Sunday afternoon in Seattle, the Chargers will begin an effort to piece back together a season that started with a series of contractual and personnel setbacks in training camp and now is laboring under a 4-game losing streak.
Injuries, paucity of talent, lack of depth, painfully inopportune penalties and a failure by the defense to create turnovers are just a few of the reasons the Chargers are 2-6 halfway through the 1988 schedule. Attendance at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium reached a 5-year low Sunday in the team’s 16-0 loss to Indianapolis. The Colts were the second team this year to shut out the Chargers at home.
Alex Spanos, the owner, has said he is disappointed. Al Saunders, the coach, has said the Chargers must do better.
Ultimately, the man responsible for removing Spanos’ disappointment and providing Saunders with the ability to improve is Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers’ director of football operations. Ortmayer’s tenure with the Chargers will reach 2 years in January.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, Ortmayer discussed his assessment of Saunders, the alarming attendance drop-off, UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, front office philosophy, how Chip Banks “chose to let us down,” the Chargers’ aims in the 1989 draft and when Ortmayer second-guesses himself.
Question: Disappointments so far this year?
Answer: Obviously, our No. 1 disappointment so far is our record. And I think it’s disappointing not in light of what the cold, hard facts were and not what the projections were, but it’s disappointing in light of the fact that, over the course of the first 8 weeks, with a bounce here or a break there, this thing could very easily be 4-4, if not better. And in this year of a down cycle in the AFC West, 4-4 puts you right in the midst of it.
I would say the next most disappointing thing at this point is that we lost a number of talented young players right off the bat--guys we felt were going to come along during the course of 1988 and solidify holes that we had coming in. And I’m talking about guys like (rookie linebacker) Cedric Figaro, a guy like (tackle) John Clay; a couple of young offensive linemen like Joey Howard and Stacy Searels (both rookies).
Third, and perhaps the major factor in disappointment to us, is the fact that (free agent linebacker) Chip Banks chose to let us down and (linebacker) Billy Ray Smith was injured for an extended period of time. So two of the guys that we built our defense around a year ago, all of a sudden, we didn’t have for an extended period of time.
Q: Pleasant surprises?
A: I think you can count the approach to the game that this team has chosen to take as a pleasant surprise--the ability that Al Saunders has maintained to keep the concentration headed in an upward direction. That’s where teams go wrong when the records become 2-5 and 2-6. They lose concentration. This team has not lost concentration, and that is a tribute to Al and the coaching staff. At the present time, we don’t have a 30-year-old on the football team. And things can go in any-which direction if you don’t have strong guidance.
Additional pleasant surprises have been the definite inclination to a stronger running game that we have been able to coordinate over 8 weeks. We have a very good per-carry average (4.7). And if it ever gets to the point where we can get a complete rhythm back from the standpoint of our defense and our special teams, then I think this running game will become more and more effective as the year goes on.
Also, I think we’ve gotten big plays from some unexpected people on defense. Gill Byrd (cornerback), Vencie Glenn (safety), Lee Williams (defensive end) and Joe Phillips (defensive tackle) in particular have made significant individual strides as players.
The thing that’s been a chink in our armor defensively is that we haven’t been able to make the big play to turn the football over and establish field position for our offense. We’ve put too much pressure on the offense to move the ball too far, too often.
Q: You mentioned Saunders among the positives. Yet there is a perception in certain quarters that you and Saunders are not on the same page. Is that a legitimate perception?
A: I don’t believe it is. We work together in a number of different areas to put this thing together. And we continue to do so. And we see very much the same perspective on many, many things.
I don’t think you’re ever going to have two people who agree completely on everything. And I don’t think that would be extremely healthy if we did because there is no one way to skin a cat. But I certainly have respect for his input, and I think that feeling is mutual.
Q: Do you believe in creative tension in an organization?
A: I think creative tension is all right as long as it’s not deceptive. I believe in creative tension among players. I don’t have a problem with creative tension among coaches and players. I am least fond of creative tension among management and players. I don’t think that’s very often constructive.
I was on a team (assistant coach with the Raiders) where there was creative tension in virtually every aspect of life--media vs. players, players vs. coaches, players vs. players. But there never was creative tension between the players and the front office. And I couldn’t ever see how that could be productive.
Q: Is there creative tension in the Charger organization?
Q: Is it channeled in a positive direction?
A: I think so.
Q: On the Banks holdout situation, are we at a point yet with him where you are willing to say he has no future with the Chargers?
A: I wouldn’t say that.
Q: Banks was arrested this month in Atlanta and charged with possession of marijuana and cocaine. Where does that stand?
