The brand new coach of the Chargers squinted into the early-morning sun, turned and eyed the sumptuous breakfast feast laid out on a long table. In the background, golf carts motored past on an impeccably manicured resort course set against the breathtaking backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains.
“It will take a lot of this to kill you,” Dan Henning said.
But first a little business.
It was Wednesday morning at the National Football League’s annual winter meetings--a perfect time for Henning to assess the inadequacies of a Charger team that finished 6-10 last year and killed former Coach Al Saunders’ chances of retaining his title.
Henning has been on the job six weeks. Time enough to begin to know what he will be able to salvage from the wreckage of Saunders’ hasty departure.
“We’ve got what they had left when they got through last year,” Henning said. His tone was neither enthusiastic nor pessimistic.
Actually, the Chargers have signed several free-agent offensive linemen--one or two of whom could wind up starting in 1989. They have added backup quarterback David Archer, who was with Henning when he coached in Atlanta. And they are close to signing Redskin running back Tim Smith, runner-up to quarterback Doug Williams in the MVP balloting two Super Bowls ago.
They still have Mark Malone at quarterback. Malone has compiled the worst listed quarterback rating in the AFC each of the last two years. Yet, Henning said, “If we had to play a game tomorrow, Mark Malone would be the starter.”
That’s mainly because Mark Vlasic, 2-0 as a starter last year, still is recovering from knee surgery. And because Babe Laufenberg, who started the first six games last year, lost his biggest booster when Jerry Rhome, last year’s offensive coordinator, left to become quarterbacks coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
It doesn’t mean the Chargers aren’t looking outside for a quarterback--one they would acquire either through trade or through next month’s draft.
The trade method is a two-step process. “You decide who you like,” Henning said. “And then it comes down to who you can acquire and what it will cost.”
Charger owner Alex Spanos loves Miami quarterback Dan Marino, who is said to be available for the right price. Spanos says that price is one that he is probably reluctant to pay. He said the same thing last year when San Francisco dangled Joe Montana in front of the Chargers at the winter meetings.
In return, the 49ers wanted linebacker Billy Ray Smith, defensive end Lee Williams and a package of high draft choices that effectively would have strip-mined the Chargers’ talent pool for the remainder of the ‘80s.
“Imagine, though, how that trade would have changed the course of NFL history in 1988,” said Steve Ortmayer, the Charger director of football operations. He was referring to the fact that Montana went on to lead the 49ers to their third Super Bowl victory in the ‘80s.
Spanos also likes Bear quarterback Jim McMahon. Interestingly enough, McMahon’s agent, Steve Zucker, came to these meetings with the expressed purpose of talking to Spanos about McMahon.
Spanos was amused when Zucker staked out a seat at the bar of a local restaurant Monday night when he heard Spanos would be dining there later in the evening. Spanos also said the Chargers are not prepared to give up their No. 1 1989 draft pick (eighth overall) for injury-prone McMahon.
Zucker pointed out that McMahon worked with Ted Tollner, the Chargers’ new quarterbacks coach, when both were at Brigham Young. But Zucker doesn’t make deals for the Bears. Team President Michael McCaskey, with the advice of his scouts and coaches, runs that team.
“That’s not my province,” Zucker said.
And if what Bear Coach Mike Ditka said Wednesday is any indication, a Charger-Bear deal for McMahon is unlikely.
“There have been no trade talks,” Ditka said. “We have talked to nobody about Jim. And if anything happens, it’s all new.”
Ditka did, however, leave a crack open. “If San Diego wants to talk,” he said, “we’ll listen.”
Spanos has said he fears the price the Bears will ask for McMahon will be “excessive.”
Ditka’s response: “Nobody has made a proposal. But we’re not going to go for that six-pack of Schlitz deal (assorted draft choices) either.”
Would the Bears expect a No. 1 pick in return for McMahon?
“Jim was the No. 5 pick in the country (1982),” Ditka said. “You figure that out. Quarterbacks seem to grow in value.”
But McMahon has suffered through an almost endless string of injuries that have included serious damage to his knees, shoulders and kidneys.
“Jim McMahon has been a winner,” Henning said. “And he has great natural leadership at that position. But if you take a full evaluation, you’d have to take a look at that injury history long and hard.”
“Even if Jim McMahon played just 10 games for the Chargers next year, I think he would put that team in the playoffs,” Zucker said.
Henning said he hasn’t seen yet any quarterbacks (other than UCLA’s Troy Aikman, who will almost certainly go to Dallas on the first pick) worthy of the eighth pick of the first round.
Other than quarterback, Henning identified the Chargers’ primary area of need as “speed at the perimeter of the defense.”
Ortmayer already has said he likes Florida free safety Louis Oliver. And Oliver has said publicly that San Diego is a place he wants to play. Surprise--his agent is Steve Zucker. Oliver is a 6-2, 232-pounder who could also play strong safety or even outside linebacker. His time of 4.09 in the 20-yard shuttle at the recent combine workouts in Indianapolis was third among all safeties.
Charger Coach Dan Henning said his staff is strongly considering moving Dennis McKnight, a Pro Bowl alternate at right guard last year, to center. McKnight has limited experience there. . . . Henning’s spring mini-camp will be May 8-13. . . . In his recently completed mock 1989 draft, Baltimore draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. projected the Chargers taking Nebraska linebacker Broderick Thomas with their first-round pick. Kiper projected Miami, which is next in line, to pick Florida safety Louis Oliver with the ninth pick of the first round.