The tradition continues: The Chargers’ commitment to finish 6-10 and lose games by the narrowest of margins.
What comes after three-peat? For the third year in a row the Chargers have finished 6-10, and for the 14th time in the past two seasons they have been defeated by seven or fewer points.
Sunday they went to the wire with the Raiders only to fall back in the fourth quarter, 17-12, in front of 64,445 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The victory earned the Raiders (12-4) their first AFC West Division crown since 1985 and a first-week bye in the playoffs. It was also the Raiders’ 14th victory in their last 18 meetings with the Chargers, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 1982.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game,” Raiders Coach Art Shell said. “But we did today what champions have to do: Find a way to win.”
The Chargers’ search for success, meanwhile, drags on and on. Week-to-week, it’s how are they going to lose? What’s going to go wrong? Who’s going to make the mistake that turns victory into defeat?
They were ahead 12-10 in the fourth quarter, and they were 11:36 away from completing an upset that would have made the Kansas City Chiefs division champs and the Raiders a wild-card entrant. The Chargers had the league’s No. 6-ranked defense, and they had the Raiders pinned back on their own 20-yard line.
“There it is again; we got that close,” said General Manager Bobby Beathard, “and couldn’t finish it off.”
There it is: The story of disappointment in both 1989 and 1990.
The Raiders went 80 yards in 11 plays, and with 3:53 remaining scored on Jay Schroeder’s 17-yard pass to a wide open Steve Smith.
How? What? Who?
“It was the perfect play against the defense we had called,” linebacker Billy Ray Smith explained. “It’s one of those one in a thousand calls.”
They caught the Chargers in a linebacker blitz and sent Smith out for a pass.
“They really did a great job on me by sucking me in,” Chargers linebacker Junior Seau said. “It was my man and I felt bad. It was my fault they got it.”
When the Chargers got the ball back they also had 80 yards to go. But they had rookie John Friesz at quarterback, and he had the benefit of one two-minute drill in practice on Friday.
“That’s the first time I’ve run the two-minute offense live,” said Friesz, after completing 11 of 22 for 98 yards with a touchdown and interception in his NFL debut. “The defense was just standing there when I ran it in practice. It wasn’t like what the Raiders did.”
The Chargers advanced to the San Diego 43 in their two-minute offense, but then were shoved back 10 yards on tackle Broderick Thompson’s penalty for holding. They made it back again to the Los Angeles 46, but then Raiders defensive lineman Scott Davis sacked Friesz for a seven-yard loss.
With a timeout and a third and 17 from the San Diego 47, Friesz was instructed to look deep for Anthony Miller. But he chose to go to tight end Arthur Cox, who was tackled for a gain of six yards.
With the team’s final timeout and 51 seconds to play, Friesz was told to go to Miller deep again on fourth and 11. But he felt pressure in the pocket, rolled right and dribbled a pass in front of Nate Lewis, who was positioned short of the first-down marker.
And that was it for the Chargers in 1990.
“He just showed signs of youth,” quarterbacks coach Ted Tollner said. “They didn’t double Anthony; they played a zone defense. We told him we got two shots at it and we’re going to try and get the ball upfield to our best player.
“But he flushed (from the pocket) on one because of pressure, and made a poor decision on on the other. In either case, you’re not going to make a first down.”
Friesz took the Chargers the length of the field to open the game, but on fourth and one from the one, Coach Dan Henning elected to take a 3-0 lead on John Carney’s 19-yard field goal.
Although Schroeder didn’t complete his first pass of the game until there were less than two minutes left in the half, the Raiders advanced to the San Diego five-yard line on a controversial pass interference call against Charger defensive back Sam Seale.
Seale appeared to have textbook coverage on Willie Gault, but as Gault attempted to catch Schroeder’s pass, there was contact between receiver and defender. A flag was thrown, the Chargers argued and the Raiders moved into position to score.
On third and one, Marcus Allen took his patented dive into the end zone for a 7-3 lead.
The Chargers retaliated with Rod Bernstine and Ronnie Harmon. Bernstine, who finished with a career-high 114 yards on 27 carries, bulled his way up the middle, and Harmon, who ran for 53 yards on five carries, went wide.
After Bernstine and Harmon put the Chargers in scoring position at the Los Angeles seven-yard line, Friesz fired a touchdown pass to tight end Craig McEwen. Friesz impressed the brass on the play by moving from his first choice and to his second choice before settling on McEwen, his third read on the play.
Carney’s extra-point attempt, however, was blocked, and the Chargers settled for a 9-7 halftime lead.
After a scoreless third quarter, which included Carney’s short field-goal effort from 54 yards, the Raiders went ahead 10-9 on Jeff Jaeger’s 45-yard line-drive field goal.
Jaeger’s ensuing kickoff was returned 90 yards to the Los Angeles seven-yard line by Donnie Elder. Elder was caught from behind by Raiders’ safety Dan Land, thereby forcing the Chargers’ offense to try and go the final seven yards for the score.
Friesz’s third-down pass from the three, however, was batted down at the line of scrimmage, and Carney was called on to kick a 21-yard field goal for a 12-10 lead.
“I don’t feel good about the wins and losses,” Beathard said. “But I think we’ve made progress. . . . I think we’re a better team. But I wish the progress we had made had translated into more than six wins.
“I think if you asked the players they can play with the best in this division (Raiders). I think our record shows and the way we have lost some of the games that we can play with them, but we haven’t been good enough to beat them.
“We feel on a par with those guys, but there’s something we have to do between now and next season to be able to prove it.”
In other words: Wait until next year. Again.