A: I don’t know. Chip Banks has indicated to us that he can take care of his own affairs, and he has chosen to be scarce around here. We’re just assuming that he knows what he’s doing.
Q: Now that you’ve had 8 games to evaluate, what are the needs of your football team now and in the next draft?
A: No. 1 right now, we need an ability to play together--to get playing time together with the same people on the field so that injuries don’t create problems for us. We need to develop a mental toughness that we’re going to do whatever it takes to win. We have not developed that at this point.
We’ve had games on three successive weekends (23-17 loss to Saints, 31-28 loss to Dolphins and 16-0 loss to Colts in Weeks 6, 7 and 8) that have been well within our grasp that we have not grabbed by the throat and made the count go our way.
We have to realize collectively as a team that we have paid a price, and if it’s a big enough price, then we’re not going to let these things get away from us.
In the area of personnel, we still have needs from big-play people defensively who can stop a drive, people who can turn the football over.
Offensively, we’ve been hit tremendously by injuries in the offensive line--an offensive line that was already short on continuity if not experience. We have a need for people to be able to come up with the big play on third down to keep a drive going, whether that be a quarterback, a receiver or a runner.
We have a need as an organization to intensify the recognition that this game, this season and the future of this club is in our hands and that we have to dominate our circumstance and accept nothing until we get the job done.
Q: If you finish with the worst record in the NFL, would you select UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman with the first pick of the 1989 draft?
A: I think at this point in time there’s still some question. He hasn’t completed his senior season. There’s a lot of things that could happen. And there are some other good players. On Oct. 26 I don’t think Aikman’s the clear-cut guy right now. Maybe by Nov. 26, he will be, for us.
Q: If you wind up with a first-round pick in the 5-15 range, would you consider dealing up for Aikman?
Q: Could it be done?
A: Yes, I think it could be done. And I think if that’s the direction we chose to go, we have enough firepower to get in that kind of a hunt.
Q: When you say “firepower,” are you talking about players on your team now or future draft choices?
A: I think you have to make determinations of what it takes and then make a decision as to whether or not you’re willing to pull the trigger. You use all of your resources. You can bet that if we draft high, we will take a player that puts explosion and big-play potential on this team.
Q: Last Sunday’s crowd (37,722) was the smallest since Alex Spanos purchased the team. What message are the fans sending? What’s your reaction?
A: I think that crowd was influenced by as many as 7,000-10,000 people by what went on in Miami the week before. And, for some reason, Indianapolis has never been an attractive team here.
You can bet that the Raider crowd (Nov. 6) will be a much more significant crowd. And yet I do believe that if we had beaten Miami, the Indianapolis crowd would have been significantly larger.
Q: If a fan comes up to you and asks why he should pay $23 to see your football team, what do you tell him?
A: This team is not unlike where the Chargers were in the mid-'70s. There are a number of young stars on this football team. There are a number of guys who are going to be around for a long, long time, create an awful lot of big plays and put this team back on the map.
For me, it would be a thrill to watch these young guys get started, come along and see where they’re going to be from year to year. But I don’t believe that you buy a ticket just to watch the young players on the San Diego Chargers. I believe you buy a ticket to see a great player like Eric Dickerson or a great player like Marcus Allen or a great player like Roger Craig or Joe Montana.
And I believe that at least part of the ticket price is to watch the stars from other cities come in here and do their thing. That’s why I’d pay $23.
Q: Do you ever second-guess yourself?
A: Sure. Anytime, when you have the knowledge of hindsight, you have more basis for a decision. I think through things very differently. I think of all the things that I have done over the first year and a half here, the things that I would second-guess myself on are: allowing us to bring in a player here and there who really didn’t put explosion on this team, who was not really in the mold of what we want.
(Ortmayer would not name the players on the record.)
And yet part of the problem there is we have made a transition of mold even in 1 year--a tremendous transition in the mold of what a San Diego Charger player is and what we want. We really have been in the current mold for 1 year, and it is the mold in which this team will be built. And I think you can now clearly see what kind of a player we want in a specific area.
The Chargers are planning to activated running back Barry Redden Saturday if he sustains no new injuries between now and then. Redden has been on injured reserve all season with a broken bone in his hand. Redden, who gained 36 yards on 11 carries last year after coming to the Chargers in a trade with the Rams, will probably replace running back Curtis Adams (injured knee) on the team’s active roster. “I’d rather wait for something to happen,” Redden said when asked how it felt to be back among the living. “Right now I don’t want to evaluate anything. Let’s wait until I get some games under my belt.” . . . Safety Jeff Dale suffered an ankle sprain in practice.