He still hasn't thrown a pass in a professional football game--"live bullets" is the way Charger Coach Dan Henning puts it. But rookie quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver continues to dominate the early focus of the 1989 Chargers.
Tolliver was the third player selected by the Chargers (51st overall) in last spring's college draft. And like 20 other Chargers, he was still unsigned Thursday, two days before the rookies and free agents were scheduled to begin summer training camp at UC San Diego. The veterans are supposed to report July 28.
The list of other unsigned players includes running back Gary Anderson, who led the Chargers in rushing last year, and rookie defensive end Burt Grossman, the eighth player chosen in the first round.
But it was Tolliver whom Henning wanted to talk about Thursday. And it was the Chargers' alleged lack of recognition of Tolliver's dollar value that Vic Vines wanted to talk about later the same day.
Vines, Tolliver's Texas-based agent, said he might travel to San Diego over the weekend to meet with Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers' director of football operations. But Vines has rejected the Chargers' initial contract offer. And, he said, "the Chargers have to make major, major movement" if they expect to sign his client.
Henning said the Chargers have offered Tolliver a contract that would increase at a later date if the rest of the players picked in the second round sign for more money. "I think Billy Joe would make an
error if he doesn't come in here on time," Henning said.
As of Thursday, only a handful of 1989 second-round choices had signed. And only three first-round picks--Troy Aikman in Dallas, Andre Rison in Indianapolis and Tom Ricketts in Pittsburgh--had signed.
Vines said the Chargers' initial offer was a four-year package that included roster and reporting bonuses. Ortmayer raised the offer Thursday with incentive clauses that could make the contract more lucrative.
"But there are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out by Sunday," said Vines' business
partner, Joe Courrege. "And they are some tough wrinkles."
Vines said he was philosophically opposed to the idea of a temporary contract that would hinge on other signings. "If I do that," he said, "I've got to put my trust in all the other agents of second-round players and what they are able to get for their clients. I've got to agree to a deal that's out of my hands."
The fuss over Tolliver stems from the Chargers' inability to generate an acceptable passing offense in 1988. They finished 26th out of 28 NFL teams in passing and 26th in total offense. Mark Malone, their starter at the end of the season, wound up last in AFC passing for the second consecutive year.
When the Chargers drafted Tolliver, both Ortmayer and Henning were ecstatic. They talked about how Tolliver represented a significant "upgrade" at the quarterback position. Vines' job is to make sure they don't forget all those nice things they said.
"I was real surprised Billy Joe wasn't the third player picked in the first round," Vines said.
Spoken like a true agent. But Vines knows he has the Chargers between a rock and a hard place in this negotiation. Ortmayer has one year left on his contract and can't be sure when Charger owner Alex Spanos will begin wooing Bobby Beathard, the former Washington Redskins general manager, to replace him.
Henning, a former quarterback, knows the disproportionate importance of that position. He also knows the importance of winning right away, particularly under an owner like Spanos, who is desperate for the team to improve upon last season's 6-10 record.
And even though Henning won't say so in as many words, he is convinced Tolliver has more ability and potential than Malone, Mark Vlasic and David Archer, the team's other three quarterbacks.
So he appealed to the media Thursday to get the word out to Tolliver about the importance of reporting on time. Courrege, who clashed with Henning in 1984 over the signings of Falcons Scott Case and Rick Bryan, said the ploy won't work.
"Billy Joe is strong," Courrege said. "And he's adamant about the fact that he will make more money than that center from Rice."
"That center from Rice" is rookie Courtney Hall, the Chargers first pick in the second round (37th overall). Hall also is unsigned. "I think Courtney Hall will be signed and ready to go (by Sunday)," Henning said. "I don't know what will happen with Grossman."
Added Henning: "I think (Tolliver's) agent is making a superior mistake if he doesn't work things out . . . if you take the history of that position . . . rookies coming in who have an opportunity to take off and get some excellent work in the early part of camp."
Responded Courrege: "Henning's been knocked around this league, and for him to make a statement like that is ridiculous."
Courrege also used the word "stupid" to describe statements attributed to Ortmayer indicating that Hall will get more money than Tolliver.
The vitriol didn't stop there. "The Chargers do not have a quarterback who has proven he can win," Vines said. "They've got a guy (Malone) who was last in the conference. They've got a guy (Vlasic) who has a rehabilitated knee. And they've got a guy (Archer) who is a journeyman."
Said Henning: "I don't give a damn about the agent. The agent will never line up and never take a snap. That guy's not going to play for us."
Ortmayer and Henning said the Chargers might be forced to look for another quarterback if Tolliver doesn't sign and Vlasic's knee doesn't stand up to two-a-day practices. Coincidentally, one of the quarterbacks that interests them is Cowboy Steve Pelluer.
Pelluer's agent? Joe Courrege.
Joe Courrege says the seven teams interested in Steve Pelluer are: the Chargers, Detroit, Green Bay, Kansas City, Atlanta, Miami and Cincinnati. . . . Billy Joe Tolliver is one of nine unsigned Charger rookies. The number of signed rookies is zero, although the Chargers agreed to terms with seventh-rounder Marion Butts, a running back from Florida State, late Thursday. Most of those drafted after the fourth round are expected to be signed by Sunday. The 12 unsigned veterans are kicker Vince Abbott, running back Gary Anderson, linebacker Keith Browner, running back Lionel James, defensive back Leonard Coleman, wide receiver Jamie Holland, defensive end Tyrone Keys, quarterback Mark Malone, defensive lineman Les Miller, defensive lineman Joe Phillips, linebacker Gary Plummer and running back Tim Spencer. Several from that group, most notably Malone, are close to signing. . . . The Chargers will scrimmage the Rams a week from Sunday at 2 p.m. at UC San Diego. This will be mostly rookies and free agents. Charger veterans don't report until a week from Saturday. . . . What price fame? Sharon and Charles Tolliver, the parents of Billy Joe, have an unlisted phone number in their hometown of Boyd, Tex. Boyd's population is listed at 889. . . . Coach Dan Henning said there will be a curfew at training camp, 11 p.m. Meetings will often last until 10 p.m. . . . Look for defensive end Leslie O'Neal to play at linebacker in 1989. "It's possible that he'll be an up-and-down guy," Henning said, " . . . but in truth, he's a linebacker."