
“To get a feel for what he meant to us, he almost broke two long runs on kickoff returns and almost made two long gains out of the backfield against Buffalo. We have no one right now who can replace him as that kind of threat.”
Durden said it was fortunate Adams suffered cartilage rather than ligament damage. He shouldn’t suffer any loss of speed with the cartilage repair, but a ligament injury could have cost him that extra burst that separates ordinary runners from outstanding ones.
The Chargers are counting on Spencer, signed during training camp after three successful seasons in the USFL, to add some punch to their running game.
“The ball is in his court now,” Durden said. “We’re going to find out just how good he is.”
Steels also is viewed as potentially a dangerous runner. “At first, I didn’t know if he was going to make our team,” Durden said, “but he made a lot of improvement in training camp, particularly as a blocker. He’ll put his head under your chin and really straighten you up.”
That’s precisely what the Chargers need to help safeguard quarterback Dan Fouts, whose wounds the last two years sometimes were inflicted when backs missed blocks.
James, the most versatile of the threesome, had been used more as a pass receiver this summer, but he has proven he can handle a half dozen or so carries a game without undue damage to his tiny frame (5-foot-6, 170 pounds).
The Chargers are still without the services of Buford McGee, who pulled a hamstring at the beginning of training camp and later was placed on injured reserve. He is practicing again, but he can’t be restored to the active list for three more games.
The Chargers aren’t likely to get any sympathy from Seattle’s Knox, who lost Warner in the season opener last year.
Warner is back now, as good as ever.
“I had my dark moments, like every other day,” Warner said, “but I feel I’m all the way back. When I’m running, I’m not thinking whether my leg will hold up. I’ve got the same mentality I had two years ago as a rookie, which is to move the ball upfield.”
Warner said he wouldn’t offer any advice to Charger tight end Kellen Winslow, who suffered a devastating knee injury last year and is still sidelined. “I’m sure he has gone through all that I did, and there’s nothing new I could say,” Warner said. “You can’t go by your emotions on one day. You have to look at your progress over a period of months.”
In his first regular season test, Warner gained 66 yards on 17 carries and scored the game-winning touchdown in Seattle’s 28-24 victory over Cincinnati Sunday.