Chargers Fake Themselves Out of It : Football: Failed run in punting situation late in game sets Dallas up for 17-14 victory. Henning takes blame for calling the play.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charger Coach Dan Henning took an extra long draw from his cigarette, then took his share of the blame.

Topic of discussion: Sunday's fake punt that flopped.

It happened in the fourth quarter of the season opener at Texas Stadium, a game the Chargers appeared to be controlling. Henning made the call. A block was missed. And the Chargers lost, 17-14, to the Dallas Cowboys, a team that has now won the same number of games that it did all of last season. One.

"I shouldn't have called (the fake) in that particular situation," Henning said. "I told the players 'I called it, and that's my dumb mistake.' "

A crowd of 48,063 watched as the Chargers held a 14-10 lead and the ball with less than eight minutes to play. Their offense stalled at the Cowboy 48, and John Kidd came in to punt. The Chargers had six yards to go.

Originally, the plan was to have linebacker Gary Plummer take the snap and run left. But when the teams lined up, Plummer noticed the Cowboys had stacked seven players on that side, so he called an audible and redirected the play to the other side.

Problem was, one Charger nobody would name missed the call and, consequently, the key block. Plummer got the snap and barreled ahead, and Cowboy safety Bill Bates smashed into him. The play gained two yards, and the Cowboys took over.

"I'll take responsibility," Plummer said. "It wasn't communicated properly. If we would have made that one block, I'd probably still be running."

Plummer didn't question Henning's decision to go for the fake.

"I'm never going to second-guess a coach's call," he said. "Once the call is made, that's our responsibility to execute."

Because they didn't, and because Bates was ready and waiting, the Chargers lost their fourth consecutive regular-season opener. It made it fun for the Cowboys. Particularly Bates.

"You can never be surprised in a game," Bates said. "You have to ready for everything. Fortunately, this 200-pound body was enough to stop that 260-pound freight train."

For the record, Plummer is only a 240-pound freight train.

The Cowboys took over at the Charger 49. The key plays on the winning drive were a 16-yard run to the 29 by Tommie Agee on fourth and two and quarterback Troy Aikman's 24-yard completion to wide receiver Kelvin Martin for a first and goal at the one. Martin beat rookie cornerback Donald Frank, who was the target of several big plays in last week's exhibition loss to the Raiders.

Aikman finished it with a one-yard sneak with 1:58 to play.

Henning then replaced starting quarterback Mark Vlasic with Billy Joe Tolliver for the final offensive possession. On four plays, Tolliver was one for three for three yards and took a 13-yard sack by defensive end Jim Jeffcoat.

Why put Tolliver in with less than two minutes to play?

"He has a stronger arm, and Mark hadn't been throwing the ball as well as he had in preseason," Henning said. "I felt like Billy had the opportunity there and maybe we could get a spark from him. But we didn't do a very good job."

Anyway, if the fake punt and ensuing touchdown were the crowning blows, they certainly weren't the Chargers' only problems. Sunday's game exposed a number of deficiencies that were evident during the exhibition season. Many were the result of one factor: inexperience.

In his first regular-season start since November, 1988, Vlasic was less than spectacular. He finished with 17 completions in 31 attempts for 137 yards, with one touchdown pass and one interception.

After the Cowboys drove 84 yards on the opening series to take a 7-0 lead, Vlasic led the Chargers on a 62-yard drive that was capped by a 14-yard pass to H-back Craig McEwen. Vlasic completed five of six passes for 64 yards on the way.

The Chargers scored their only other touchdown in the second quarter, and it wasn't a drive for the highlight film. It covered a total of 49 yards, 41 on a pass interference penalty on cornerback Issiac Holt. From then on, the Charger offense checked out, and Vlasic wasn't able to kick-start it in six tries in the second half.

Vlasic was critical of the offense's contributions to the overall effort.

"You can't count on the defense to play our whole dang game," he said. "We have to contribute, and I don't think we did a good job of that."

As for Henning's decision to pull him in favor of Tolliver, Vlasic had no problems.

"Why not look for some type of spark?" Vlasic said. "He's a great player. Dan and the rest of the team have a lot of confidence in him, and you hope that a quick change like that maybe will light some fire."

The offensive line, retooled just six days ago with four starters who are playing new positions, held its own, surrendering just one sack. But run-blocking was inconsistent, and the Chargers managed only 85 yards on the ground.

Defensively, the Chargers played much the same as they did throughout last season. They stopped the opponent until the game was on the line. Then they stumbled.

In 1989, the Chargers gave only 14.9 points a game in the final 14 games but often lost on late drives. This was more of the same.

"I'm very disappointed," cornerback Gill Byrd said. "We made some mental mistakes and they did a great job capitalizing on our mistakes. They came out and started the season like we wanted to.

"We've lost in the last few minutes of so many games. That's what's hardest about our losses. I don't care what anybody says, we've just got to find a way to win. Period. I don't care if the score is 3-2. We've just got to find a way."

Where to from here? Well, first thing is to shake off this loss, which Henning indicated wouldn't be easy.

"We are going to carry it, and I'm going to carry it for a long time because I think we are a better football team than the way we played out there today," Henning said. "We didn't play very well, and I didn't coach very well. Our preparation was my responsibility, and we had too many errors out there."

Which made for a nice home opener for the Cowboys and Jimmy Johnson, who is now 2-15 in his NFL coaching career.

"We have been through a lot since last season's 1-15, and a lot has passed unnoticed," he said. "But these guys have worked hard. We had a tough camp, and they have done everything possible to get ready for today's opening game. I think the effort was outstanding."

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