Coach Dan Henning, while conceding that owner Alex Spanos and General Manager Bobby Beathard are not in agreement, said Billy Joe Tolliver remains his choice to be the quarterback of the future for the Chargers.
At a wrap-up-the-season luncheon with writers regularly assigned to cover of the Chargers, Henning discussed his team’s 6-10 performance and what it will take to improve in 1991.
He began with the quarterbacks.
“There’s a feeling by Bobby and Mr. Spanos that they’re not sure Tolliver can do it,” Henning said. “And they think John Friesz might come along more quickly.”
Henning said he’s not so sure. He said, “I don’t think it would be wise” to pay the price in mistakes with the development of Friesz after making such an investment in time in Tolliver.
“I think that John Friesz will have to be outstanding in the offseason and the preseason for us to make that decision over Tolliver,” Henning said. “John Friesz didn’t do anything better (against the Raiders) than Tolliver has done in the previous 15 games.
“Friesz will have to go through somewhere in his life the growing process that Billy is part way through. And for us to make that step, which would be a step backwards, we would have to have a great feeling that he is quickly going to surpass Tolliver.”
Henning likened Tolliver’s progress to that of Dallas’ Troy Aikman and Phoenix’s Timm Rosenbach.
“He’s playing all as good as Aikman and Rosenbach,” Henning said. “They were drafted higher, they’re with similar-type teams and those franchises are solidly behind those guys as the quarterbacks of the future. We have a different perception here because there’s some mixed opinions.”
Henning said he would have to be given “an executive order to play musical chairs with the quarterbacks” next season.
“I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I believe the quarterback job will be determined through summer school and training camp, and when we start with that guy (he’ll be it).”
Despite the feelings of the owner and general manager, Henning said he has been under no pressure to play Friesz.
“Mr. Spanos has had some trepidation, to say the least, about Tolliver,” Henning said. “Mr. Beathard feels like there may be some things about Tolliver that are uncorrectable. I don’t agree with all those.
“I do agree that I have been disappointed with Tolliver at times. There are some things that have to be corrected, but I think they are correctable. I look at the alternatives, and I believe that we have the chance to win with Tolliver and I will continue to feel that way until which time another competitor shows me that we have a better chance.”
Henning said Mark Vlasic will probably not be protected under Plan B free agency to afford him the opportunity to go elsewhere if there is interest. Henning said he will also be welcome to return to the Chargers.
Henning, who has been 6-10 in his first two years as coach of the Chargers, has three years remaining on his contract. He said he’s not concerned about job security because he has an understanding with Spanos and Beathard that patience will govern the Chargers’ development.
“If they’re not willing to be patient with me or with the team, then I made incorrect decisions based on their feelings in the past,” Henning said. “Mr. Spanos wants to win . . . the only advice I’ve ever given to him, is that he has been impatient and changed over a number of times, and it hasn’t been successful.
“So I think he’s willing to patient. What his meaning of patience and what actually takes place may not be the same as mine.”
Henning said the Chargers are still suffering growing pains as the result of Beathard replacing Steve Ortmayer last season.
“We switched philosophies here with Bobby,” Henning said. “I spent a year with Steve and that approach and it’s just outright different. Bobby does not like troublemaker types of people. The Raider philosophy is that they’re willing to live with that, because it’s just out-and-out ability. I lean more toward Bobby’s way, but I was willing to work the other way, too.
“Mr. Spanos is mixed on that because Mr. Spanos would like to win. He’s not sure exactly what philosophy he would like to have, but he would like to win. He was willing to go along with (Ortmayer), but he is very confident with Bobby.
“If we’re patient, and we continue to make the change in getting the players Bobby wants,” Henning said, “we’ll not only play with these teams that are heavy into the playoffs, but pull them out, win them and get in the same playoff picture.”
Henning said the Chargers will also need to obtain a left tackle, more firepower on offense, a better caliber of athlete in the defensive secondary and bigger defensive linemen.
Henning said he’s also concerned with the chemistry of his defense. He said some of the team’s defensive starters might be traded or left unprotected in Plan B free agency.
“We have to change the chemistry of the defense and change the ability at some spots,” Henning said. “I think we try to keep every outstanding football player on defense.”
When asked to list the “great” players on defense, Henning began with linebacker Leslie O’Neal. He said Lee Williams was “much better than above marginal,” and Burt Grossman “was a situational outstanding player.”
He also mentioned linebacker Junior Seau and cornerback Gill Byrd, and said, “that would be the extent of it.”
And what about linebacker Billy Ray Smith?
“I think Billy Ray Smith was an outstanding player,” he said. “We have these things that weigh against Billy Ray, and this is not to say that I wouldn’t want Billy Ray on this team, but he’s smallish to play over the tight end all the time. He’s been banged up considerably . . . Are you going to get 16 games out of him?
“I think Billy Ray fits in the mix,” he said, “but just where I don’t know. At the same spot? You better back him up because he hasn’t remained healthy.”
Henning also discussed the future of several other players:
--He said he wants tight end Rod Bernstine to return to the team. “If reason prevails, Rod Bernstine will be here,” he said. “Now reason has to prevail over four people, Rod, his agent, Mr. Spanos and Bobby. Reason prevailing over four people is tough.”
--Running back Darrin Nelson and tackle Joel Patten will probably not be protected and most likely will not be invited to rejoin the team.
--Henning said O’Neal “is a bit selfish, but one thing about Leslie, on Sunday he doesn’t play selfish. His selfishness shows up in other areas, but if everybody played as hard as Leslie O’Neal plays, we’d have a heck of a football team. But it’s the feeling of the organization he could be more of a help in the locker room.”
--Consideration will be given to playing Seau in a different position, which undoubtedly would include outside linebacker-pass rushing duties.
--"Unhappy” linebacker Cedric Figaro and special teams standout Richard Brown will probably not be protected.
--There was an inquiry by a team, which Henning would not identify, into the availability of defensive coordinator Ron Lynn. Henning said it would have been a lateral move, and so therefore the team was not given permission to talk with Lynn.
--Henning said the Chargers need to get some “home-grown big-time football players” in the secondary. He said the team needs to find more competition at the safety position.
--If tight end Arthur Cox doesn’t come back in shape and weighing 275 pounds, Henning said, “I don’t want him.”
--He would like to see nose tackle Joe Phillips return to the team, but he said, “we may be beyond reason there.”
Dates to be released in April