Vertical stretch. That was the phrase Charger Coach Al Saunders repeated metronomically this summer whenever the subject turned to his 3 fast, young wide receivers--Anthony Miller, Quinn Early and Jamie Holland.
Miller was the 1988 No. 1 draft pick from Tennessee, with sprinter’s speed and the body control of a Soviet gymnast. Early was a third-round rookie from Iowa and former Big Ten long jump champion. He was a tad bigger than Miller, so the Chargers positioned him at flanker on the strong side.
Holland, Saunders said, was the team’s most improved player and ready to put a disappointing 1987 rookie season behind him. One of Holland’s best friends in college at Ohio State had been quarter-miler Butch Reynolds, who would later be disappointed with a silver medal in the 400 meters at Seoul.
“I saw Butch in May,” Holland said this week. “It was like, ‘OK, you’re gonna win the gold, come out and check out some of my games.’ ”
Holland paused. “Ain’t none of that happening.”
Miller, Early and Holland were going to light up the sky with their brilliance. Defensive backs were going to see vapor trails where their feet had once been. The Charger running game was going to benefit, too, from the “vertical stretch” on defenses caused by the collective speed of Miller, Early and Holland.
And the Chargers of 1988 were going to be a renewal in spirit of the team that won 8 of its first 9 games last year. Revisionist historians would quickly forget that the 1987 Chargers lost their last 6.
Ain’t none of that happening.
“The thing that we dramatically lack,” Saunders says, “is the ability to be a consistent passing team. The passing game has been the most frustrating thing of all, especially because we believe we have some people on the outside that, if we can get the ball in their hands on a consistent basis, would make some really big plays for us.”
The only vertical stretch that applies right now is the one you need to find the names of Miller, Early and Holland on the list of AFC pass-catching leaders. None are among the top 20 in either receptions or receiving yards.
Miller’s first NFL touchdown didn’t come until last week. Early, who leads the team with 16 receptions, admits he has been too hard on himself. And Holland has just plain been a mystery.
“Where is he?” Holland asks himself. “What happened? That’s the question. It’s like a ghost or something.”
Holland started ahead of wide receiver Miller at split end in the first two exhibition games. By the final two exhibitions, he was playing behind Miller, and he says the coaching staff never told him why. Still, he caught 8 passes for 268 yards and a remarkable 33.5 average during the preseason.
He caught 2 passes on consecutive plays in the fourth period of the Chargers’ regular season opener--a 24-13 loss to the Raiders in Los Angeles. One was for a 24-yard touchdown. He didn’t catch another ball until two weeks ago.
During the first 3 periods of the Raider loss, Holland sat on the bench. The next week, he didn’t play except on special teams in the Chargers’ 34-3 defeat at Denver. Against Seattle in Week 3, he got in for a couple of offensive plays.
He got in for more than half the game in the rematch against Denver. He only caught 1 pass. But, he said, “I played a lot. I was happy.”
Sunday against the Saints, he remembers participating in just 2 offensive plays. One of those was a 7-yard reception.
“I’m not sitting around bitching and saying I should be playing,” Holland says. To be sure, he has paid attention on special teams, where he is ninth on the team with 22 hits. But, Holland says, “My situation is hard. It is frustrating.”
He is not alone. The reason the Chargers are last in the league in both passing and total offense should not be laid directly at the swift feet of Miller, Early and Holland. With apologies to Hemingway, injuries and assorted other problems have turned the offensive line into a moveable famine. And the quarterbacks have struggled with the system of offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, who is new to the Chargers.
“If we are to improve in the passing game,” Early says, “there will have to be improvement by the whole team.”
Maybe the Charger coaching staff was unrealistic when it decided 2 rookies--Miller and Early--were mature enough to be first-year starters. Holland, who caught only 6 passes in 1987, would be their backup. The fourth wide receiver, Darren Flutie, is a rookie free agent.
Maybe it would have been nice to keep veteran Wes Chandler around for 1 more year instead of trading him to San Francisco in the offseason. For that matter, the Chargers probably wish Fred Quillan, the veteran interior offensive lineman they got for Chandler, hadn’t retired at the outset of training camp.
“The inexperience at wide receiver wouldn’t be that much of a problem if there was only 1 of them,” Saunders says. “But there are 4 of them, and that compounds the problem because each player has his own little idiosyncrasies to iron out. And they have to be on the same page with the quarterback in terms of the passing offense.”
