Chargers Go Out Kicking and Beaming : Review: Steve Ortmayer was the main victim of the Chargers’ struggles this season, but he left a team whose future seems reasonably bright.


The drama is over now. And it is not about the 6-10 record the Chargers finished with in a year when they lost enough close games to make you think about what former San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh is alleged to have once said about quarterback Steve DeBerg: “He’s just good enough to get you beat.”

Not too many teams beat the Chargers this year. But they were just good enough to beat themselves almost every week.

Oddly enough, the Chargers beat DeBerg and the Chiefs twice and the AFC West champion Denver Broncos once, on the last play of the game Sunday. But they won only three other times. They were a young team with a new head coach, an aging quarterback, a meddling, impatient and absentee owner and a director of football operations, Steve Ortmayer, who couldn’t maintain a much-publicized diet and finally collapsed upon the eggshells he had been walking on all season.

Charger owner Alex Spanos fired Ortmayer Dec. 18, a week before Christmas. The drama was over. Ortmayer was the one who took the fall. Team insiders had been waiting for months to see who it would be.

The man who will probably replace him, former Washington general manager Bobby Beathard, will inherit a much better team than the one Ortmayer found when he arrived in 1987.


The future is actually reasonably bright for the Chargers. The complex offense designed by Coach Dan Henning won’t have as many players scratching their heads in 1990. Quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver won’t be a rookie in 1990. And Jim McMahon, the ex-Bear boor, almost certainly will be looking for work elsewhere. The Chargers need a flame-thrower, not a phlegm-thrower. And, as radio announcer Lee Hamilton might put it, Tolliver is not just another guy.

It will be interesting to see if 6-foot-1, 248-pound Marion Butts continues to look like Marion Motley in 1990. It will also be interesting to see if Spanos can retain Ron Lynn, the defensive coordinator and a thinking man’s Buddy Ryan. Will H-back Rod Bernstine return from his second knee injury in two years? Will center Courtney Hall, the youngest player in the NFL, turn out to be the best center ever to play the game? (It’s entirely possible.) Will wide receiver Anthony Miller continue to beat double teams?

These and many other topics are questions for 1990. But while the body is still warm, let’s dissect the carcass that was the 1989 Chargers.

The demise of Ortmayer began in late July when it became apparent running back Napoleon McCallum wasn’t the back Ortmayer thought he was when he took him in trade along with tackle John Clay in the controversial deal that sent Jim Lachey to the Raiders. On July 28, a neck injury forced the Chargers to waive the star-crossed Clay. He may never play again.

Three weeks later, Ortmayer was riding high when he cut a deal with Chicago that brought McMahon to the Chargers. McMahon provided an instant boost to ticket sales and eased fears among players that Spanos wasn’t committed to fielding a competitive team.

If the Chargers had done their homework on McMahon, they would have discovered he was a guy who didn’t like to study film, always got hurt and pouted on the bench when somebody else played in his place. All you’ll ever need to know about Jim McMahon is written in his autobiography, in which he rips his parents and gleefully admits what a bully he was in grade school.

Equally candid, but much more refreshing, was rookie defensive end Burt Grossman. After a 34-day holdout, he finally signed. And when reporters asked him about his contract at a press conference attended by Ortmayer, Grossman said, “I’ve got to check my account and see if it’s as much as I made at Pitt.” Ortmayer squirmed in his seat.

The Chargers won two and lost two exhibition games before tripping on their tongues after a season-opening, 40-14 loss to the Raiders in the Coliseum. The controversy arose when Henning yanked McMahon after the Chargers had pulled to within 28-14 late in the third quarter.

After the game, Henning said McMahon’s bruised ribs weren’t bad enough to keep him out of the game. Backup quarterback David Archer said McMahon asked to come out. McMahon said he did not. Earlier in the week, Henning had closed practices to reporters for the first time in the history of the franchise.

It was the public’s first glimpse of Henning’s two personalities, one of which is friendly, charming and entertaining away from football. The other is often vague, secretive, defensive, standoffish and stubborn when pressed about the issues facing his team. The next week, the Chargers would lose again.

