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Analysis : Fouts Says He Isn’t Throwing in Towel, Yet

Times Staff Writer

For 15 years, Charger quarterback Dan Fouts has been the heart of an offense on a team with a defense that rarely scared a soul.

That defense, thanks in large measure to the balanced perspective of Coach Al Saunders, has slowly gotten better. Meanwhile, Fouts, 36, has bravely but slowly gotten older. His body doesn’t bounce back the way it once did; his arm doesn’t have as many fresh “throws” in it each week--the way it once did.

But right now he’s still the best the Chargers have. And right now, Fouts’ immediate future is still the immediate future of the team. The quarterback position has always been that important in the NFL.

“I’d like to play again,” Fouts said when reached by phone at his Rancho Sante Fe home late last week. He had just gotten off the golf course and was on his way to pick up his kids. “But to be honest with you, I haven’t been thinking about football much lately.”

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The Chargers have been thinking about him. A lot.

It’s been just two months since they lost their last six games to finish a bitterly disappointing 8-7. And there really hasn’t been enough time to assess Fouts’ rehabilitation from a rotator cuff injury that forced him to end the season on the bench.

“It wasn’t as severe as everybody was led to believe it was,” Fouts says. Surgery was not deemed necessary.

But it is also less than two months to the NFL draft. And if Fouts’ future turns out to be with another team or in the broadcast booth, the Chargers would like to know before they begin the final process of identifying their needs for 1988.

Fouts has one year remaining on a guaranteed contract that will pay him a reported $750,000 in base salary. Relations between him and owner Alex Spanos have been strained since a messy and very public dispute arose over Spanos’ reported offer last summer to pay Fouts $250,000 more than his 1987 base salary in exchange for terminating his contract a year early.

Last week, Spanos did not return several phone calls from The Times. And on the record, club officials aren’t saying much about where Fouts will fit in 1988. But parts of their versions of recent discussions with Fouts differ from his version.

Steve Ortmayer, Chargers director of football operations, said Saunders and Fouts have talked “several times” since the end of the season. Ortmayer said he and Fouts have talked once.

“It’s a matter of us evaluating our future with him and him evaluating his future with us,” Ortmayer said. “We’re still kicking it around, and Dan’s still kicking it around.”

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Fouts said he and Ortmayer have not talked since the end of the season. And he said he and Saunders have talked just once.

“They (Saunders and Fouts) are headed in a particular area, although I’m not sure what that area is,” Ortmayer said.

Said Saunders: “We haven’t set any timetable. As we get closer to the draft, we’ll decide what direction we have to go in.”

Team sources say the Chargers wouldn’t protest if Fouts announced his retirement. Fouts would be crazy to throw away the guaranteed $750,000 the Chargers will owe him if he doesn’t retire. But sources say a financial accommodation could be worked out between Spanos and Fouts’ hard-line agent, Howard Slusher. One team source said a partial accommodation may already have been reached.

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It’s not that the Chargers haven’t appreciated Fouts’ contributions. But his departure would enable them to get on with the business of building a more versatile offense around a younger, more durable quarterback capable of executing the sprint-out features of the “dash” series Jerry Rhome, the new offensive coordinator, almost certainly will emphasize. That’s assuming the suddenly popular Rhome doesn’t become the Raiders’ next head coach.

If Fouts retired, the team could then throw a press conference where everyone could praise him. Lord knows he deserves it. Then they could announce a date for “Dan Fouts Day,” so all of San Diego could make plans to pay tribute to the quarterback who has thrown 254 touchdown passes, amassed 51 300-yard games and holds 34 club and 7 NFL records.

Asked point-blank if he plans to retire before training camp in July, Fouts fenced. “Give me some odds,” he parried.

Asked if there was a “strong chance” he will retire, Fouts said, “That changes the odds.”

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Asked if a retirement announcement is “imminent,” Fouts said, “I guess I can say it isn’t. I would still like to play some more.”

