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Chargers Aren’t Able to Explain Why They’re 1-3

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The bridge of his nose was swollen and blackened. His right nostril was packed with a bloody roll of cotton.

San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts looked as if he had been assaulted by heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson.

In reality, it was the forearm of Raider defensive lineman Bill Pickel that had rearranged the center of his face, leaving it slightly skewed to the left.

Fouts was in obvious discomfort and breathing with some difficulty Sunday afternoon after a 17-13 loss to the Raiders.

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Several coaches and teammates expressed surprise that Fouts had been able to perform after his nose was broken in the second quarter. If blood and guts counted, Fouts would have earned some sort of prize for his macho display.

The statistics sheet and the scoreboard were not so kind.

Fouts completed only 20 of 45 passes and was intercepted 3 times--elevating his total to 11 over four games. Worse, the Charger offense did its second half sleep-walking routine for the third straight game, spoiling what was a basically terrific effort by the San Diego defense that included three sacks by rookie Leslie O’Neal.

The Chargers thus emerged with a 1-3 record, and their prospects in the AFC West seem almost as ugly as their quarterback’s schnozz. They play at Seattle next Monday night, meet Denver at home, then travel to Kansas City.

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“What hurts so much is that we had the ability to win this game and didn’t,” tight end Kellen Winslow said. “We’re sputtering when we shouldn’t be. We have to figure it out real soon.”

Winslow said he couldn’t recall a time when Air Coryell had played so poorly for such a prolonged period. There have been times when Fouts was hurt and out of the lineup when the offense died, Winslow said, but never with No. 14 taking the snap from center.

Fouts probably has never played so long in such agony. He couldn’t remember a more painful day, and other Chargers seemed surprised he had been able to play at all.

“Dan is just such a tough son of a buck,” Coach Don Coryell said. “I figured he’d find a way to pull it out for us.”

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Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese was even more emphatic.

“Dan is absolutely the toughest guy you’ll ever find in a football uniform,” he said. “Most guys would have bailed out of there, but Dan stood in there the whole time.”

The Chargers left no room for challenging their quarterback’s courage. As to the cause of the general offensive malaise, there was considerable less certainty. Basically, there was a lot of fidgeting and reaching for answers that didn’t make much sense.

For instance, Zampese criticized the play selection--his own play selection. “I just did a poor job,” he said.

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It didn’t help that Gary Anderson’s availability was limited by a hip pointer, and Tim Spencer couldn’t play because of a knee injury. Zampese claimed there was still plenty of good stuff left in the offense--he just didn’t make the right calls.

Zampese’s excuse seemed pretty feeble to Fouts.

“I’d take his play-calling to the bank any day,” Fouts said.

Interceptions are part of the problem. Failure to convert on third down is another. Air Coryell didn’t get its name through this sort of bumbling.

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Assistant head coach Al Saunders was unable to provide a cogent explanation.

“We’re disappointed we can’t move the ball as consistently as we’re used to doing, but we can’t put our head in the sand and say it’s over,” Saunders said. “You certainly can’t point the finger at Dan. It’s a team thing, and we’ll get it corrected.

“We’ve played three of the toughest defenses in the league in a row (the New York Giants and Washington preceded the Raiders). We’ve got to generate some positive energy and get everybody believing again.”

Fouts wasn’t much more specific in pinpointing the difficulty.

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“We just had a lack of execution in critical situations,” he said. “We couldn’t sustain any drives. We thought we could go down and score. The effort was definitely there on our part.”

Zampese extended a compliment of sorts to the Raiders by noting that the Chargers were not exactly facing a high school defense.

“Our guys really believe they can score anytime,” Zampese said, brightening a bit. “Before the season, I’d have said it was impossible for us to have three straight games like this. But this offense is not unstoppable. Hell, no, it’s not unstoppable. That’s been proven now.”

The Charger defense, with the exception of the Redskin debacle, has proven itself quite capable of pressuring quarterbacks and taking some of the heat off a shaky secondary.

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The Chargers got to Raider quarterback Marc Wilson eight times, and had only two costly breakdowns in their coverage. That ratio will win many games.

“We’re making progress,” defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said. “It’s certainly a different feeling than a week ago (when the Chargers were beaten in the last two minutes).”

On the Raiders’ first touchdown, a 12-yard pass to Dokie Williams, the Charger defensive backfield was forced to cover for too long, according to Lynn.

Cornerback Wayne Davis, beaten on the play, claimed Williams didn’t catch the ball with both feet in bounds. “Dokie faked inside, then outside and ran to the back of the end zone,” Davis said. “I didn’t think it was a touchdown.”

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On the second touchdown, a 40-yard strike to Jessie Hester at the outset of the third quarter, the Chargers were in a three-deep zone.

“Hester got in a seam between Donald Brown and Gill Byrd, and we didn’t make a good break on the ball,” Lynn said.

Davis, who was subjected to criticism after last week’s game, felt vindicated by Sunday’s game.

“I’m not disappointed in today,” he said. “I can handle the pressure. Playing cornerback, you know the finger will be pointing at you. It’s like being on an island by yourself.”

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Except now, there is company for the Charger defense. And the finger is pointing squarely at Air Coryell.

“It seems Dan Fouts is in a minute slump,” Raider cornerback Lester Hayes said. “But he’s only human. He’s going to have a slump.”


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