Chargers' Defeat Is Not Much to Talk About : Big Mistakes Help Broncos to 12-0 Victory

Times Staff Writer

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 quarterback Mark Malone, who didn't play any better in the fourth period than starter Babe Laufenberg did 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 some day.

The loss dropped the Chargers' record to 2-3. The offensive confidence the Chargers had patiently built in their two previous games, both victories, dropped off the charts.

Yet after the game, there was this insistence from Charger Coach Al Saunders:

"This is not a setback today in any way."

Saunders was romanticizing, watching a different game or all of the above.

On the fifth play of the first period 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 and 29 seconds had ticked off the clock. Its final offensive total of 190 yards was its lowest of the year.

Its average yards per gain on rushing plays was 1.5 against a team that ranked 24th in the league against the rush. Its net yards rushing total was 20.

Worse, the Chargers converted only 2 of 10 third downs and made only 11 first downs.

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-quarter punt return; and you have what Denver running back Tony Dorsett called:

"A real ugly game."

"We can't worry about how we win," countered Denver Coach Dan Reeves.

"I really thought we were on the upswing," Laufenberg said. "But we just applied no pressure offensively."

Denver (2-3) has outscored the Chargers, 70-3, in the last three meetings between the two 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 left a crowd of 55,763 wondering how he had ever managed to convert from 30, 43, 30 and 28.

Actually, one 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 had scored 34 points on it three weeks ago in Denver, the Charger defense sacked Elway four 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," said Charger defensive end Lee Williams. "But you can't overemphasize your containment just because it's John Elway."

Instead the Chargers usually left one defender at "home" 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. During the week, 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," said Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "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 had gained more than 100 yards each of the past two weeks, wound up with 16 yards on 10 carries. In two games against Denver this year, he has rushed for 32 yards on 19 tries.

Laufenberg completed 11 of 21 passes for 104 yards and no interceptions. Malone was 7 of 14 for 82 with 1 interception.

"We just wanted to get a fresh set of legs and eyes," Saunders said, explaining the 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.

Malone and rookie wide receiver Quinn Early combined for a 29-yard completion after it didn't matter any more. And that tied for the game's longest offensive play.

More relevant was Elway's 29-yarder to Steve Sewell in the first quarter on third and 4 from the Charger 34 that set up Karlis' first field goal.

But Elway wasn't much better than Laufenberg or Malone. He completed 17 of 29 for 184 yards. And he had to delay his postgame press conference because he was feeling "woozy."

"Years ago it was not uncommon for defenses to win games," Mecklenburg said proudly. "It's about time."

Give the Charger defense even more credit for locker room tact in a situation where their effort was worthy of more than a 12-point loss.

"We're not going to point fingers," Williams said. "No way. I don't think the offense let us down."

A lot of other people do.

One week ago the Chargers were riding a two-game winning streak and savoring a share of first place in the AFC West. Now they trail Seattle, a team they beat, 17-6, two weeks ago, by a full game.

"It's still not a race we can't win," James said, utilizing the double negative.

It's just that against Denver Sunday the Chargers' negatives added up to much more than two.

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