How much more?

One year at a time? One week at a time? One day at a time.

“I’ve narrowed it down to one play at a time,” Fouts said, laughing. But he added, “I’ve played a long time, fortunately without surgery. That’s a plus.”

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Opponents sacked Fouts 12 times in his final three games last year. He has been banged up a lot. But compared to Chicago’s Jim McMahon’s, Minnesota’s Tommy Kramer and several other front-line quarterbacks, Fouts has missed relatively few games over the years. In the past five seasons, he has missed 18 starts. The Chargers have only won four of those games.

Speaking of play-by-play, Fouts says it’s “no secret” he wants to follow his father’s footsteps into sports broadcasting after he finishes playing. ESPN was particularly impressed with Fouts’ on-camera work before the Super Bowl. Fouts also says he wants to continue strengthening his local investment business.

But full-time attention to either will have to wait. By all accounts, money is not a problem. “He has as much money as he’ll ever need,” one team official said.

“Very few circumstances cause me to do anything,” Fout said. “I’m pretty much going to do what I want to do.”

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It runs in the family. Bob Fouts, Dan’s father, once told the story of Dan’s late grandmother, Matilda Fouts. Matilda Fouts lived until she was 88 and was mowing her lawn and cleaning the gutters at her home until the day she died. “Retirement” for her was just a euphemism for the four-letter word--Q-U-I-T.

Failing the retirement option, team sources say the Chargers wouldn’t protest if Fouts agreed that his future is not with a rebuilding team like the Chargers.

If, for instance, San Francisco decides Steve Young is the quarterback of its future, the 49ers will have to move Joe Montana. Montana is five years younger than Fouts, more mobile and less likely to settle for being a backup. Fouts, on the other hand, knows and likes 49er Coach Bill Walsh. The 49ers would afford him a chance of getting a Super Bowl ring, and they wouldn’t blanch at his salary.

The Rams also are a possibility. Offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese and Fouts still are close. Zampese held the same post with the Chargers as recently as 1986. The penurious Rams would be less likely to assume Fouts’ large salary.

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But both the 49ers and the Rams are close enough geographically to enable Fouts to reasonably monitor his family commitments and local business interests.

Would Fouts play in San Francisco (where he attended high school), Anaheim or elsewhere?

“I’d rather not deal with hypotheticals,” he said.

San Francisco sources say it’s unlikely Montana will play elsewhere next season. So there’s little likelihood Fouts will end up there. And there’s even less chance Montana could come to San Diego in a package exchange for Fouts--although it’s a rather delicious prospect to ponder. But there are several other NFL teams with two-quarterback problems--situations where the non-starter is good enough to be unhappy and smart enough to know there are other NFL teams that can use him.

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The 49ers have Young and Montana. The Vikings have Kramer and Wade Wilson. New England has Tony Eason and Steve Grogan. The Bucs have Steve DeBerg and Vinny Testaverde. Mark Malone is on the trade block in Pittsburgh. Canada’s Roy DeWalt is a remote possibility.

Saunders has liked Eason ever since Eason was a little-known overachiever at American River College in Sacramento. But the Patriots have given the Chargers no indication that Eason is not the quarterback of their future.

The Chargers currently have Mark Vlasic and Mark Herrmann to go with Fouts. Despite occasional flashes, Herrmann has done nothing to prove he will be anything more than a backup over the long haul. Vlasic’s longest completion in the NFL to date is seven yards. But he was just a rookie out of Iowa last year.

The Chargers’ worst nightmare would be finding themselves in a position where they have to waive Fouts. It would be a public relations black eye and more evidence on Fouts’ side that the team hasn’t been as good to him in the last year as he has to them in the last 15. It’s also Fouts’ hole card at the moment.

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“I’m not trying to forget you anymore,” are the words singer Willie Nelson croons balefully in the background of Fouts’ home-answering machine message. Adds Fouts on the same message: “I promise I won’t forget.”


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