The defense allowed 74 points the first two games, then didn’t allow an opponent to score more than 20 points for the next 12 weeks. But the offense, behind McMahon’s average arm and a patchwork offensive line, struggled. And the special teams--coached by Joe Madden, a Henning crony from Atlanta--were horrible.

Mistakes by Madden’s special teams led to 26 Raider points in season opener. And Madden never really figured out what the problem was.

McMahon’s box office value wore off almost immediately. The Chargers’ 34-27 loss to Houston in Week 2 was witnessed by 42,013, the smallest crowd for a home opener since Spanos purchased the team in 1984.

Spanos responded by publicly criticizing Lynn’s defensive schemes. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The Chargers won their next two, intercepting five DeBerg passes to beat the Chiefs and stuffed Phoenix, 24-13, in the searing heat of Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium.

They insisted they wouldn’t lose their next six, as they had after starting 1988 at 2-2. And they didn’t. But they did lose their next four--by a combined total of 17 points.

After the last of those defeats, a 10-7 loss in Seattle, a reporter asked McMahon about the problems the Chargers had been having with their two-minute offense. McMahon paused, placed a finger to one nostril, blew hard in the reporter’s direction and said: “There’s an answer for you.”

Neither McMahon, Henning nor Spanos, who prides himself on proper comportment and demands it from his employees, ever uttered a word of apology.

On Oct. 17, the Chargers beat the trade deadline and sent drug-plagued linebacker Chip Banks to Indianapolis for draft considerations. And they picked up running back Darrin Nelson in the backwash of the Dallas-Minnesota trade that sent Herschel Walker to the Vikings. Both were good moves.

At mid-season, it was nice to see Leslie O’Neal had recovered fully from the knee injury that almost ended his career as a rookie in 1986. And cornerback Gill Byrd was playing like a Pro Bowl performer. But the offense ranked 26th, the passing game 27th, and the Chargers were 2-6 and no better off than at the midway point of 1988 under former Coach Al Saunders.

“We’re making strides,” Henning said. “But they’re not coming fast enough.”

“Each one of us,” said linebacker Gary Plummer, the team’s leading tackler, “has to find a way to play better.”

They did, beating Philadelphia, 20-17, and the Raiders, 14-12, in Weeks 9 and 10. In the Eagle victory, Chris Bahr’s 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining proved the difference. Against the Raiders, they kept running back Bo Jackson out of the end zone.

But old habits die hard. And the Chargers showed how bad they really were the next week in Indianapolis when they allowed Jack Trudeau’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Bill Brooks with 1:54 remaining beat them, 10-6, in a deadly dull game that was almost as excruciating to watch as it must have been to lose.

So back to the future it was. Henning had started Tolliver for the first time in Week 8. He returned to him five weeks later, and Tolliver wasn’t much better. He threw two passes that were intercepted and was sacked five times, and the Chargers lost to the lowly Jets, 20-17.

“Snakebit and born to lose,” Tolliver said that day. He might as well have been talking about the whole season. But at least he was talking. McMahon had stopped talking to reporters weeks earlier.

Henning stuck with Tolliver, and it paid off in Washington on Dec. 10 when the rookie threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns. The Redskins didn’t sack him or intercept a pass. But they won, 26-21, when the Chargers blew a 14-0 lead.

Tolliver continued to improve, even though his numbers (13 of 30 for 171 yards) did not. The week after the Redskin loss, the Chargers upset Kansas City, 20-13, at frigid Arrowhead Stadium. Butts broke the Chargers’ all-time record for most carries when he banged for 39 times for 176 yards.

“I guess I’m for real,” he said after the game.

Tolliver continued to prove the same about himself and finished his late-season rush with 305 yards passing Sunday, albeit with four interceptions. The Charger defense held the Broncos to 206 net yards.

“If we keep playing like this,” Anthony Miller said, “it will be a lot different next year.

“A whole lot different.”