It can be a liberating experience, starting a football season 0-5. Victories mean playoff contention, which means pressure, which causes the gnawing sensation in the pit of the head coach's stomach, which leads to the head coach's antacid du jour:
When in doubt, don't think--just kick the field goal.
Victory-free, the San Diego Chargers were freed of such worry Sunday afternoon. They had not won in '91, they had not won since December, so when they got the ball on the Raider one-yard line--fourth down, seven seconds before halftime, L.A. leading, 10-7--they called timeout and let their imaginations run wild.
"Hey," running back Marion Butts said with a nudge into quarterback John Friesz's rib cage, "give me the ball. I want the ball."
Friesz, a veteran of seven professional starts, is still in that impressionable stage. He listened. He nodded. Sounded like a great idea.
Friesz forwarded Butts' motion to Charger Coach Dan Henning.
Henning motioned Friesz to go forward with Butts up the middle.
A no-brainer, Henning called it later. "I wanted a touchdown," Henning simply explained, "so we went for the touchdown."
Butts got the call, he got the ball and he got a face full of silver-painted grass. So this is what an end zone looks like. Before Sunday, Butts had been there only once this season, his teammates only six times.
When Butts looked up, the Chargers had a 14-10 lead and the warmest feeling they'd found since last year's AFC West bye week. There would be another, after one more half of contusions and one more touchdown by Butts. San Diego 21, L.A. 13. The longest active losing streak in the NFL--eight games, dating to Dec. 16, 1990--was done and the Chargers, in Friesz's words, were no longer "the best 0-5 team in the league."
The Chargers had talked themselves into believing as much--they were the best of the worst--because they need a reason to practice. They have no first-round draft choice this year, so losing them all would do them no good. They belong to the wrong West Division; in the NFC, 0-5 is only two games out of second place. After five weeks in the AFC West, San Diego already was four games out.
There was nowhere to go, no way out. All the Chargers could do was play on--and keep reminding themselves that five of the losses in their streak were decided by a touchdown or less.
"We should not be 0-5," Friesz said. "I still think we're a better team than our record shows."
Evidence is available. In Week 3, John Carney missed three long field goals and San Diego lost to Atlanta, 13-10. In Week 5, the Chargers outgained Kansas City by nearly 130 yards and lost by a point, 14-13. They began the season floored, first by Butts' camp-long holdout, then by the trade of sack-master flash Lee Williams to Houston, then by the torch pass from Sgt. Billy Joe Tolliver to the private from Idaho, Friesz.
It's been only days since the legs stopped wobbling.
Talent-wise, the Chargers are limited, but under perfect conditions, they do two things well.
They can defense the run--as they did against the Chiefs and the Raiders, holding both to fewer than 100 yards on the ground.
And, to let Friesz tell it: "Our philosophy on offense is that we can pick up one yard any time we want."
It's not much, but it helped win a ballgame against a 1990 Super Bowl semifinalist.
That's why Friesz wasn't surprised when Henning gave in to Butts on fourth and goal. "With the guys we have up front and the big backs we have in the backfield," Friesz said, "we feel we can get one yard every time."
One yard from the goal line, that's some kind of feeling.
Butts was stopped, too, met head-on by Raider linebacker Riki Ellison at the line of scrimmage. Butts poured all of his 248 pounds into Ellison, knocked him on his heels and then, borrowing a move he said he learned from Robert Delpino, he dived under the pile and into the end zone.
"Yeah, I saw Delpino go under like that against the Giants," Butts said. "I saw him do that on TV--a great surge. I thought it was a pretty good move so I tried it there."
Mission accomplished, Butts couldn't say enough about the opportunity.
"Hey, he's a gamblin' man," Butts said of Henning. "That's football, that's a part of life. You make decisions and you're not going to make everything, but you'll come through some of the times.
"When you're 0-5, a coach can afford to take chances."
If the Chargers have found themselves, the Rams have only the calendar to blame. They are next on the Chargers' schedule and 3-3 in Anaheim is no longer an assumption. One victory is just one victory, but to San Diego, one victory amounts to a roll and the Chargers were still riding it as sundown approached.
In front of his locker, Friesz actually said the Chargers "could not get caught up in this win and look past the Rams." He talked about the Rams they way the rest of the league used to talk about the Chargers. "Their passing game has been taking a lot of heat, but they're not that bad a team," Friesz said. "They've struggled with their passing, but that's no indication of how bad or how good they are.
"I think they're a lot like us--a better team than their record."
Today, 1-5. Tomorrow, Southern California?
"I think," linebacker Henry Rolling surmised, "this is the start of something."