Chargers Stun Raiders; Take Division Lead

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

He stepped in front of the pass and ran, not as a man would run for his team or city, but as a man would only run for himself.

In an appropriate ending to an improbable month, with 18 seconds left in the life of the replacement Chargers Sunday, cornerback Elvis Patterson intercepted a pass from Raider quarterback Vince Evans and carried it 75 yards for a touchdown that gave the Chargers a stunning, 23-17 victory, which is good for first place in the AFC West.

The mercenaries who are no longer the Chargers and have never played in San Diego, finished as the AFC’s only unbeaten replacement team at 3-0.

To do it, they beat a Raiders team with 17 pre-strike roster players, including an entire starting defensive line. The replacement Chargers had three regular-roster players, and two didn’t play. When regular Raider Chris Bahr missed a potential game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt with 1:56 remaining, more than one Charger was laughing about justice.

They also beat the Raiders despite being outgained in total yardage, and losing 61 yards on sacks, and falling behind 17-10 in the middle of the fourth quarter.


And they beat them despite the fact that no San Diego team has ever defeated the Raiders in Los Angeles (0-5), and that fact that no San Diego team has gone 4-1 since 1980, or been in first place since 1981.

And this hero Patterson? When he played for the New York Giants the past two seasons, he was burned by pass receivers so many times, he was nicknamed ‘Toast.’ Now, in perhaps the cruelest of ironies, the replacements hand a 4-1 record to a city which, because all three games were on the road, never had a chance to see them in person.

“That’s the only thing I’m sorry didn’t happen,” said Chargers Coach Al Saunders. “Our fans in San Diego never got a chance to see these guys play.”

Their reward? It will come today at 3 p.m., when the regular Chargers, now off strike, return to Jack Murphy Stadium to take over their lockers. The club will be allowed to keep 85 players for a week, but only 45 can be activated for next Sunday’s game against Kansas City. That total number will then be reduced each week until just 45 remain.

“There’s 15-20 NFL caliber players on this team, we’ll just have to see,” said Steve Ortmayer, Charger director of football operations.

Oh yes, if the regular team somehow makes the playoffs, each replacement will get a half-share of the money.

“That’s OK, we’ve already got our reward,” said tackle Greg Feasel, who spent the afternoon blocking regular Raiders Howie Long and Greg Townsend. “What we did in the last three weeks, these guys will never forget.”

Particularly the ending. With the score tied 17-all, and the Raiders driving for a potential winning field goal, Patterson snuck up alongside receiver Mervyn Fernandez near the sidelines. He made a simple pick of a predictable pass. In front of a hushed Coliseum crowd of 23,541, he outran the Raiders, outran the referees, outran the fear that these replacement players will be forgotten.

“You always dream of those,” said Patterson, who was beaten by Raider receivers several times during the game, including once by Carl Aikens for a seven-yard touchdown pass in the second period.

Eighteen seconds later the game ended, and the Chargers calmly left the field. They marched to their locker room. The doors were closed.

And the team broke loose. They cheered. They howled. They beat on their chairs.

For this was a game not played for the rest of the world, even though it was on national television.

The game was not played for San Diego, not even for the Chargers. This game was for them.

“Coach Saunders called us together before the game, and told us, do it for ourselves ,” said quarterback Mike Kelley, who replaced Rick Neuheisel with 6:30 left in the third period and led the club back from a 17-10 deficit. “That’s what made this so special. We did it for us. We were fighting for us.”

A visibly exhausted Saunders, with even a few hairs out of place, shook his head.

“These guys didn’t believe they were replacements,” he said. “I’d like to take them all home with me, except my wife doesn’t have enough groceries.”

Saunders has already shot a replacement team photo. Don’t laugh, one day it will be worth some money. Saunders has also planned a replacement team party for tonight.

But what moved them most was, Sunday afternoon he gave each of them a game ball.

“This is such a class place,’ said Phillips, who was second on the Chargers with five tackles. “It’s a shame many of us won’t get a chance to go head to head against the regulars. But there are too many positives for us to complain about the strike. This is absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had playing football. This has already been worth it.”

Even before this game, in which the club was a heavy underdog, it had been worth it. Linebacker Mike Humiston said he had never been so excited. And he proved it. On the game’s first scrimmage play, with the Chargers on defense, Humiston forgot to come in, and left the team with just 10 men on the field.

“We kickoff, and I’m cheering our kickoff team, I’m so excited we have them deep in their territory (9-yard-line) . . . then I realize, geez, I’m supposed to be playing,” he said. “I’m lucky they had an incomplete pass.”

Said a smiling Ron Lynn, defensive coordinator: “I’ve heard of guys missing the second play of the game because of substitutions. But never the first.”

It was the start of an afternoon filled with Charger frustration and the fulfilling of prophecies of doom. For their first touchdown, on a Rick Neuheisel eight-yard scramble three-and-a-half minutes into the game, it took them seven plays to go eight yards. They recovered an L.A. fumble on the Raiders eight-yard-line, couldn’t score in four plays, recovered another L.A. fumble on the very next play, and scored four plays later.

On their next possession they covered 90 yards in 22 plays, using than 11 minutes, and still couldn’t score. Five minutes into the second quarter, after they had charged to the Raider four-yard line only to be sacked way back, Jeff Gaffney’s 36-yard field goal was blocked. “Typical Raider team, very tough in close,” Saunders said. “They are not a good team to face with a short field.

“I’m just glad on that interception, Elvis didn’t get tackled within the 10-yard line.”

In their remaining seven non-scoring possessions after those first two, they averaged four plays per possession.

In the meantime, the Raiders, who had tied it two minutes after the blocked field on an eight-play, 73-yard drive, took a halftime lead in devastating fashion. In 4 plays and 32 seconds, they drove 75 yards, thanks in part to a 29-yard pass from Evans to Ron Wheeler over the unattended middle. With one second left in the half, they scored on a 32-yard pass to Aikens that he caught only after cornerback Darrel Hopper, jumping in front of Aikens’ face, let the ball sail through his hands.

At the half, sensing a letdown, Patterson came up to several players in the locker room and promised to intercept a pass.

“They were throwing a lot of stuff at me, and I was getting tired of it, and I told my teammates that I would finally have to put a stop to it,” Patterson said. “I was just lucky it came at a good time.”

Patterson got his chance thanks to some other heroics by Kelley, who took over for Neuheisel in the third quarter with the Chargers stalled and the score 14-7.

On the first play of his second possession, Kelley completed a 67-yard pass to Calvin Muhammad, which eventually set up Gaffney’s 21-yard field goal. On the next possession, he found Al Williams for 57 yards en route to a five-play, 71-yard scoring drive. It was finished with a seven-yard touchdown to Williams in the corner of the end zone. That tied the score at 17-all and set up the ending, which Patterson thinks was the best final message the replacements could send to regulars.

“The regulars are going to feel good,” he said. “They are 4-1. What can they complain about?”

What did the regulars say about Sunday? “It’s a win,” said Gill Bryd, the alternate player representative. “That’s all I can say. It’s a win.”