In Charge: Tolliver?, McMahon? : Chargers: The plot thickens in another episode of, "As The Quarterback Turns." Who will start against the Eagles.?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The question of whether to start Charger rookie Billy Joe Tolliver or veteran Jim McMahon at quarterback against the Eagles Sunday turned into a full-blown controversy Monday when Tolliver appeared unsure, Coach Dan Henning said he was undecided and McMahon was downright snotty.

Asked if he had any thoughts about Sunday's 10-7 loss at Seattle and his uncertain status as the team's starting quarterback, McMahon said, "I have none."

Asked if he thought he would play against the Eagles after watching Tolliver take his place in the starting lineup against the Seahawks, McMahon said, "I don't know."

Asked to talk about the problems McMahon and the Chargers had utilizing the clock on their final futile possession at Seattle, McMahon grew completely silent. Then he walked past his questioner, pressed one nostril closed with his finger and blew out of the other. "There's an answer for you," he said.

McMahon completed nine of 12 for 82 yards and one touchdown after coming off the bench against the Seahawks in the fourth quarter. Tolliver completed just six of 17 passes for 41 yards and never got the offense past midfield.

"Maybe I thought I was better than I actually was," Tolliver said politely and patiently. Tolliver said he didn't expect to find out until Wednesday who next Sunday's starter would be.

Henning, whose Chargers have staggered to the halfway point of the season with a four-game losing streak, said he would probably decide today.

"We're a little bit torn," Henning said. "Billy didn't play as well as we thought he would Sunday. But he didn't have much help. Jim gives us the best opportunity to win at this point in time. But we have to get Billy ready to play at some point in time."

It was hard to tell which way Henning was leaning. But it was clear the decision will send a message on whether Henning considers the rest of the season to be a rehearsal for 1990 or an attempt to salvage a respectable record this year.

Henning also said he was considering wholesale changes on offense, where injuries, new personnel and the complexities of the Henning system have slowed the team's progress.

Henning wouldn't specify the changes and said they could be made as late as Saturday. He did say he learned a lot about Tolliver, even in defeat.

"I found this out," Henning said. "He's a rookie. He was rustier than I thought he would be after the layoff. He does not panic. And he does not let mistakes bind him for the next play or the future."

The Seattle game was not only Tolliver's first regular-season NFL start, it was also his first regular-season appearence. And it was his first live action of any kind since breaking his left collarbone in the final exhibition game.

"I'm not happy about the way I played," Tolliver said, "but I'll live through it."

The activation of quarterback Mark Vlasic now appears out of the question. Vlasic injured his knee late last season. And Henning said he will probably remain on the Physically Unable To Perform list the rest of the year.

The Chargers, whose offense has scored just four touchdowns in its last four games, have dropped to 26th in NFL offense and 27th in passing. Their 129 first downs are the fewest in the AFC.

Charger fans aren't the only ones suffering. This letter to the sports editor appeared in the Sunday edition of the Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer:

"I am a die-hard Seahawk fan, but after the loss to Denver (24-21 in overtime Oct. 22) my neighbors found me with my head under my bed in the fetal position. I just can't take it any more; it is too hard to be a Seahawk fan.

"It is so much easier to be a 49er fan because you know they are going to win. It is even easier to be a Lions fan because you know they're going to lose. At least they are consistent."

Another letter on the same page: "I am sick of excuses. I am sick of cliches. I want action. I want results. Good or bad, it is time to do something. The Seahawks are broken and somebody better fix them."

If the Seahawks (4-4), are broken, what are the Chargers (2-6)?

Make no mistake, though, Seattle and San Diego are two distinctly different places. Another headline in the same Seattle sports section read: "Miserable Weather May Bring 'Super' Elk Season."

Charger Notes

Charger Coach Dan Henning said the status of H-back Rod Bernstine is "up in the air" for Sunday's home game against the Eagles (6-2). Bernstine is still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and has missed the last three games. . . . The Chargers' average margin of defeat in their last four games is 4.25 points. . . . One measure of how bad the Charger offense is is reflected in a defensive statistic: The Chargers have allowed 54 third-down conversions, most in the league. The reason: The average time of possession for the Charger offense is 27:01 minutes per game, fourth-worst in the league. . . . Philadelphia, Sunday's Charger opponent, leads the league in interceptions with 19 and fumble recoveries with 13.

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