The message is clear to Dan Henning: The Chargers, who have lost 13 games by seven or fewer points in the past two years, have to find a way to win close football games.
To drive home that point to his players, Henning announced Monday that rookie John Friesz will replace Billy Joe Tolliver as the team’s starting quarterback and will make his National Football League debut Sunday against the Raiders.
“We’re at a point of playing with some of these better teams, but we’re not pulling it off,” Henning said. “We’ll not only activate John Friesz (off injured reserve), but he will start. How long he will play will depend on if he’s competitive in helping us to win the football game.
“That will give us an indication of what kind of competitor he will be for next year . . . We have to get the message across to our football team that we have to find more competition. I’d like to do it at other positions, but I don’t have the players to do it.”
Henning said he was just as disappointed with the erratic play of his defense as the play of Tolliver, but he said he doesn’t have the defensive players to make wholesale changes.
“I think there’s some talent here to do better,” Henning said. “Why that’s not being done could have to do with the chemistry of our defense. If that means changing some players who are pretty good football players . . .
“It’s as significant for Billy what we’re doing, as it is a symbol for the team to let them know we’re not going to sit pat and think it’s all right to just stay close to teams like Kansas City. We have to find a way to win.”
As recently as last week, however, Henning indicated it would be counterproductive, if not harmful, to Friesz’s development to play him this season. Friesz has yet to take a snap in practice running the Charger offense.
However, Tolliver has thrown three passes that were intercepted in the past two weeks. His final pass Sunday was intercepted by Kansas City’s Deron Cherry with 1:48 to play and allowed the Chiefs to clinch a playoff berth with a 24-21 victory. The Chargers fell to 6-9.
“I think if Billy Joe Tolliver had made the play at the end of the game, and that’s where the fine line is drawn, he probably would have been named MVP of that game,” Henning said. “I think Tolliver has a future as a quarterback in this league.
“He does many many things far and above for a first- and second-year player at this stage of development. But he still has a track record in the last part of game of not making the play that needs to be made. That has to be taken into consideration.”
Henning met with his offensive coaching staff Monday morning and then consulted with the personnel department.
“I’m taking into consideration the mixed opinions across the organization,” Henning said. “There’s still a number of people on the coaching staff and a few people in the personnel department that think it might not be the best for John, or the best for the team.
“Then there’s some people that feel dead opposite to that; they think we may find something in John Friesz . . . I’m not sure there’s a majority.”
Henning said Tolliver still has his support, but he said Tolliver has to work on his shortcomings. He said Tolliver’s interceptions have come in situations where he had the opportunity to throw the ball away or move on to a different receiver.
He said Tolliver has also failed to adjust mechanically toward his tendency to overthrow receivers.
“He has to be pointedly brought to task,” Henning said. “But I’m still supportive of Billy. I think that Billy has come a long way and is going to be a good quarterback. And I think you can win with Billy. But we’re not going to win with Billy if he continues to make those kind of decisions and those type of throws (that lead to interceptions).
“The six months between now and training camp is important to let Billy know, and to let everybody else know, if we can find somebody who can be more consistent, then he won’t have that job.”
The 6-4, 209-pound Friesz, who set 24 school records at the University of Idaho, was a sixth-round selection of the Chargers in the draft. He came up with a mysterious shoulder injury at the conclusion of training camp, which allowed the Chargers to carry him on injured reserve and then eventually in a practice capacity.
While Henning has favored Tolliver, General Manager Bobby Beathard has liked what he has seen of Friesz in his work as scout team quarterback. Noticeably missing in the Chargers’ thinking has been Mark Vlasic, who opened the season as the team’s starting quarterback against Dallas.
“If John doesn’t play very well then maybe they’ll understand it’s not all Billy’s fault,” Henning said. “This isn’t an easy job. I think the team has confidence in Billy, but Billy can’t overthrow the ball in the middle. If he’s not capable of doing that, it’s going to be hard for him to remain at the top of the list.
“In deciding to move John Friesz up, he has some natural talents we’ve seen. He seems to be a little bit more naturally accurate than Billy, although we have to find out if he has the resiliency and the strong arm when the pressure’s on. We have to find out if he can handle the pressure of the position.”
Friesz, who expected to go quietly into the off-season without playing a down this season, accepted Monday’s news with a promise to spend his Christmas working overtime.
“It came as a total surprise to me,” Friesz said. “Obviously I haven’t taken any reps since the preseason, so it will be a tremendous challenge for me. But I think that’s when good players can excel the best.
“I’ve gotten a call from Billy Joe, and him being the class act that he is, he said that he is 100% behind me.”