Advertisement

First-and-10 Talent, or 6-10 Team? : Major Challenges For Henning Are Youth, Schedule

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First reaction after watching the Chargers’ preseason preparations for 1991: Oh, boy, another season of 6-10 football.

The Chargers, however, have a new game plan: Success through on-the-job training.

Stanley Richard, you stand there, right in back of that other youngster, Anthony Shelton. You two will be safeties, and you can bet the big boys from Pittsburgh and San Francisco will be picking on you.

Now don’t be nervous. Eric Moten, you play left guard, and Harry Swayne--yes, you, Harry--play left tackle . . . and act like you’ve been there before. OK, fake like you’ve been there before.

Advertisement

Where are you going, John Friesz? Somebody has to be the quarterback.

Defensive end, by George, will be manned by you know who? George Hinkle & George Thornton. George Who?

You get the picture.

“You have to go on what we’ve done this preseason and that’s not very encouraging,” said Ted Tollner, offensive coordinator. “But realistically, in my mind, I can still be bullish on our expectations. I think we have a winning football team here.”

Advertisement

But you know, the Chargers haven’t had a winning football team in a non-strike year since 1981. They open in Pittsburgh, where they have gone 0-7 in regular-season games, then become sacrificial lambs in San Francisco a week after the 49ers take on the Giants on Monday night TV.

Five of the Chargers’ first seven games are on the road and you don’t win on the road, especially if you are going into combat with green troops in critical positions.

“I think our team is going to be better,” Coach Dan Henning said, “but I’m not sure it is right now. We’re going through some changes with better players. We have better talent and we have been sorely in need of some of that. We’re on the right track.”

But how well will the Chargers do? You look at Friesz, a pair of teddy bear cuddlers at safety and a schedule designed to get a head coach fired, and what can you expect?

Advertisement

You can expect these 47 players to show up in Pittsburgh:

QUARTERBACKS

The day after he lost his job, Billy Joe Tolliver walked into Ted Tollner’s office and said he was ready to help in whatever way he could. The Chargers figured the best way he could help was by boarding an airplane to Atlanta.

“I guess I have been resurrected,” said Bob Gagliano, who was headed for a four-week rest on injured reserve before Tolliver’s banishment. Gagliano is the expert on the run-and-shoot, but Tolliver goes to Atlanta to pull the trigger. Has anybody figured out yet what’s going on here?

Advertisement

Some kids are born to rich parents; John Friesz was drafted by Bobby Beathard. He started one game last year after standing on the sideline in practice most of the year. He starts the first game this season after standing on the sideline much of this exhibition season. Check with Mark Vlasic and Tolliver, who are now working elsewhere. He’s been real good at just standing around.

“I think we have some strengths on our team where we don’t have to have an exceptional performance out of the quarterback,” said Tollner, the offensive coordinator.

The punter, however, will have to be very, very good.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Advertisement

Nate Lewis might be the man to send Anthony Miller to the Pro Bowl again or send the Chargers back into the draft looking for help. In last four drafts, Chargers have wasted a fourth and a pair of third-round picks on wide receivers who failed to catch on. If Lewis can develop into a convincing second receiver, defenses won’t be able to swarm all over Miller.

“Nate is probably the most improved player on the team. He did it through hard work, and he gives us a legitimate second receiver,” wide receiver coach Charlie Joiner said. “Anthony has got to be in the top five or six guys in the league and he should make a good jump this year.”

Obviously, he’s been saving himself this exhibition season.

Kitrick Taylor, the team’s No. 1 punt returner, also will work as third receiver. With Friesz at quarterback in the Chargers’ ball-control offense, how many passes do you think the No. 3 receiver will catch?

Advertisement

“Kitrick’s just a pro in all ways,” Joiner said. “He’s our security blanket. He can play any of the receiver positions.”

Shawn Jefferson, who was acquired in the trade that sent defensive lineman Lee Williams to Houston, probably will make a run for playing time later in the season.

“We’re going to bring him along slowly and let him play on special teams,” Joiner said. “But he’s going to become a part of this offense because of the speed he has. He’s not fast; he’s very fast.”

So was Jamie Holland.

Advertisement

RUNNING BACKS

Talent overload. If Rod Bernstine doesn’t get hurt, somebody’s feelings will.

