ANALYSIS : Chargers Need More Than a Players-Only Meeting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a players-only meeting. All business. Very hush-hush.

Prompted by The Dallas Disaster and concern within their ranks that some comrades already might be down for the count, the Chargers began Monday by asking the coaches to leave them alone.

Too bad they didn't think to do that Sunday in Dallas along about the time John Kidd went back to punt in the fourth quarter.

After discussing their future privately Monday after the 17-14 setback to the Cowboys, nobody was saying a whole lot about the meeting, and the players had Tuesday off. But it's presumed San Diego's gladiators have decided to play out the season.

"For all I know they might have been discussing the price of eggs in there," defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said. "But from what I hear about the meeting, the folks who were speaking up, were pretty solid people. And that's a good sign."

They were some of the Chargers' best people. Not surprisingly, therefore, all were defenders. Safety Martin Bayless and linebackers Billy Ray Smith and Gary Plummer had something to say, and so did the team's most inspirational player for the past two years, cornerback Gill Byrd.

"We were at a point where we felt we had to nip it in the bud," Byrd said.

"We had some things we had to put on the line and straighten out before it was too late," Bayless said.

Added Plummer: "A lot of things needed to be said. A lot of young guys need to realize that the pinnacle is not making the team, but making the team successful."

The "we're-not-out-of-the-playoffs-yet" revival meeting, while odd in its Week-1-of-the-season timing, was the first such non-union assembly that anyone around here could recall since early 1986 when Kellen Winslow and Wes Chandler brought the team together to discuss three straight defeats.

The belly-flop in Dallas, however, has called for desperate measures.

"We had to stop some things that were starting," defensive end Lee Williams said. "There were a whole lot of things that needed to be addressed, and they were. Now let's see if it makes a difference."

There's the rub. Back in 1986 Winslow, Chandler & Co. had a nice chit-chat, embraced, and then went out and fell on their facemasks in Seattle, 33-7. They could've held hands in the huddle, and it wouldn't have made any difference, as they went on to lose four more in a row.

The present-day club, while a whole lot more talented than the declining '86 Chargers, gets its chance to rebound Sunday in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium against the 1-0 Cincinnati Bengals.

On first glance, better schedule another team meeting for Monday.

The Chargers need to have a players-only meeting to regroup; the Bengals don't even huddle to call the plays on the field.

Unless the Chargers' newly committed players were able to legislate in an offense that can score, or a defense that doesn't collapse down the stretch, the problems remain the same. Meeting or not.

"We have to learn to win as a team," Bayless said. "We've got to learn how to play for 60 minutes."

That, of course, will be impossible for the offense this season. With two inexperienced quarterbacks, and an offensive line that even its coach won't talk about, scoreboards across America can rest easy.

No, to defeat the Bengals, and to march forward and trigger a wave of stories centering on the players-only meeting that turned around a whole season, the Chargers' defense will have to live up to preseason billing. And not for just 58 minutes.

"It's bleeping deja vu ," a disgusted Williams said after the Cowboys marched 53 yards for their come-from-behind victory.

"When you don't play up to expectations," Bayless said. "It leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

The No. 6-ranked defense in the league, although honored for its pass rush and strength against the run, allowed the opposition to post a winning fourth-quarter score five times last season. Mother Teresa has more killer instinct than that.

"Last year it was personnel," Plummer said. "Our two extra defensive backs weren't getting the job done."

When the opposition went with four wide receivers last season, the Chargers countered with Elvis Patterson and Roy Bennett. In hindsight, they might have been better off with Floyd Patterson and Tony Bennett.

This season they have hired rookie free agent Donald Frank and free agent Joe Fuller to cover the opposition's extra firepower. And that's just fine, as long as Leslie O'Neal, Williams and Burt Grossman are getting to the quarterback.

Unfortunately they only got close in the fourth quarter Sunday. In fact O'Neal decked Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, but not until after Aikman had hit Kelvin Martin with a 24-yard pass to the Chargers' 1-yard line to set up Aikman's game-winning touchdown dive.

"If Aikman holds the ball just that much longer, we ice the game," Lynn said. "We didn't make the play, but we will. I don't think it's a pressure thing where the team doesn't want to be out there with it on the line. That's where we want to be."

Now it can be argued that the defense never should have been put in the position of having to protect a 14-10 lead. But with an offense still learning to drive, that's the way it's going to be this season -- just like last season.

Last season, 14 of the Chargers' 16 games were decided by seven or fewer points. And although the defense limited its foes to 20 or fewer points in 13 of their last 14 games, it wasn't nearly enough to produce a winning record.

It was more of the same in Game 1 this season, but now it's up to a maturing -- take note Junior Seau -- and emerging defense to do even more. Now they have to win the game.

"When it gets down to the end of the game and the other team wants to win badly," Byrd said, "we've got to raise our level of play even more."

And then as Bobby Beathard's boys take root, and Coach Dan Henning's offense picks up steam, Dallas once again becomes only a bad TV show.

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