The only thing more painful than watching the Chargers on offense Sunday afternoon was listening to them talk about it afterward.
“It was mistakes that killed us,” right tackle David Richards said.
Great, big, egregious ones.
“It was terrible,” said Mark Malone, who wasn’t any better at quarterback in the fourth period than starter Babe Laufenberg was in the first three. “It was disastrous.”
“It was frustrating to have something like this happen,” Laufenberg said. “It was definitely a regression today.”
What happened was a 12-0 Charger loss to the Denver Broncos at San Diego-Jack Murphy Stadium in a game devoid of touchdowns, excitement, heroes, villains, controversy, and anything else you might want to tell your grandchildren about.
The loss dropped the Chargers to 2-3. The offensive confidence the Chargers patiently built in their two previous games, both victories, dropped off the charts.
Afterward, there was this post-game insistence from Charger Coach Al Saunders:
“This is not a setback today in any way.”
Saunders was either romanticizing or watching a different game. On the fifth play his punt returner, Lionel James, signaled for a fair catch and watched in horror as the ball sailed over his head, rolling dead at the Charger 6.
“I misjudged it,” James said.
The Chargers never recovered. Their next 9 offensive plays produced, in order, a 2-yard loss, a 2-yard loss, a 2-yard gain, a 2-yard gain, an incomplete pass, a 9-yard loss, a 2-yard loss, a 1-yard gain and a 4-yard gain.
The Charger offense didn’t cross midfield until 29 minutes 29 seconds ticked off the clock. It’s final total of 190 yards was its lowest of the year.
San Diego’s average gain on rushing plays was 1 1/2 yards against a team that ranked 24th in the league against the rush.
Throw in a 34-yard field-goal attempt by Charger kicker Vince Abbott that was blocked by Walt Bowyer. Add Bronco Pat Kelly’s block of a Ralf Mojsiejenko punt. And don’t forget the fumble that James coughed up on a fourth-period punt return and you have what Denver running back Tony Dorsett called “a real ugly game.”
Denver (2-3) has outscored the Chargers, 70-3, in the last 3 meetings between the teams.
Even Bronco kicker Rich Karlis, the only player on either team to score a point, was disgusted with himself.
“I blew an opportunity to have the best game of my career,” he said after misses from 37, 32 and 21 yards left a crowd of 55,763 wondering how he ever managed to convert from 30, 43, 30 and 28.
Actually, 1 would have been plenty. That’s because the Charger defense failed to score a touchdown. Lord knows it did everything else.
Playing against a team that scored 34 points against it three weeks ago in Denver, the Charger defense sacked Elway 4 times. (Denver’s first 4 opponents this year sacked Elway a total of 6 times.)
“A lot of teams are tentative with Elway because of his scrambling ability,” Charger defensive end Lee Williams said. “But you can’t overemphasize your containment just because it’s John Elway.
Instead the Chargers usually left one defender waiting at the line of scrimmage in case Elway scrambled. The others just turned loose. Williams finished with 3 sacks, his best total in 3 years.
But the Denver defense was better. Defensive coordinator Joe Collier decided Charger center Don Macek blocks much better against a nose guard than he does against a linebacker. So the Broncos didn’t play a nose guard across from Macek.
“That was the key to stopping their running game,” Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. “If he (Macek) can’t attack the nose guard, it messes up their blocking schemes. And since they’re very young, it makes it difficult to adjust.”
Charger running back Gary Anderson, who gained more than 100 yards each of the last two weeks, wound up with 16 yards in 10 carries. In 2 games against Denver this year he has rushed for 32 yards in 19 tries.
Laufenberg finished with 11 completions in 21 attempts for 104 yards. Malone was 7 of 14 for 82 with an interception.
“We just wanted to get a fresh set of legs and eyes,” Saunders said, explaining his quarterback switch. “I think we’ll find when we look at the films that Babe probably played pretty well.”
But Saunders stopped short of naming Laufenberg as his starter next Sunday at home against New Orleans. “That’s something we’ll have to evaluate as the week goes on,” he said.
Elway wasn’t much better than Laufenberg or Malone. He completed 17 of 29 for 184 yards. And he had to delay his post-game press conference because he was feeling “woozy.”
“Years ago it was not uncommon for defenses to win games,” Mecklenburg said. “It’s about time.”