There are not enough footballs to go around to let these guys make a run for their contract incentives. Now that Bernstine has been annointed starting running back, he’s not about to play understudy to Marion Butts. If the Chargers just happen to be paying Marion Butts under the table, it won’t be for sitting on his helmet. And then there’s Ronnie Harmon, the team’s most potent weapon.

“He’s a good receiver, good runner, good blocker and I think he could be a good first-down player,” running backs coach Bobby Jackson said.

Advertisement

First back to fumble gets the bench. Butts carried the ball 265 times last year without leaving it behind.

“He was a good player (before his holdout) and hopefully he will be the same,” Jackson said. “He’s a pounder, but the surprising thing about him is that he has some of the longest runs we’ve had.”

Bernstine has been nothing but productive whenever he’s allowed to play, and this is a tight end. “He’s got the ability to make the first guy miss him,” Jackson said. “He’s a good receiver and is just a multi-talented player.”

Eric Bieniemy has been pushed into the background. He showed spirit and enthusiasm that the rest of the team lacked, but carried only 23 times. “He’s short, but he’s not a little guy,” Jackson said. “He’s got these extremely strong legs and he hits the holes quick. I think he’s going to be a good player.”

Advertisement

H-BACK/TIGHT ENDS

Fantasy football owners take note: Derrick Walker might be the best kept secret at tight end. Walker will be one of Friesz’s primary targets. “I think he has potential to be one of the great tight ends in the league,” Ed White, tight ends coach, said. “He’s going to have more opportunity to play in long-yardage situations and he has great hands.”

Chargers have earned respect with their running game, and much of the credit goes to Arthur Cox. “He’s in better shape than he has been in the last few years,” White said. “He’s just a tough run blocker and pass protector.”

Craig McEwen works wide at times in the passing game and Steve Hendrickson will work as the team’s enforcer.

Advertisement

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

This crew began last season in a shambles and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs worked magic. Time to go to work, Alex.

Rookie Eric Moten, who cost the Chargers their first-round pick in 1992, opens at left guard. “He’s everything I hoped to get,” Gibbs said.

Leo Goeas was supposed to start at left tackle over Harry Swayne, but Goeas’ body let him down in training camp. Swayne is now charged with responsibility of protecting Friesz’s blindside. “Don’t know much about him, hasn’t been in the NFL wars,” Gibbs said. “He looks like a fine athlete, but whether he can do it when it counts remains to be seen.”

Advertisement

Courtney Hall returns to center and, if the Chargers enjoy success, he will begin to draw praise around the league. “He’s the best player I got,” Gibbs said.

David Richards returns to right guard and Broderick Thompson to right tackle, and that’s where the Chargers’ running game goes. “David can do all phases pretty well, and Broderick looks like he’s headed toward being one of the better right tackles in football,” Gibbs said.

Mark May provides insurance on the right side, Frank Cornish at center and Eric Floyd can play left or right. “Eric’s Mr. Utility and gets me out of all the jams,” Gibbs said. Too bad he can’t play quarterback, too.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN

Advertisement

Are the great days of the mighty pass rush gone? The Chargers didn’t get a sack in the exhibition season from a down lineman, and yet they acted as if they weren’t all that concerned by the departure of Lee Williams.

Joe Phillips, however, returns from mugging off the field, and that’s a boon for a defense that wasn’t so tough against the run. “He’s the anchor to our defense,” defensive line coach Chuck Clausen said.

Burt Grossman gets big-time test: Were those 20 sacks in his first two years the result of sheer talent or the opposition spending more time on moves to shut down Williams? “I’ll tell you what, Grossman is unusually powerful for his size,” Clausen said. “And he’s got that excellent speed to go with it.”

George Hinkle has been just taking up space here the past three years. Now has to play and split time with rookie George Thornton. Thornton’s supposed to be good against the run, but is that because he can’t move very well? Mitchell Benson is slower.

Advertisement

LINEBACKERS

Can you name the team’s leading tackler for the past three years? Gary Plummer. He may be surrounded by greatness in Leslie O’Neal, potential stardom in Junior Seau and dependability in Billy Ray Smith, but it’s his consistency that remains remarkable. “And it will probably be four years in a row if he stays healthy,” said defensive coordinator Ron Lynn.

Smith has been around here longer than anyone with the exception of Gill Byrd, but Smith just turned 30. Shoot, he’s going to become a father for the first time. “Every year we have to see if he’s lost something,” Lynn said, “but at this point we haven’t seen it.” Smith will work on most run downs, and Henry Rolling gets the call in the “Pirate” defense in passing situations. “Henry has fought through a knee injury and he had a great camp,” Lynn said.

