Linebacker David Brandon, a former Charger for added embarrassment, returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown with 7 minutes 20 seconds remaining in overtime to complete a football-folly afternoon for the Chargers and lift the Browns to a 30-24 victory in front of 48,440 in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
The last time the Chargers opened the season 1-7, in 1986, they waited a day and then fired head coach Don Coryell and replaced him with Al Saunders.
"It's pretty dark right now," said Charger nose tackle Joe Phillips. "I mean as David was running for the touchdown, my heart sank to the ground. Somebody walking by could have stomped on it.
"It's devastating to put this much effort into it and continue to come up short."
The Chargers have become a case study in frustration with Dan Henning as head coach. They are now 4-19 in games decided by seven or fewer points in his three-year tenure, including 10 consecutive defeats in such maddening manner.
"We could have won it, we could have won a lot this year, we could have won a lot last year and the year before that," said defensive end Burt Grossman. "We just don't seem to do it. Every week they change things around to see if that's the problem, but it never seems to be the answer.
"We play hard every week, but you can see where that's got us. Maybe the stadium's on Indian burial ground and we're just cursed. I don't know what it is. Maybe people in previous lives, including myself, did something wrong and now we're paying for it. It just keeps going and going and . . ."
The Chargers had a 17-3 lead on the Browns with 3:38 remaining in the third quarter, they had a 24-17 advantage with 6:38 left in the game, and they attempted a 48-yard field goal on the final play of regulation to break a 24-24 tie.
But it was all a tease, all a waste. The Browns, trailing by 14 points, marched back on the Charger defense, and it was no contest. They gained yardage at their leisure, and they tied the game with 4:09 to play.
Quarterback John Friesz, a shining light in these gloomy times for the Chargers, guided his team into field-goal range for a John Carney game-winner. But disaster finds the Chargers like trouble hounds Mike Tyson.
The Chargers had the ball at the Cleveland 24-yard line with 21 seconds to play. They were in position for Carney to attempt a game-winning 41-yard field goal into the scoreboard and a light breeze. Friesz handed the ball to running back Marion Butts, who ran left, and from far down the field came a flying yellow flag: Holding on Arthur Cox.
"I was blocking Brandon and his arm slipped up under me, and it's a questionable call," Cox said, "but it shouldn't have even been close. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have done it. All we needed to do was just fall on the ball. I hate to have it happen so late in the game, but things like that do happen."
The holding penalty shoved the Chargers back to the 34, and after Butts ran up the middle for three yards, Carney came out to attempt a 48-yard field goal.
"Everything in the operation was fine," said Carney, who was wide left on a 47-yard attempt in the closing seconds to tie the Falcons earlier this season. "I thought I hit the ball real well, real solid and after it left my foot I thought it was going in the direction I wanted it to go in.
"I played it toward the left side, so in case that breeze picked up it would have some room for error. But it just stayed out there."
Carney's attempt remained wide left, and the Chargers regrouped for an overtime coin flip with the Browns. They won the toss and advanced to the Cleveland 45-yard line before punting.
The defense, which suffered a second-half collapse in the face of Cleveland's no-huddle attack, forced the Browns to punt the ball back to the Chargers.
The Chargers took possession on their 14, and nudged the ball forward to the 32, before stalling with a second and 10. Friesz then got the call from the sideline for a "naked bootleg."
"Kansas City runs the play a zillion times, and every time they do it, they throw it to fullback Bill Jones and he scampers for 20 yards," guard David Richards said. "I don't know, I guess there are some wrinkles we need to work out on that."
No one was assigned blocking responsibilities on Cleveland defensive tackle Pio Sagapolutele, but the Chargers expected Sagapolutele to bite on Friesz's fake handoff. That would have allowed Friesz the opportunity to roll right out of the pocket and find one of three possible receivers.
Sagapolutele, however, wanted nothing to do with the fake and came charging on Friesz.
"As I'm releasing the ball, I'm hit, but I don't think it took anything off of the pass," Friesz said. "It made me hurry the pass, but it's something where you still need to be accurate. I tried to be too perfect with it.
"I tried to make a play that I won't try to make in the future," added Friesz, who completed 33 of 54 passes for 321 yards with a pair of interceptions. "What I tried to do was throw it out in front of Nate Lewis and make it so it's a real good catch on his fingertips or it's out of bounds incomplete. I threw it behind Nate, didn't get enough on it and David (Brandon) made a good play."
Brandon, who was left unprotected under Plan B free agency by the Chargers after missing the 1990 season with a knee injury, caught Friesz's errant pass, went the distance and touched off a mighty Cleveland celebration.
"I feel sorry for those players in there," Henning said. "I thought they played hard and they didn't come out with a win. It's going to be hard on them. They are putting out what they can put out. Things go against them . . . but they keep fighting. I sure would like to get them a win."
The Chargers were 5 1/2-point favorites to win, and they never trailed in the game until the final score went up on the board. They took a 3-0 lead on Carney's first-quarter 27-yard field goal, and kept it until the final play of the first half.
A 15-yard face mask penalty on linebacker Henry Rolling bumped the Browns into Charger territory, and eventually led to Matt Stover's tying 30-yard field goal.
The Chargers took command in the third quarter on Ronnie Harmon's 11-yard touchdown run, and then added another score on Butts' two-yard run.
The Browns stopped huddling on offense, and then went on a scoring spree. They moved 76 yards in five plays--five completed passes--and scored on Bernie Kosar's six-yard touchdown pass to running back Leroy Hoard, and then scored again 2:26 later to tie the game.
Linebacker Ron Brown--another former Charger--benefited from Michael Dean Perry's hit on Friesz, and intercepted Friesz's pass and returned it to the Chargers' 11-yard line.
On fourth and goal from the two, running back Joe Morris dived left for a first down, and on the following play, Morris went left again for the one-yard touchdown.
The Chargers' offense rallied behind Friesz and moved 86 yards in 13 plays to re-take the lead. Friesz faked a handoff to Butts, and then delivered a two-yard pass to H-back Steve Hendrickson for Hendrickson's first NFL career touchdown reception.
And then the Charger defense collapsed. Kosar, who has thrown 233 passes without an interception--a Cleveland record--dismantled the Charger secondary.
Kosar, who was 26 of 42 for 297 yards, took the Browns 77 yards in eight plays, including a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hoard, to tie the game, 24-24.
"We didn't come up with the plays when we needed to," cornerback Gill Byrd said. "When you throw the ball 40 or 50 times, you should have a couple of interceptions. You should have some turnovers, and we didn't get them.
"They had their hurry-up offense and didn't allow us to do the things we wanted to do schematically, and you have to tip your hats to them and their coaching staff. They had a good game plan."
The Chargers, however, appeared to have the game won, and then lost.
"I just can't believe it happened," linebacker Gary Plummer said. "You have a strange dichotomy here: You have a team that won't quit and a team that can't seem to find a way to get over the top."