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Chargers Finish It Off With a 24-13 Win : Saunders May Also Be Finished as Team’s Coach

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

As the sun set slowly in the AFC West Sunday, Charger Coach Al Saunders continued to twist, even more slowly, in the wind.

Still no official word from Charger owner Alex Spanos on whether 4 victories in the last 6 games saved Saunders’ job. Still no official word on whether published reports last week that Spanos has already made up his mind to fire Saunders are true or false.

And still no response from Saunders on where he figures to be working next year.

He will savor, for now, his team’s 24-13 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. It meant the Chargers (6-10) didn’t finish last in their division, which they had in 2 of the previous 4 seasons. And it meant they will draft eighth in the first round of next spring’s National Football League draft. Asked afterward if he expects to return to the Chargers in 1989, Saunders gave a non-answer: “Any other questions on the game?”

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Spanos addressed the question even more directly. He stayed home.

Which made him the most prominent among the 15,556 “unused” tickets at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. It was the first home game he missed all year.

Hardly anybody noticed.

Also conspicuous by its absence was any evidence that the people who buy tickets to watch the Chargers really care whether Saunders returns. Not one of the 26,339 who did show up on this rare rainy day bothered to unfurl a banner imploring Spanos to stay the execution.

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Maybe they sensed the handwriting is already on the wall.

They might have at least scribbled condolences to the Kansas City defense, which got trampled by the patchwork but underrated Charger line that now answers proudly to the nickname “Dirtbags.”

Running behind the Dirtbags, Gary Anderson rushed for 217 yards in 34 carries to establish a career high for himself, a 1988 season high for all NFL backs and an all-time Charger single-game record. Anderson also finished with 1,119 yards to become only the sixth back in Charger history to exceed 1,000 yards in a season.

“The big difference the last couple of weeks has definitely been the offensive line,” Anderson said. In the last two games, Anderson has totaled 387 yards rushing. Sunday, he jumped from seventh to third in AFC rushing, finishing behind only Indianapolis’ Eric Dickerson and New England rookie John Stephens.

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Dirtbags? The name came from offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome, who saw what happened in Washington 6 years ago when the offensive line began answering to “Hogs.”

“It gives them an identity,” Rhome said.

Not a bad idea when your offensive line consists of four free agents and a fourth-round rookie.

But Dirtbags?

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“A Dirtbag is a guy who is at the bottom of the barrel,” left guard Broderick Thompson said. “Dirtbags look out for other Dirtbags. If a guy has a different colored jersey, we’ll grab, cut ‘em, anything to keep ‘em away from our runner. I’m proud as heck to be a Dirtbag.”

Said left tackle Ken Dalliafor: “Dirtbags are kind of like boneyard boys. I’ve got blood and dirt all over me and I love it. That’s being a Dirtbag.”

Boneyard Boys?

“I’ve always considered myself a ham-and-egger,” right guard Dennis McKnight said. “Like Rocky Balboa.”

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After Kansas City running back Paul Palmer gave the Chiefs (4-11-1) a 7-0 lead on a 26-yard run less than 2 minutes into the game, Anderson and the Dirtbags needed only 8 plays to march 65 yards. The final 9 came when Anderson cut off right tackle through a hole that Spanos and Saunders could have waltzed through together, holding hands and strewing rose petals in their path.

The Chiefs recaptured the lead on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Steve DeBerg to tight end Jonathan Hayes. But a 45-yard field goal by Steve DeLine and a neat 5-yard quarterback draw for a score by Mark Malone put the Chargers on top, 17-13, at halftime.

When Jamie Holland raced 94 yards down the right sideline with the second-half kickoff behind blocks from Tim Spencer and Anthony Miller, the Chargers’ lead grew to 24-13.

The rest of the afternoon was a tribute to Anderson’s countless moves and the ball-control offense the Chargers have been insisting they could produce all year.

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“The line has stayed together,” Rhome said. “And Gary just got hotter and hotter as the game went on.”

Rhome and most of the players were less forthcoming when asked for an opinion on Saunders’ future. “You’ll have to ask them,” Rhome said, referring to Spanos and Steve Ortmayer, the team’s director of football operations.

But not everybody backed off. “If I had a vote, I’d vote for Al to stay,” running back Lionel James said.

James and Saunders embraced at midfield after the game. Then Saunders, beaming, trotted off the field, stopping only to flash a “No. 1" sign to his wife in the stands.

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“We’ll wait until tomorrow or Tuesday or whatever,” cornerback Gill Byrd said of Saunders.

But Byrd couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Charger front office sources who refused to be named in the Thursday reports that stated Saunders would not be asked to return. “I just wish when people say something they had the guts and grace to say it (for attribution),” Byrd said. “Don’t hide behind paper.”

Said Charger free safety Vencie Glenn: “Until he clears his desk, Al Saunders is still our head coach. It’s not up to me to decide.”

Charger Notes

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The Chargers are 17-22 under Al Saunders since he became head coach in 1986. They are 33-46 since Alex Spanos purchased controlling interest in the team in 1984. . . . The 26,339 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium Sunday was the smallest attendance figure at a Charger game since 1975. . . . The previous Charger single-game rushing record was 206 yards by Keith Lincoln against the Boston Patriots in the AFL title game in 1964. Lincoln did it that in only 13 carries. . . . Gary Anderson’s 34 carries also broke a Charger single-game record. The previous high was 32 by Earnest Jackson against the Steelers in 1984. . . . The Chiefs finished the year with no road victories. Their loss to the Chargers also snapped an 8-game winning streak on the last day of the regular season.

Charger cornerback Gill Byrd’s second-quarter interception gave him a team-high 7 for the season, the most for a Charger since Dick Harris had 8 in 1963. . . . When it began raining during the fourth quarter, it was only the 11th time in the 28-year history of the Chargers in San Diego that it has rained during a home game. . . . Charger defensive end Lee Williams had 1 sack against the Chiefs to finish with 11 on the year. But he lost his AFC lead to Raider Andre Townsend, who had 2 against the Seahawks Sunday to finish with 11 1/2.

By virtue of finishing fourth in the AFC West, the Chargers inherit a 1989 schedule that includes home games against the Jets, the Giants, the Oilers and the Eagles and road games against Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Washington. The Chargers will also play their customary home-and-away schedule against the other four teams in the division. . . . Charger quarterback Mark Malone finished with 6 completions in 10 attempts for 91 yards Sunday. That number of attempts is less than half of the previous team low this season (23 against Seattle in Week 3.) Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg completed 17 of 36 for 187 yards. . . . Jamie Holland’s 94-yard kickoff return was 1 yard longer than the 93-yarder Anthony Miller scored on against the Rams in Week 12. It’s the first time in Charger history they have scored on more than one kickoff return in a single season.


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