O’Neal splits time between defensive end and outside linebacker and has become the most dominant performer. He was third in the AFC with 13 1/2 sacks and has 42 1/2 in 54 career games. Last season, he raised the ire of club officials for comments he made to the media. This year, he said he’s devoting himself to action, and anything beyond will get a “no comment.”

Advertisement

Seau has a lot to say: “If it takes being a defensive lineman, nose guard or inside linebacker, I’ll do it. We got to win. If we win, we will get paid and we’ll get all the glamour that comes with winning. We’ve got to change our attitude around here and do what it takes to win.” Seau may have the physical attributes to become the league’s best outside linebacker, but Lynn said, “he’s a our secret missile.” And he’s liable to be launched from any position on defense.

Galand Thaxton and Mike Wilcher are here on the “Everybody needs 47 players” plan.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The future is now and it does not include last year’s starting safeties, Vencie Glenn and Martin Bayless. Glenn was cut loose and replaced by energetic Stanley Richard. Bayless remains as special teams strongman, but Anthony Shelton steps in as strong safety. That’ll throw a chill into Bubby Brister.

Advertisement

“Yeah, they’re babes in the woods,” defensive back coach Jim Mora said. “But they can run.” So could Elvis Patterson. Richard provides big-play potential for a secondary that tied for fourth in the AFC with 19 interceptions. “Stanley’s an impact player like Junior Seau and Leslie O’Neal,” Mora said. “Anthony is giving up a little bit in size and we’ll see how he holds up on the run stuff, but he makes up for it in enthusiasm.”

Cornerback Gill Byrd has more interceptions over the past three years (21) than any player in the league. “Some people have questioned if he’s dropped a step off because he’s gotten beaten, but to me he’s just as steady as ever,” Mora said. “He’s going against Anthony Miller day-to-day and I don’t see any dropoff.”

An aggressive Sam Seale, who is coming off shoulder surgery, will start opposite Byrd. “I was a little bit worried about Sam because he looked hesitant because of his shoulder,” Mora said, “but all those worries vanished when he smacked (Raider running back) Steve Smith. He’s ready to go.”

Donald Frank tried to make All-Pro receivers out of the folks he covered in the exhibition games. He’ll be the first cornerback off the bench and Donnie Elder will follow, while at the same time adding punch on special teams. “I think Donnie’s the toughest player on this team,” Mora said.

Advertisement

The opposition picked on Cedric Mack in Phoenix, but Chargers claimed him and remain impressed with his athletic ability at age 30. Darren Carrington provides depth as safety/cornerback, but he will get paid for the work he does on special teams.

SPECIALISTS

Chargers opened season with kicker Fuad Reveiz last year, but regained their senses and signed John Carney after Week 4. Carney set a club record with a .905 field-goal percentage, hitting 19 of 21 attempts. “If Carney continues the way he was last year, he may be the best ever,” said Larry Pasquale, special teams coordinator.

John Kidd is not only one of the most consistent punters in the league, but he provides insurance at quarterback. “He’s an all-around athlete,” Pasquale said. “He’s so alert, and his decision-making ability is just excellent.”

Advertisement

The Chargers’ surge last season to become the No. 1 special teams in league might have started with acquisition of deep snapper Mark Rodenhauser. “He’s as polished as they come at his position,” Pasquale said. “He makes the punter and kicker secure in what they’re doing.” And this is a team that needs to keep its kickers happy.

OUTLOOK

Bob Gagliano will win Comeback Player of the Year award after the Chargers travel to Buffalo for the first round of the NFL playoffs.

Just seeing if you were paying attention.

Advertisement

Bob Gagliano has a better chance of making it into the Hall of Fame than this team has of making it into the playoffs. If the Chargers finish better than 6-10, Dan Henning deserves Coach of the Year consideration.

CHARGERS 1991 Schedule

SUN. SEPT. 1 AT PITTSBURGH 1 P.M. SUN. SEPT. 8 AT SAN FRANCISCO 1 P.M. SUN. SEPT. 15 ATLANTA 1 P.M.* SUN. SEPT. 29 KANSAS CITY 1 P.M. SUN. OCT. 6 AT L.A. RAIDERS 1 P.M. SUN. OCT. 13 AT L.A. RAMS 1 P.M. SUN. OCT. 20 CLEVELAND 1 P.M. SUN. OCT. 27 SEATTLE 1 P.M. SUN. NOV. 3 BYE SUN. NOV. 10 SEATTLE 1 P.M. SUN. NOV. 17 NEW ORLEANS 1 P.M. SUN. NOV. 24 AT N.Y. JETS 1 P.M. SUN. DEC. 1 L.A. RAIDERS 5 P.M. SUN. DEC. 8 AT KANSAS CITY 10 A.M. SUN. DEC. 15 MIAMI 1 P.M. SUN. DEC. 22 DENVER 1 P.M.

