The San Diego Chargers have played two games in the six days since they traded for Chicago Bear quarterback Jim McMahon.
In those two games, however, the Charger defense has looked more like the Super Bowl champion Bear defense of 1985 than McMahon has looked like the National Football Conference Pro Bowl starter of 1985.
"I'm excited about this team, especially its defense," McMahon said after the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers beat the Chargers, 17-14, Wednesday night at Candlestick Park.
All three San Francisco scores were set up by special-team errors or interceptions. The Chargers have lost two of three exhibition games. But their defense has given up fewer yards than its opponent each time.
McMahon, who started and played through the first series of the second half, was less excited about his performance--seven completions in 13 passes for 26 yards and an interception.
"I can't be a leader until I start producing on the field," he said.
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 is "amazing" what McMahon has learned in his short time with the Chargers. Quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner said he was pleased with McMahon's performance 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, Tolliver led 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 against left guard Dan Rosado that stopped Tolliver (nine of 15 for 138 yards) and the Chargers late in the game.
The penalty nullified a three-yard burst off right tackle by running back Marian Butts that would have given the Chargers a first down at the 49er 25 with three minutes left. 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," Henningsaid.
The Chargers can take consolation today in the fact that, in a five-day period, they cumulatively outscored two teams that won four Super Bowls in the 1980s.
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 is the closest quarterback to Joe Montana in understanding what it takes to win in this game," 49er safety Ronnie Lott said. "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."
Meanwhile, the effect of McMahon upon Charger season-ticket sales has been immediate. In six days since the Friday trade that brought McMahon from Chicago, about 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 good news for the Chargers, a team that averaged fewer than 30,000 in its last two home games of 1988. The football seating capacity at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium is 60,750.
McMahon's presence can be felt throughout the organization. By Monday, one of the secretaries in the public relations office had placed a McMahon-style headband around the head of the stuffed puppy on her desk.
Wednesday night, Montana, made a cameo appearence. He played one series, and completed one of three passes for 33 yards before giving way to Steve Young.
McMahon moved the Chargers 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 had the ball 11 minutes 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 been involved in contract disputes. None of them played against the Chargers. Early in the second quarter, McMahon led the Chargers to the 49er three-yard line. Vince Abbott made a 21-yard field goal, but a delay-of-game penalty nullified the kick.
On the next play Abbott missed a 26-yarder when he hooked it to the left.
The message? With McMahon off the field, the Chargers of 1989 looked like the Chargers that finished 6-10 in 1988.
The downside? On most of his incompletions McMahon either threw high or not strong enough 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 in the final two minutes of the half. The ball whizzed over Dana Brinson's head and directly into the arms of Lott, who returned it to the Charger 21.
Six plays later San Francisco led, 7-0, when Young found tight end Wesle Walls deep in the end zone for a two-yard touch-down pass nine seconds before halftime.
McMahon's numbers for first half: six for 12 for 30 yards with one interception and no sacks.