The Chargers have played two games in the six days since they traded for Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon. And the thing of it is this:
In those two games, the Charger defense has looked more like the Super Bowl-champion Bear defense of 1985 than McMahon has looked like the NFC Pro Bowl starter from the 1985 season.
“I’m excited about this team, especially its defense,” McMahon said after the defending NFL-champion 49ers beat the Chargers 17-14 Wednesday night at Candlestick Park.
All three San Francisco scores resulted from special team errors or interceptions. The Chargers have lost two of three exhibition games, but their defense has allowed fewer yards than its opponent all three times.
McMahon, who started and played through the first series of the second half, was less excited about his own performance, which included seven completions in 13 attempts for 26 yards and one interception.
“I can’t be a leader,” he said, “until I start producing on the field.”
But, he added, “In the next 10 days I should be able to get the offense down pretty well.”
Charger Coach Dan Henning said it was “amazing” what McMahon has learned in his short time with the Chargers. Quarterback Coach Ted Tollner said he was “pleased” with what McMahon did on the field against the 49ers.
But for the second consecutive week it was rookie Billy Joe Tolliver who came off the bench in the second half to throw two touchdown passes. Last Saturday night, Tolliver’s pyrotechnics fired the Chargers to a 24-7 victory over the Bears in Chicago. This time, Tolliver almost brought the Chargers back from a 17-0 deficit.
In the end, it was a disputed holding call on left guard Dan Rosado that stopped Tolliver (9 for 15 for 138 yards) and the Chargers late in the fourth quarter.
The penalty nullified a three-yard burst off right tackle by running back Marian Butts that would given the Chargers a first down at the 49er 25 with three minutes to play. Instead, they had to settle for a 53-yard field goal attempt by Steve DeLine that fell short.
“I don’t know how he (the official) could see a holding in that mass of humanity,” Henning said.
Rosado, described in the Charger press guide as being “of Puerto Rican dissent” dissented even more hotly than Henning. “Maybe it’s a minority thing,” he said. “Maybe he (the official) doesn’t like Puerto Ricans.”
It’s more likely the official wasn’t aware of Rosado’s descent. And it’s even more likely that the Chargers will take consolation today in the fact that, in a five-day period, they cumulatively outscored two teams that won a combined total of four Super Bowls in the ‘80s.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that McMahon arrived at a time when the Chargers chose to show they may be the most improved team in the AFC West. Maybe not.
“Jim McMahon,” said San Francisco free safety Ronnie Lott, “is the closest quarterback to Joe Montana in understanding what it takes to win in this game. For McMahon to step in there tonight and accomplish what he did is a feat in itself. You have to measure players by their heart. McMahon’s got a huge one.”
The effect of McMahon upon Charger season ticket sales has been immediate. In six days since the Friday trade that brought McMahon from Chicago, nearly 1,000 people purchased Charger season tickets. That, according to Jack Teele, the Chargers’ director of administration, is “two to three times” the normal number at this time of year.
This, of course, was great good news for the Chargers, a team that averaged fewer than 30,000 fans in the last two home games of 1988. The football seating capacity at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium is 60,750.
McMahon’s presence has permeated the organization. By Monday, one of the secretaries in the public relations office had placed a “McMahon” headband around the head of the small, stuffed puppy over her desk.
The other marquee quarterback in this game, Montana, made a cameo appearence, He played one series of downs and completed one of three passes for 33 yards before giving way to Steve Young.
McMahon moved the Chargers smartly in the first period, completing five of seven passes as the Charger offense converted four of five third-down situations. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t score any points even though they possessed the ball 11 minutes and 24 seconds to San Francisco’s 3:36.
At least part of the reason for McMahon’s early success was the absence of three-fourths of the 49ers’ starting defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Tim McKyer and Don Griffin and strong safety Jeff Fuller have all been involved in contract disputes. None of them played against the Chargers.
Early in the second period, McMahon led the Chargers all the way to the 49er three-yard line. Vince Abbott made a 21-yard field goal, but a delay-of-game penalty nullified the three points.
On the next play, Abbott missed a 26-yarder when he hooked it left.
The message? With McMahon off the field, the Chargers of 189 looked like the Chargers that finished 6-10 in 1988.
The downside? On most of his incompletions, McMahon was either wild high or not strong enough with his throws to deliver the ball into the tight spots that Henning’s offense demands.
“The ball was sailing,” McMahon said. “It was windy. But no excuses.”
McMahon’s worst throw of the half occurred just inside the two-minute warning. It whizzed over Dana Brinson’s head and directly into the waiting arms of Lott, who returned the ball to the Charger 21.
Six plays later, San Francisco led, 7-0, when Young found tight end Wesley Walls deep in the end zone for a two-yard touchdown pass just nine seconds before halftime.
McMahon’s numbers for first half: six completions in 12 attempts for 30 yards with one interception and no sacks. Former Redskin Timmy Smith, bothered most of training camp by a sore ankle, led all first-half rushers with 56 yards in 13 carries.
The 49ers needed 16 seconds to double their lead when Terrence Flagler returned Chris Bahr’s second half kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. No Charger touched Flagler on the play. And, coupled with Abbott’s missed field goal, it continued a downward spiral for assistant Joe Madden’s special teams.
Following an early interception, Tolliver regained his composure late in the third period after a Gill Byrd interception gave the Chargers a first down at their own 49. Three plays later, Tolliver found rookie Marian Butts on a short pass over the right side. Butts broke three tackles and turned it into a 38-yard touchdown.
Moments later, Byrd intercepted another Young pass, this time giving Tolliver field position at the San Francisco 43. And Tolliver cashed again, this time needing six plays. the final 16 yards came on a touchdown pass to Darren Flutie, who beat former Charger defensive back Wayne Davis in the left corner of the end zone.