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An Early Cushion Fails to Hold Up Chargers : Saints Overcome 14-0 Deficit in 23-17 Victory

The Chargers are losing players. They are losing patience. They are losing confidence.

They are losing games.

By the end of their latest defeat, a 23-17 exercise in lost momentum to the New Orleans Saints Sunday, starting quarterback Babe Laufenberg had lost his wind.

Laufenberg had taken two fourth-quarter shots to the ribs. And, he said, “I was having trouble breathing.”

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Moments earlier, the Chargers expired for the second week in a row.

Moments after that, Charger Coach Al Saunders was roaring and bellowing his frustration at the players in the locker room. “He was just sharing what we all felt,” defensive tackle Joe Phillips said. The noise carried through two thick metal doors and out into a small tunnel where reporters were waiting for an explanation of how Saunders’ team had just wasted a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

Actually, the Chargers’ latest bout with bad tidings had begun early last week when they lost their center, veteran Don Macek, to a shoulder injury. On Thursday, running back Gary Anderson, the team’s leading rusher, bruised a thigh. It wasn’t supposed to be serious. But Sunday morning, team doctors informed Saunders that Anderson couldn’t play.

“They weren’t sure what it was,” Saunders said.

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That left the Chargers with only one available offensive player, right guard Dennis McKnight, who started regularly in 1987. “We all basically came from the boneyard,” said Dan Rosado, the former free agent who replaced Macek.

And here were the New Orleans Saints, a team that arrived at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium with a 4-game winning streak, the second longest in the history of their franchise.

Yet here were the Chargers bolting out to a 7-0 lead 4 minutes into the game on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Laufenberg to rookie wide receiver Anthony Miller. It was a slant pattern in which Miller split the safety the way Charlie Joiner, now his receivers’ coach, used to do when he played the same position for the same team. It was also the Chargers’ longest play from scrimmage this year.

And then there was free safety Vencie Glenn coming clean between right guard and right tackle to block a Brian Hansen punt. Roy Bennett recovered in the end zone and the Chargers led, 14-0, with more than 9 minutes left in the first quarter.

It was a sad but clear case of too much too soon for the Chargers. Miller’s touchdown was the offense’s last of the day and only the sixth offensive touchdown of the season. The Chargers’ record dropped to 2-4. Their embarrassment at being outgained in all six of those grew.

New Orleans, meanwhile, is 5-1 and tied with the Rams for first place in the NFC West.

“We played with a great deal of intensity and emotion,” Saunders said. “But that isn’t enough. You have to execute and you have to execute when it counts.”

The New Orleans’ comeback started when Saint kicker Morten Andersen cashed a 27-yard field goal five minutes into the second period. Miller returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards, but an illegal block against Jeff Dale nullified it. Three plays later Curtis Adams, Anderson’s last-second replacement, burst up the middle for 12 yards to the Charger 38. But an illegal block by tight end Rod Bernstine brought the ball back to the 28.

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Laufenberg then threw an interception when tight end Arthur Cox tipped the ball into the hands of cornerback Van Jakes. After Andersen connected from 35 yards it was 14-6.

Before you could say “busted assignment,” Adams fumbled at the Charger 22. The call was a statue of liberty play. Adams didn’t realize he was supposed to get the ball. New Orleans defensive end James Geathers recovered at the 25.

Three plays later, Saint quarterback Bobby Hebert, who completed 22 of 36 passes for 236 yards, beat an all-out blitz and found Lonzell Hill in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown. The victimized cornerback was Gill Byrd. But it took a circus catch to beat him.

“I talked to Lynn Swann last week and he told me every catch he made he wanted it to make it on a highlight film,” Hill said. “I started to think about that.”

Five plays later, Saint cornerback Reggie Sutton ran right through Charger wide receiver Quinn Early chasing a deep sideline pass from Laufenberg. No interference. No points. Lots of boos. “The refs are human sometimes, too,” Early said.

Laufenberg finished with 7 completions in 20 attempts for 120 yards. He said the loss hurt more than his ribs but admitted there might be cartilage and ligament damage. Adams led all Charger rushers with 48 yards in 15 carries. Saint running back Dalton Hilliard’s game-high total was 56 yards in 17 tries.

New Orleans took its first lead when it marched 76 yards in 12 plays on the first possession of the second half. The touchdown came on a 10-yard pass from Hebert to wide receiver Eric Martin. Cornerback Bennett, starting in place of the injured Elvis Patterson, said the “safety help” was a little late arriving.

Charger Vince Abbott converted a 35-yard field goal in the third period. Andersen answered with a 34-yarder in the fourth period.

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The Saints entered the game ranked third in the league in time of possession. And they showed why. Against the Chargers, they controlled the ball for 39 minutes 37 seconds, including the last 4:19.

The Chargers had one final chance to regain possession with 1:38 to play when they stopped Hilliard at left tackle for an apparent no-gain on third and 1 at the New Orleans 44. But Hilliard bounced off several tacklers and wound up outside left end for 3 yards and a first down.

That prompted Charger defensive line coach Gunther Cunningham to slam his headphones to the sideline in disgust. And it left the rest of the Chargers to ponder how effective Hebert was and how much harder it will be next week in Miami against Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino.

“Hebert gets rid of the ball in a hurry,” Phillips said. “Marino’s even faster.”

The Chargers are in no hurry to lose again.

Charger Notes

The Chargers haven’t scored a touchdown in the second or third quarter of any game this year. . . . Sunday marked the first time in six starts this season that Charger quarterback Babe Laufenberg has completed his first two passes. . . . Temperature at game time was 95 degrees. It rose to 97 before the end of the first half. . . . The Saints, who entered the game ranked second in the league in third-down conversions (53.4%), were successful on 10 of 18. . . . The Chargers, who entered the game with the fewest first downs in the NFL (72 in 5 games), totaled 11. . . . The victory was the first in four tries for New Orleans over the Chargers. . . . Charger Ralf Mojsiejenko, the NFL’s leading punter, averaged 49.2 yards on 5 punts. . . . Playing full time for the first game since the season opener, Charger linebacker Billy Ray Smith had a game-high nine tackles, all solos.


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