Coach Dan Henning lambasted linebacker Leslie O’Neal in front of the Chargers Wednesday morning for the linebacker’s comments published in The Times. Henning said further such remarks might warrant suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
"(Henning) ripped him,” one Charger player said. “Leslie started to talk back, but as soon as the word, ‘suspension,’ was mentioned, he shut up and took the rest of the abuse. It was harsh.”
O’Neal said in the story the season was already lost because of unfulfilled playoff expectations.
He also suggested the team promotes favored players, implied that preferential treatment might be racially motivated and cited an example of one unidentified Charger who has received, in his opinion, an extraordinary public-relations push.
O’Neal’s pointed remarks toward an unidentified teammate prompted both outrage and agreement in the locker room. Despite the division, however, players were unanimous in their speculation that O’Neal was directing his comments toward linebacker Billy Ray Smith.
“Coach Henning responded to what was said in the paper,” O’Neal said. “It was something I said, I said it, now it’s over with. He didn’t ask for an apology and I didn’t give one.
“But I want to play here, and I don’t want to put my job in jeopardy by saying something stupid. He made a warning; it was heeded.”
Henning confirmed he “made comments to the team . . . that included O’Neal.
“They were directed at different individuals and different groups and the team in general,” he said, adding that saying he discussed the holdout of nose tackle Joe Phillips. “My comments were concerning this time of year and the frustrations that develop when things don’t seem to go the team’s or individual’s way.
“I’m certainly disappointed that comments were made . . . and along the lines they were.”
General Manager Bobby Beathard said he was distressed by O’Neal’s remarks, “but nothing surprises me today. With the money involved in professional sports, there is a lot of selfishness.”
Cornerback Gill Byrd said he could not recall in his eight years with the club such an unusual team meeting.
“I think it was something that had to be done from Coach Henning’s standpoint,” Byrd said. “He had to talk to the players, let them know where he stood and what he thought about it. He handled it well.”
O’Neal has never been shy at delivering his opinions, but if he was taking aim at Smith, he might have ignited trouble.
“I think everybody knew who he was talking about; that was kind of obvious,” defensive end Burt Grossman said. “But Leslie is entitled to say what he wants; I’m the last one around here in favor of censorship.
“I also understand Coach Henning’s reaction; if you say something like that, there are going to be repercussions because it causes a lot of tension. On the other hand, saying it and taking it back doesn’t take the tension away. The tension’s still there, everybody in the locker room knows what he was trying to say.”
Smith, whose reputation has been beyond reproach the past few years, was unavailable for comment. In his eight years with the team, he has been a high-profile contributor in the community and on the field.
This season, however, he has been hampered by injury.
After Smith was placed on injured reserve early in the season, linebacker Henry Rolling took his place and received high marks from teammates and coaches. Upon Smith’s return, however, he rejoined the starting lineup.
Opinion is divided among players as to who the better linebacker might be at this time, but that perhaps is only a precursor of a potentially deeper problem.
“The players didn’t want to discuss this outside of the locker room,” said one player, “but there are many of us who feel strongly about this. Leslie O’Neal has gone unchecked around here, doing and saying what he wants. I’d like to kick his ass, and if he says something to me, I will.”
O’Neal said he was not bothered by Henning’s tongue-lashing or his teammates’ reaction. He said, however, the coach might have misunderstood his remarks about the season being lost.
“It’s like Henning said, he’s trying to guard guys from giving up, not quitting,” O’Neal said. “There are a lot of things to gain in these last three games. Whether we reap the benefits this year or down the road, he has to say that, because you’ve got young players that might take that statement I made to the fact, ‘Well, this season’s over, let’s quit.’ That’s not what I was implying.”
Byrd, who was asked if he felt good about the outcome of the team meeting, took long pause before replying.
“I can’t say . . . I feel good everything is out in the open,” he said, “but I don’t know what the reaction will totally be for another week or so. How are we going to handle being confronted with stuff like this? I don’t know.”
O’Neal, who was given three chances to retract his initial comments before they went to print, said he will be more judicious next time with his opinions.
“All I wanted to do was let some people listen and they heard,” he said. “By them speaking about it, that was acknowledgment that I was heard.
“Who knows? There might have been a lot of stuff said that maybe might appeal to other people and they couldn’t say it. It was just me saying what I felt like I needed to say for me to have peace with myself.”
CHARGERS, PHILLIPS AT ODDS: The Chargers said nose tackle Joe Phillips will remain on the reserve/non-football injury list and will receive 50% of his pay for this season. C13