CHARGER NOTEBOOK : Veterans Take Party Line in Meetings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Chargers (0-2) are trying to right themselves with additional study time and parties .

"Today a bunch of guys on special teams are getting together and are going to watch films," linebacker Gary Plummer said. "That's a good sign. That's an area where we had shown a lack of knowledge, so the guys are getting together and it will be kind of a camaraderie-type thing.

"For a lot of guys when they first come in, special teams are kind of looked down on, so if you make it something that's fun--you know, have food and something to drink--guys will learn more in an atmosphere where they are also having some fun."

There has been talk about simplifying the defense and returning to the running game on offense, but it's the Chargers' special-team play that has been particularly disappointing.

The special teams were ranked No. 1 overall in the league at the end of last season. But the Chargers are fourth from the bottom in covering punts two weeks into the season and third from last in covering kicks. They are the only team not to return a punt yet.

"We went into last week with one return on special teams and normally we'll have three for punts," Plummer said. "Guys could not get three punt returns. There were too many mistakes against Pittsburgh, so we simplified it. That's a crime. If you can't learn your own responsibility for three plays, you don't belong out there."

Plummer, of course, needs no inducements to work overtime. Hard work has helped him become one of the team's most consistent performers. He has led the Chargers in tackles the past three years, and despite being bothered by a sore neck, is doing so again this season.

Plummer, although discouraged with the team's start, contended that the Chargers can turn around their record with one simple thing: More study time.

"Early in my career I was almost thankful for the type of player who didn't prepare himself," Plummer said. "That's what enabled me to become an NFL player. I was never a gifted athlete. But now I feel the exact opposite.

"I'm angry. I've seen the talent level on this team for the last six years and we have the athletes to get it done. The solution really and truly comes from the individuals, and getting themselves prepared."

He said the message from the coaches this week has been just that--study, study, study. Plummer said that despite the team's poor start, the Chargers are only one game out of first place in the AFC West.

"We have to feel extremely fortunate that we're only one out," he said. "I put everything into this game, and if I don't remain optimistic, I might as well quit.

"I just wish guys understood. What's the average salary in the NFL? $340,000? It just frustrates me to see guys, as soon as they step off the practice field, sprinting for the parking lot. You're getting out of here at three o'clock, and that's not even a full day's work for the average American, and believe me, we're not getting paid like the average American."

Plummer said there are players such as Leslie O'Neal who do not require additional study time. "He's an outstanding football player, and I don't have any problem with that," Plummer said.

But the Chargers have a number of younger players who have joined the team this season, and because of a number of mental errors, the team is winless.

"The fans are as frustrated as we are," Plummer said. "There's nobody dogging it; I just think it's a misunderstanding on some people's part that they can just show up on Sunday and get it done. Hopefully, reality has slapped them in the face."

An Atlanta television station reported Friday that the Chargers and Falcons were discussing a trade for Atlanta's No. 1 pick, cornerback Bruce Pickens. Pickens remains unsigned.

But the report was without foundation, according to General Manager Bobby Beathard. He said the club brought up the name of Pickens weeks ago before trading Lee Williams to Houston, but he said he has had no further contact with the Falcons regarding Pickens.

Defensive back Donald Frank pulled a hamstring in Friday's practice, but he dismissed the seriousness of the injury later.

"I'm definitely going to play," he said.

Henning said Cedric Mack, who was picked up after being released by Phoenix this preseason, will play in place of Frank if the injury sidelines him.

Starting right tackle Broderick Thompson practiced for the first time all week. Henning said Thompson might start against the Falcons, but said it's more likely that Mark May will replace him in the lineup.

Charger nose tackle Joe Phillips is a member of the Jerry Glanville Fan Club.

"He's my idol," Phillips said. "I mean I grew up watching Johnny Cash with my dad, and anybody who dresses all in black is my idol."

He's one of the team's most significant contributors, and yet on a weekly basis Craig McEwen's contribution goes almost unnoticed.

"The coaches know who I am," McEwen said, "and that's what matters. Dan Henning knows my abilities better than anybody, and he's been with me since day one in Washington."

McEwen signed with the Redskins as a free agent in 1987, was released and then resigned as a replacement player during the NFL strike later that season. At the same time, Henning was working with Washington as an offensive assistant coach.

When Henning became the Chargers' head coach, McEwen soon followed. The Chargers list McEwen as an H-back, but in the first two weeks of the season he put almost as much time in at wide receiver.

The Chargers are expected to employ Shawn Jefferson as their No. 3 receiver Sunday against the Falcons, but McEwen's on call. He's presently third on the team behind Anthony Miller and Nate Lewis with six receptions for 44 yards and a touchdown.

"I'm not going to blow by anybody, but it's kind of like Steve Largent's situation; he wasn't running 4.4 (40-yard dashes)," McEwen said. " But he was a very cerebral receiver. He knew defenses and he knew where to find the vulnerability in zones. On man-to-man stuff my biggest influence has been watching the 'posse' in Washington with Gary Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders.

"I watch those guys and their techniques. And it pays off. I file it, and then call on it in certain situations. The best thing in this game is knowledge and experience."

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