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Wyche Sees ’87 Bengals in Chargers : But in 1988, His Team Is Six Victories Better and Can Clinch Playoff Berth Today

Times Staff Writer

This week’s award for strained credulity goes to Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam (Don’t Call Me Bubba) Wyche.

Bubba is what they used to call Wyche when he was a free-agent quarterback who had an undistinguished NFL career before opening a chain of sporting goods stores. Then he became an assistant coach.

Now he directs the Bengals (10-3), who will clinch at least an AFC wild-card spot today at Riverfront Stadium if they beat the two-touchdown-underdog Chargers (4-9).

Apparently we are supposed to take Wyche seriously now. The Bengal press guide instructs us to pronounce his last name “witch with a long i.” There is no mention of Bubba in his prepared bio.

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Certainly it’s not hard to take his team seriously. Boomer Esiason, Wyche’s quarterback, has the highest quarterback rating in the league at 98.1. By way of comparison, Mark Malone of the Chargers has the lowest listed rating in the AFC at 58.5.

Wyche’s running backs, former Charger James Brooks and rookie Ickey Woods, are tied for the AFC lead in touchdowns with 13 apiece. And his best wide receiver, dangerous Eddie Brown, leads the conference in reception yardage with 1,121.

Wyche’s offense ranks first in the NFL in total yards as does his running game. Nobody in the league has scored more points than the Bengals (395). Last week they rushed for a whopping 232 yards and 5 touchdowns while scoring 35 points against a Buffalo team that had allowed only 15 points in its previous 4 games.

“People like to talk about our explosive offense,” Esiason said. “But the most important thing we do is we establish the run. When you establish the run, you can do anything.”

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And apparently you can say anything.

Asked about the Chargers, a courageous but miscast team full of free agents, castoffs, rejects, flotsam and assorted jetsam, Wyche said: “I can see with the personnel they’ve got, that they’re just where Buffalo and Cincinnati were at this point last year. The players are there.”

Asked about Charger Coach Al Saunders, a man many believe won’t be asked to return in that position in 1989, Wyche said: “He’s a hell of a lot better coach than I am. I’m stealing half of his ideas today.”

And we’re supposed to take this guy seriously?

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For the record, Cincinnati was 4-9 after 13 games last year. Buffalo was 7-6. So maybe there is hope for the Chargers, a team that has scored three offensive touchdowns at home all year.

“If you watch San Diego,” Wyche said, blowing a kiss in the direction of Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers’ director of football operations, “they’re put together beautifully.”

Maybe the Chargers’ hope for today is the fact that 3 of their 4 victories have come on the road. Maybe not. The Bengals are 6-0 at home.

The Chargers are fresh from a 48-10 loss to the 49ers at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium--the team’s most lopsided defeat in 15 years. They allowed a season-high 475 yards of San Francisco offense. The fact is, creative defensive coordinator Ron Lynn may have run out of ways to keep the dam from bursting every time he pulls his finger out to scratch his head.

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“The Bengals have a lot of weapons,” Lynn said. “I don’t know if there’s any good time to play these guys.”

The Bengals have a huge offensive line, led by Pro Bowl fixture Anthony Munoz, a left tackle. Plus they have maturity and patience. Woods is the only rookie starting. And, said Esiason, “It seems like he’s been here forever.”

“The Bengals had the material last year,” said Jerry Rhome, the Charger offensive coordinator. “They just had a hard time getting it going.” The Bengals lost seven games by a touchdown or less in 1987. Only three of the 1988 Chargers’ losses have been by a touchdown or less.

This year the voluble Esiason has exhibited the kind of peace of mind quarterbacks develop when they know they’ll get the first down on the next play if they don’t get it on this one. “Boomer’s being patient not just in his passing,” Wyche said, “but in his willingness to hand off the ball. This team believes in him as much as any team in the league believes in their quarterback.”

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This will almost certainly be the coldest weather the Chargers have played in this year. And it’s not uncommon late in the season for warm weather teams with poor records to spend a lot of time milling around the hand-warmers when pitted against teams in cities where the wind-chill is more important than the surf report.

“The thing now is we have to re-group and get ‘em going again,” Rhome said. “Our guys are young. And how we react to them as coaches is going to make a difference.”

It should be noted that Saunders’ teams have played their best when their backs have been against the wall. The Chargers were 11-point underdogs 2 weeks ago when they beat the Rams by 14 at Anaheim. Two years ago, in his first road game as a head coach, Saunders somehow convinced the 1-8 Chargers they were good enough to beat the Broncos, 9-3.


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