THE RUNNNING GAME : Draft or Dorsett, Chargers Search for a Solution

Times Staff Writer

It is over now at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The dust has settled. The flames are banked. And the wreckage of the Chargers' late-season crash landing is tucked out of sight.

The team's executive offices are quiet. And explanations of how a team that won eight of its first nine games could lose all of its last six have been replaced by an emphasis on how to prevent it from happening again.

But it was no accident the Chargers started losing games the same time their rushing attack started losing ground. The computer that spits out the National Football League's weekly statistics figured it out right away. Steve Ortmayer, director of football operations, wasn't far behind. And by the time everybody this side of Encinitas had offered a theory, even Dallas Cowboy running back Tony Dorsett had come to the most logical conclusion . . . The Chargers can hide, but they can't run. "San Diego is a beautiful place," Dorsett said when asked if the Chargers were one of the West Coast teams he recently told the Cowboys he'd like to join. "I've always loved that area."

Ortmayer declined any direct response to Dorsett's comment, saying instead: "The Chargers remain committed to a strong running game even though it didn't surface this year."

The facts are these: The Chargers finished last in the AFC in rushing offense this season and last in the league in average carry per rush (3.3). Worse, they averaged a dismal 57 yards and less than three rushing first downs per game the last six weeks. That's a stark contrast to the first nine games during which they averaged 106 yards rushing and almost six rushing first downs per game.

Ortmayer's immediate attention is focused on the spate of upcoming college all-star games to be followed by the scouting combine workouts for the top 300 draft prospects in Indianapolis early next month. The early line is that 1988 will be an average draft year for running backs. Moreover, Ortmayer says, "Running back is a solid position here. I don't necessarily feel the backs are the problem in the running game."

Meanwhile, Tex Schramm, Cowboy general manager, says he hopes Dorsett, 33, will finish his career in Dallas. But he admits he's willing to accommodate Dorsett's wishes and has even offered to let Dorsett "work out" for any team interested in assuming the last two years of Dorsett's contract.

Ortmayer says specific remarks regarding a trade for Dorsett would constitute tampering. But, he adds, "we got a chance to look at Tony late in the season (against the Rams Monday Dec. 21) and it looked like he was in Tony Dorsett form."

The Chargers' most recent trade for a running back was last June when they acquired Barry Redden from the Rams in exchange for Buford McGee and undisclosed draft choices. Redden rushed 11 times for 36 yards in 1987. The Chargers had no running back listed among the top 20 rushers in the AFC's end-of-season statistics. Dorsett is the NFL's fourth-leading rusher and needs only 85 yards to pass retired Steeler Franco Harris, who had 12,120.

Dorsett has been unhappy ever since the Cowboys signed Herschel Walker last year and unsuccessfully tried to team the two in the same backfield. Several weeks ago he publicly said he wanted to be traded to a West Coast team. He hasn't changed his mind.

"There's what? Four teams on the West Coast?" Dorsett asked over the phone. "One of them is pretty loaded with backs. And that's not hard to figure out. But any of the other three is fine with me."

"Was he talking about us?" Ortmayer wanted to know when apprised of Dorsett's remark.

Actually, no. Dorsett doesn't have to be told the Raiders are loaded at running back with Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson. He doesn't have to be told to be diplomatic, either. Asked about the Chargers' backs, Dorsett said, "They have some good ones too."

Schramm said no NFL team has called recently about Dorsett's availability.

"I'll be 34 next year," Dorsett said. "But I'll be a unique 34. I'll be 34 and still on top of my game."

Maybe. Few people know Dorsett is actually 14 weeks older than Bear running back Walter Payton even though he has played two less seasons (11) than Payton. But most people who pay attention to the NFL know how fast Payton's skills eroded this year. Many of the best running backs lose their edge without warning. Dorsett's best season was in 1981, during which he ran for 1,646 yards.

But he finished the 1987 season with only 456 yards rushing in 130 carries and a 3.5 average per carry. It was almost 300 yards less than the least productive rushing year of his career. But the main reason for the drop-off was not injuries--Dorsett has never been hurt seriously. The problem was Walker. He gained 891 yards, the third-highest total in the NFC.

"Tony is a very, very unusual individual in that he still has the speed and quickness and has never been seriously injured," Schramm said. "Mostly it's the way he runs. He never exposes himself to a direct blow."

Dorsett has two years left on a contract that will pay him base salaries of $500,000 in 1988 and 1989. The Cowboys have funded 60 per cent of an annuity that will eventually pay Dorsett several million dollars over a period of years. And Schramm said any team acquiring Dorsett would assume responsibility for the rest of the annuity funding as well as the base salaries.

Ortmayer said the Chargers' commitment to improving the run will not be "be at the expense of the passing game." The Chargers finished eighth in the NFL in passing, counting replacement games. Their leading rusher in "regular" games was Curtis Adams, who gained 343 yards on 90 carries.

The Chargers' running game problem is not a new one. As long ago as 1979, close observers figured the Chargers would select a running back in the first round. Instead, they waited until the eighth round before selecting someone called Wilbert Haslip from Hawaii. Haslip had a bad knee and never made the team. Since then, James Brooks is the only running back they have selected on the first round.

The Chargers have the 15th pick in the draft next spring. Ortmayer said it's too early to tell how the team will use that selection. But he said he winced when Miami running back Melvin Bratton went down with a serious knee injury in the Hurricanes' national championship victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.

"We hear it's bad," Ortmayer said of the injury.

Dorsett said he hears the Chargers aren't bad even though they lost their last six games.

"They have some good people," he said. "If I get somewhere else (other than Dallas) I will bring some new life."

Charger Notes

Johnny Sanders, 65, a former Charger general manager, has officially retired. He served in that capacity with the team from 1976 to 1986. He spent 1987, the last year of his contract, as the team's assistant director of football operations under Steve Ortmayer. . . . This warning from Ortmayer to college seniors participating in upcoming all-star games: "These players can't possibly overestimate the importance of these games." In other words, the scouts are scrutinizing how the players perform both on and off the flield.

Undone By Run In the 28-team NFL over the past five seasons, the 1986 and 1987 Chargers had two of the seven worst rushing teams (yard per carry):

'86 patriots 2.93 '83 Buccaneers 3.16 '83 Chiefs 3.24 '87 Chargers 3.30 '87 Giants 3.31'84 Seahawks 3.32 '86 Chargers 3.35

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