These things don’t happen overnight. The Rams ranked 27th in the league in passing last year with a new offensive coordinator and a young quarterback. This year, Jim Everett ranks second among NFC quarterbacks. And, not surprisingly, the Rams’ running game is among the league’s best. Success in one area makes it harder for defenses to focus on another.
In 1984, Miami wide receiver Mark Duper caught 71 passes for 1,306 yards. His running mate, Mark Clayton, grabbed 73 for 1,389 and 18 touchdowns. Their quarterback, Dan Marino, threw for an NFL record 48 touchdowns that year.
By then, almost everybody had forgotten that Duper had played in only 2 games and caught 0 passes during his injury-plagued rookie year of 1982. Clayton joined the Dolphins 1 year later and caught just 6 passes in his rookie season.
“I don’t know if everybody expected us to come in and start bombing everybody,” Early says. “But we’re still a young team. And we’re trying to grow together.”
Both Everett and Marino inherited experienced offensive lines. Babe Laufenberg, the quarterback selected in August to throw to Miller, Early and Holland, did not have that luxury. Observers said it was just a matter of time before Laufenberg got hurt. And they were right. He injured his ribs Sunday against the Saints. Mark Malone will start against Marino and the Dolphins in Florida Sunday.
“Malone throws the ball a little quicker than Babe,” Holland says. “His experience tells him that as soon as the receiver gets there, you’ve got to get the ball to him right then.”
Miller says it will take a lot more than quarterbacks in musical chairs and the least productive passing offense in the league to fluster him. But, he adds, “You would always like to get on a team that throws the ball like Elway or something.”
Malone is a near dead-ringer facially for actor Tom Selleck. But nobody has ever confused his passing mechanics with those of Denver quarterback John Elway. Pressed for a description of Malone’s strengths earlier this week, Saunders came up with the word “serenity.” Norm Van Brocklin rolled over in his grave.
But Malone has no illusions about the responsibility receivers must bear in any offense.
“We have to be banging on all 11 cylinders,” he says.
And that means the receivers must catch the well-thrown balls and knock down the ones that threaten to become interceptions.
Miller didn’t do that on a long pass that Laufenberg underthrew in Denver 5 weeks ago. He realizes that now. Malone is thankful.
“As a quarterback,” Malone says, “if I know it’s tight, and I know my receiver is going to come back and do that, I’m going to throw the ball up there. Maybe he’s a little out of range. Or maybe I’ve got some heat, and I don’t know if I’m going to throw the perfect ball. But if I don’t, I don’t have to worry about it. As a quarterback, there’s a lot to be said for having confidence that a guy’s going to win on a route--that it’s either going to be our ball or nobody’s ball.”
The young Charger receivers also must continue to improve on the consistency of the depth of their pass routes and the consistency of their ability to read coverages.
“The consistency of their ability to be in the right spot at the right time,” Saunders says.
It isn’t easy. San Francisco’s Jerry Rice, who many think may turn out to be the greatest wide receiver of all time, started just 4 games and caught only 3 touchdown passes as a rookie in 1985. The next 2 years, he caught 37 touchdown passes.
“I feel OK,” Miller says of his progress. “But it isn’t like I’ve done a bunch of great things. The guys in the pros are a lot greater than the guys were in college.”
For his part, Holland doesn’t discourage easily. His friend, Butch Reynolds, didn’t win the Olympic gold medal in the 400 meters. And Holland’s year hasn’t worked out as planned either. The hard part is trying to figure out how to catch a pass while sitting on the bench.
“And as far as us being the vertical attack,” Early says, “I think that is something that will come with time. We had to start somewhere.”
The Chargers will leave today for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins in Miami. Game time Sunday is 1 p.m. PDT. . . . Running back Gary Anderson was at practice Saturday, but he wasn’t wearing pads. Anderson is questionable on the injury report with a sore leg. . . . Cornerback Elvis Patterson practiced in pads despite being listed on the injury report as questionable with a sore shoulder and chest. . . . Defensive end Leslie O’Neal participated in drills. And said Chargers’ Coach Al Saunders: “We have not ruled him out of this week’s game. But it’s not a probability.” O’Neal hasn’t played since 1986 because of a knee injury. He is currently on the Chargers’ reserve/physically unable to perform list.