What would you do if you were flat back on your back and a large, strange hostile man was stomping on your throat?
Charger defensive tackle Joe Phillips reacted violently Sunday afternoon late in the third quarter at Joe Robbie Stadium. And it may have cost his team a football game.
The Chargers were leading by 11 points in a game they would eventually lose, 31-28. They had just forced Miami quarterback Dan Marino into 3 consecutive incomplete passes at his 15.
In quarterback Mark Malone’s first start as a Charger, they had scored 4 offensive touchdowns in the first 3 periods, only 2 fewer than they had managed in their first 6 games. And the defense had welcomed the healthy return of defensive end Leslie O’Neal, who hadn’t played in 22 months after a knee injury.
But at that moment, Phillips was aware of Dolphin right guard Harry Galbreath playing a rather deadly game of footsie. Afterward, Phillips said he didn’t know it had been Galbreath. Nor was he aware of the reputation Galbreath has built this year as a kind of latter-day Conrad Dobler--a man who made a career of glorifying nasty football.
“All I remember,” Phillips said, “was somebody’s foot was in my throat. So I went after him. I guess my lower brain took over. I don’t remember what I did to the guy. They told me I punched him. When I came off the field the coaches asked me if it was worth it.”
Of course, it was not. Instead of punting from near the goal line, the Dolphins got a first down at the 30.
Not surprisingly, Galbreath’s version differed. But it was clear that Phillips had made Galbreath’s day. “He was rushing me on the play and I turned him and put him down,” Galbreath said. “He got mad and then I stepped on him.”
On purpose? “Not really,” Galbreath said.
Marino, who would end up with more than 300 yards passing for the first time this year, needed just 8 plays to drive the Dolphins 70 yards. Lorenzo Hampton’s 1-yard dive over left tackle drew Miami to within 4 points, 28-24.
Four plays later Charger running back Lionel James lost his second fumble of the half when Reyna Thompson knocked the ball loose and Don McNeal recovered at the Miami 41. This time Marino (26 of 45 for 329 yards) did it in 4 plays. The big gainer was a 51-yard completion to Mark Duper, who had beaten Charger cornerback Elvis Patterson badly.
When running back Troy Stradford raced around right end for 3 yards and a touchdown, the Dolphins had all the points necessary to secure their fourth victory and their third in a row. The Chargers, unable to get within field goal range in the last 11 minutes, dropped to 2-5.
Referee Tom Dooley told a designated pool reporter about Phillips’ penalty: “I saw No. 75 from San Diego advance in from the rear and he swung his arm around and hit the Miami player in the face. That is a 15-yard penalty from the previous spot.”
Said Ron Lynn, Charger defensive coordinator: “All penalties are dumb. And this was obviously at a very inopportune time.”
But according to Patterson, Phillips’ penalty wasn’t a coincidence. Like every other team that plays the Dolphins in Miami, the Chargers are acutely aware of Coach Don Shula’s reputation for intimidating officials here.
“You can see that for yourself,” said Patterson. “All I ever ask for is a fair deal.”
And, he insisted, the officials didn’t give him as much late in the fourth period when, he claimed, Duper grabbed him by the shoulder pads. Patterson grabbed back and received a pass interference penalty that prevented the Chargers from getting the ball again until only 34 seconds remained.
“I can honestly say today that the officials didn’t call it as they saw it,” Patterson said. The Chargers were penalized 8 times for 77 yards, Miami was penalized twice for 20 yards.
None of that matters now. The Chargers squandered a 14-0 lead at home against the Saints last week. This time they blew an 11-point lead with 15 minutes to play.
Worse for the Chargers, outside linebacker Billy Ray Smith injured a muscle on the same play Phillips swung at Galbreath. He left the game soon after that and didn’t return.
It was not immediately known how serious Smith’s injury is. Charger officials said it was different from the calf injury that kept him sidelined for much of the first 5 games.
But Malone, subbing for injured Babe Laufenberg, wound up with 25 completions in 38 attempts for 294 yards and spearheaded an offense that outgained the Dolphins, 396 yards to 375. It was the Chargers’ highest total of the year and the first time they has outproduced an opponent.
The Chargers entered the game ranked 28th in the league in total yardage and points scored. Gary Anderson, their leading rusher, was on the bench with a thigh injury. But they deployed 3 wide receivers at the outset and hustled 87 yards in 7 plays with the opening kickoff to score on a 15-yard fade pattern from Malone to rookie wide receiver Quinn Early.
The Dolphins answered with 6-yard touchdown pass from Marino to Duper late in the first period. And they went ahead, 10-7, midway through the second period on a 22-yard field goal by Fuad Reveiz.
But Malone scored on a 1-yard dive. And 4 plays after Leonard Coleman recovered a Stradford fumble, Malone spotted rookie Darren Flutie over the middle on an adjusted route for a 21-yard touchdown. That made it 21-10 at halftime.
The teams exchanged third-quarter touchdowns, Curtis Adams’ 1-yard run and Hampton’s 2-yard burst off right tackle. Hampton’s score was set up by James’ lost fumble of a Reggie Roby punt.
The news wasn’t all bad for the Chargers. O’Neal, for instance, played only on passing downs and finished with 1 tackle and no sacks. “I think I got better toward the end of the game. I felt pretty good,” he said.
“Maybe this was the beginning of something worthwhile,” offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome said.
Then again maybe it was just another kick in the throat.
“We’re a team that has been right on the brink for 3 weeks against good football teams,” Charger Coach Al Saunders said.
What the Chargers are on the brink of after 3 consecutive losses is not completely clear.