The people of New York reacted almost smugly last week after Hurricane Gloria failed to deliver the punishment forecast by the experts at the weather bureau. The prevailing reaction seemed to be, why all the fuss?
After a different sort of natural disaster befell them Sunday, the Chargers were trying to put on the same brave face and pretend everything really was going to be OK.
The loss of quarterback Dan Fouts, who suffered a knee injury in a 21-7 defeat to the Cleveland Browns, was the overwhelming concern among players, coaches and staff officials.
The bravest--and probably the most forced--assessment came from Ron Nay, chief scout and top adviser to owner Alex Spanos.
“We lost a great player, but our season didn’t end today when Dan went down,” Nay said. “It’s not the end of the world. The first thing we have to do is erase that attitude.
“You can still win in pro football with defense, kicking and rushing, and Dan Fouts does none of those things. I hope we don’t think we have to throw for 300 yards to win a game.”
Now why would anyone think that?
The Chargers will be without Fouts for a minimum of three to six weeks, meaning they will have to win by doing things Nay prescribed, things they haven’t shown much affinity for this year.
Fouts suffered a tear of the medial collateral ligament in the right knee when hit on successive plays in the first quarter by Reggie Camp and Eddie Johnson.
He underwent a 15-minute arthroscopy Sunday evening and his knee was placed in a brace.
Team physician Dr. Gary Losse said he believed the damage was limited to the medial collateral ligament, but performed the brief operation to be sure.
Losse had feared a far more serious, but much less likely scenario involving the possibility of a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament. If such an injury had turned up, Fouts would have been out the rest of the year, Losse said.
“We will examine Dan after anesthesia has been given and then we will perform an arthroscopy,” Losse said shortly after the game. “If it goes as I expect and the anterior cruciate isn’t torn, the procedure should last no more than 30 or 45 minutes.”
As it turned out, his preliminary diagnosis was correct, and his estimate for the operation was a bit long. Still, those will be the longest 15 minutes the Chargers endure all year.
Despite the attempt by Nay and some players to carry on with a stiff upper lip, the reality is that the Chargers were 2-7 when Fouts was hurt in 1983 and 1984, and they were scoreless without him Sunday.
The Browns, overcoming a 7-0 lead, tied the game at halftime, then scored on their first two possessions of the second half. They were threatening to score again on their third and final series, reaching the San Diego 6 before graciously standing around as time expired.
The Charger defense, which has been the league’s worst this year, was unable to reverse a two-week trend that saw Seattle score on its first five series of the second half and Cincinnati on its first three.
It wasn’t defense, however, that beat the Chargers this time. True, the Cleveland defense, one of the tougher if unappreciated units in the league, was a factor, but nothing like the loss of Fouts.
In the season’s first three games, Fouts passed for 1,002 yards, an average of 334 per game. At that pace, he would have netted 5,344 yards for the year, breaking the record set last season by Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins.
“It was a very depressing loss,” Coach Don Coryell said. “Our defense played well enough to win, but we didn’t get enough offense together. It was a very disappointing thing.”
Much of the blame, inevitably, went to reserve quarterback Mark Herrmann, a journeyman who won the the No. 2 role in the second half of the final exhibition game, his only live action of the preseason.
“We didn’t use as much of the game plan as we would have with Dan,” said Herrmann, whose statistics (16 for 23, 178 yards, 2 interceptions) were not bad. “It’s tough to come in and duplicate his performance. It’s hard to be in top form when you haven’t had the work.
“I know people are expecting a lot of me, probably the same things they expect from Dan . . . and that’s difficult.”
Herrmann will be the designated starter until the Chargers bring in another quarterback who proves worthy of the job. The Chargers, who lost former backup Ed Luther to the USFL and haven’t completely eliminated trying to bring him back, have looked at several other quarterbacks and will put out a call for help today.
The Chargers lost Fouts on a blitz by Johnson, a play the Browns dubbed Ted Cover Five.
“We designed it this week,” Johnson said. “Bob Golic (the nose tackle) opened a hole and I rushed the A gap between center and guard. I was totally free. No one touched me.”
The Charger blocker who was supposed to pick up the blitz was tackle Sam Claphan. At least, Claphan assigned himself the blame for not stopping Johnson.
“No excuses, I just had a technique breakdown,” Claphan said. “I saw the guy hit Dan in the knee and I feel sad within. I’m the reason Dan is hurt.”
Several of the Browns, including Johnson, seemed almost as upset as Claphan.
“I hope the injury isn’t too serious because the NFL needs Dan Fouts,” Johnson said.
Coach Marty Schottenheimer spoke in the same vein.
“I certainly hope Fouts is OK,” he said. “I can’t tell you the admiration I have for Dan Fouts.”
Just what did it mean to lose Fouts?
“When he went down, it was like losing your sergeant in the army,” rookie offensive tackle Jim Lachey said. “We had to try to put it out of our minds and regroup.”
Veteran guard Ed White said the Chargers were not as emotionally high for Cleveland as they had been in recent weeks, thus the loss of Fouts wasn’t a major psychological blow.
“We just stayed at the emotional level we were at when the game began,” White said.
The Chargers, after flirting with trouble in the opening minute, realized their worst fear when Fouts was dumped.
Fouts remained in the game for one play before limping off the field. He clapped his hands in disgust as he reached the sidelines.
Fouts went to locker room for X-rays with 4:13 to play in the first quarter and the Chargers clinging to a 7-0 lead.
The Browns staged an early threat when Kevin Mack bolted 61 yards on the first play from scrimmage, but a fumble by Clarence Weathers at the 7-yard line aborted the drive.
Fouts, before leaving, strung together a 93-yard drive, with a 54-yard scoring pass to Jesse Bendross putting the Chargers ahead 7-0.
The Browns tied it late in the first half following an interception at the Charger 37 by Don Rogers. A 12-yard run on fourth down by quarterback Gary Danielson kept the short drive alive and set up a 10-yard run by Mack.
Cleveland went ahead, 14-7, in the third quarter, thanks mostly to a 48-yard reception by Weathers that preceded a 10-yard scoring toss to Earnest Byner.
The Browns put the game out of reach, at 21-7, when Mack caught an 11-yard scoring pass from Danielson early in the fourth quarter.
In recent weeks, a two-touchdown deficit would have been almost meaningless, but that was before Fouts went down. The offense didn’t really come close to scoring Sunday following his injury.
In the second period, the Chargers got close enough for a 31-yard field goal try by Bob Thomas, which failed, and advanced to the Cleveland 35 before a Johnson interception stopped them in the final period.
With a trip to Seattle scheduled this week, the Chargers have to hope some of Nay’s gritty optimism rubs off.
“We have players who have to provide the leadership and toughness we lacked today,” Nay said. “We know we’re not going to get another quarterback as good as Dan Fouts, but my feeling is we have 44 others who can win.”
The Chargers would have preferred not to test that theory.