* San Diego Times Source: San Diego Chargers Media Guide

Advertisement

1991 Roster

No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Age NFL Exp. 3 John Carney K 5-11 170 27 3 10 John Kidd P 6-3 208 29 8 16 Bob Gagliano QB 6-3 205 32 3 17 John Friesz QB 6-4 218 24 1 22 Gill Byrd CB-S 5-11 198 30 9 23 Anthony FS 6-1 195 23 2 Shelton 24 Stanley Richard FS 6-2 197 23 R 27 Donald Frank CB 6-0 192 25 2 28 Donnie Elder CB 5-9 178 27 6 29 Darren S 6-2 200 24 3 Carrington 30 Sam Seale CB 5-9 185 28 8 31 Craig McEwen HB 6-1 226 25 5 32 Eric Bieniemy RB 5-7 210 21 R 33 Ronnie Harmon RB 5-11 207 27 6 34 Steve HB 6-0 258 24 3 Hendrickson 35 Marion Butts RB 6-1 248 24 3 44 Martin Bayless SS 6-2 212 28 8 47 Cedric Mack CB 5-11 190 30 9 50 Gary Plummer LB 6-2 244 31 6 53 Courtney Hall C-G 6-1 281 22 3 54 Billy LB 6-3 236 29 9 Ray Smith 55 Junior Seau LB 6-3 250 22 2 56 Galand Thaxton LB 6-1 240 26 2 57 Henry Rolling LB 6-2 225 25 4 61 Eric Floyd G-T 6-5 310 25 2 63 Frank Cornish C-G 6-4 289 23 2 64 Mark C 6-5 283 30 4 Rodenhauser 65 David Richards G-T 6-4 310 25 4 67 Leo Goeas G-T 6-4 292 24 2 72 Harry Swayne T 6-5 290 26 5 73 Mark May G-T 6-6 296 31 10 75 Joe Phillips NT 6-5 315 28 6 76 Broderick G-T 6-4 295 30 7 Thompson 77 Eric Moten G 6-2 306 23 R 80 Shawa WR 5-11 172 22 R Jefferson 81 Nate Lewis WR 5-11 198 24 2 82 Rod Bernstine TE-RB 6-3 238 26 5 Texas A&M; 83 Anthony Miller WR 5-11 189 26 4 85 Kitrick Taylor WR 5-11 191 27 4 86 Joe Weinberg WR 6-1 194 22 R 88 Arthur Cox TE 6-2 270 30 9 89 Derrick Walker TE 6 250 24 2 90 Mike Wilcher LB 6-3 245 31 9 91 Leslie O’Neal LB 6-4 259 27 5 92 Burt Grossman DE 6-4 255 24 3 93 George DT 6-3 300 23 R Thornton 95 Mitchell Benson DT 6-4 300 24 3 97 George Hinkle DE 6-5 269 26 4

No. College 3 Notre Dame 10 North Western 16 Utah State 17 Idaho 22 San Jose State 23 Tennessee State 24 Texas 27 Winston-Salem State 28 Memphis State 29 Northern Arizona 30 Western State (Colo.) 31 Utah 32 Colorado 33 Iowa 34 California 35 Florida State 44 Bowling Green 47 Baylor 50 California 53 Rice 54 Arkansas 55 Southern California 56 Wyoming 57 Nevada 61 Auburn 63 UCLA 64 Illinois State 65 UCLA 67 Hawaii 72 Rutgers 73 Pittsburgh 75 Southern Methodist 76 Kansas 77 Michigan State 80 Central Florida 81 Oregon Tech 82 83 Tennessee 85 Washington State 86 Johnson C. Smith (N.C.) 88 Texas Southern 89 Michigan 90 North Carolina 91 Oklahoma State 92 Pittsburgh 93 Alabama 95 Texas Christian 97 Arizona

Source: San Diego Chargers

Advertisement


Advertisement
Advertisement