The San Diego Chargers have gone nearly 55 minutes without scoring.
This is a team that had scored 79 points in its previous two games, averaged 31 in its first three games and scored a touchdown early in the first quarter Sunday against Cleveland.
With quarterback Dan Fouts at the helm, the Chargers are explosive and exciting. The question was who would score, not whether they would score.
That was true until the one play that backup quarterback Mark Herrmann said he hoped would not occur.
“There was always the chance Dan would go down,” Herrmann said, “and I knew I was only one play away from playing.”
The worst fear of Charger fans, players and coaches was realized when Fouts was helped from the field midway through the first quarter of San Diego’s 21-7 loss to the Browns. Fouts was 5 of 8 for 82 yards and had already completed a 54-yard touchdown pass to Jesse Bendross.
About an hour after Fouts was injured, it was announced that he would undergo arthroscopic surgery Sunday night on his right knee.
By the time of the announcement, the once unstoppable Chargers were already being stopped.
“They are an entirely different offensive team without Dan Fouts,” Brown linebacker Eddie Johnson said. “Fouts releases the ball relatively quickly and drops back quicker than Herrmann. Without Fouts, their linemen have to adjust and block longer.”
The Chargers did adjust, but they didn’t score.
“Sustaining a good drive was the toughest thing,” Herrmann said. “It’s tough seeing things when you haven’t had a lot of game experience. I need to find guys who are open. I didn’t get the ball in the end zone and that’s the name of the game.”
Herrmann did complete 16 of 23 passes for 178 yards, but statistics can be deceiving. Herrmann was erratic, intercepted twice, sacked six times and was only able to generate two drives.
One resulted in Bob Thomas missing a 31-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter.
Then, with the Browns leading 21-7 midway through the final quarter, Herrmann drove the Chargers to the Cleveland 26-yard line.
After being sacked for a loss of nine yards, Herrmann was intercepted by Johnson on a pass intended for Charlie Joiner.
“He has to learn the receivers now,” Joiner said. “With Mark in there, we moved the ball in spots, but couldn’t come up with the big crucial play.”
The Chargers simplified their offense when Herrmann replaced Fouts, but they couldn’t instantaneously give Herrmann more experience and confidence.
“When he came in, we knew we had to go extra hard to give Mark confidence to do the job,” offensive tackle Jim Lachey said. “The offensive line got together and talked about how we had to also give him more time to throw.”
Said Joiner: “When you lose Dan, you also lose a lot of leadership. You have to replace that with more than one person, more than one veteran.”
That is particularly true when the one person, Herrmann in this case, is not a veteran and had played barely more than a half for the Chargers.
The five-year pro from Purdue, acquired by San Diego in an off-season trade with Indianapolis, did not even make the team until the final half of the last preseason game against New Orleans.
Against the Saints, he completed 10 of 19 passes for 134 yards and 1 touchdown in his only preseason appearance. It appeared that Bruce Mathison would be the team’s backup quarterback, but Mathison’s lack of success in three preseason games gave Herrmann a chance to show what he could do.
“That was really pressure,” Herrmann said of the New Orleans game.”
Since the game against New Orleans, Herrmann had appeared in only one game. He completed 5 of 6 passes for 78 yards in the last two minutes of the Chargers’ 49-35 loss to Seattle.
In addition, Herrmann spends most of the week running the opponents’ plays in practice. This past week, he practiced with the Charger offense more than usual because Fouts was nursing a groin injury and did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday.
“It would have been nice to be in there more,” Herrmann said, “but I don’t know if that’s the reason things didn’t go better today. The main thing is to pick up and go on. I can’t sit and dwell on it.”
That is exactly the attitude his coaches and teammates are hoping he’ll take. As of now, he is their starting quarterback.
“Our game plan is geared to Dan,” director of scouting Ron Nay said, “and I don’t think it’s fair to judge Mark off what he did today.”
Herrmann’s next test will come on Sunday in Seattle. That’s when he will try to break the Chargers’ 54-minute, 32-second scoring drought.