Advertisement

How Does O’Neal Feel Inside? Unsure Whether He’ll Stay : Chargers: His sack total is down, and so are his spirits.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Look out--rocky road ahead: Leslie O’Neal has disappeared down the same path that swallowed Lee Williams.

The team’s highest-paid player and premier defender has not had a sack in four weeks, and like Williams, who left in a huff after claiming he was miscast, O’Neal finds himself out of position and cautious about his future with the team.

“We’re not winning so I can’t be happy,” O’Neal said. “If we were going to the playoffs, then yeah, I’d be happy. But it’s always tough to make sacrifices when your sacrifices seem useless and when we’ve dropped as far as we have defensively. We can’t even be a mediocre 6-10.

“I can’t say I’ve played well because of our record. I haven’t done everything that I possibly could to help this team because I feel like I’m better playing something else (outside pass rush) than what I am playing.”

Advertisement

O’Neal championed Williams’ cause last season and drew criticism from club officials. Then he watched Williams be traded to Houston and get a new four-year contract for $4.8 million.

“Did he lose out in this?” O’Neal asked. “He’s going to get a playoff check.”

Williams had become one of the top quarterback muggers in the game as a defensive end but became unhappy after the Chargers moved him to defensive tackle. He said he could not be as effective inside as he had been outside, and after being selected to play in two Pro Bowls, he was ignored.

“Deja vu,” said O’Neal, who probably will have his string of two trips to the Pro Bowl snapped this season. “I know how Lee felt. I knew last year. More than anything I looked at Lee and I said, ‘You know what, that might happen to me.’ ”

Advertisement

And it has. Williams was traded to Houston, O’Neal has become an inside pass rusher in long-yardage situations, and through 14 games this season, he has four sacks. At this point last season he had a dozen sacks. He had 10 1/2 in as many games in 1989, and 12 1/2 in a little more than 13 games in 1986 before suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for 22 months.

What’s going on here?

“You have to ask Dan Henning,” said O’Neal. “I’m doing what this organization has asked me to do.”

O’Neal has become gun-shy since speaking out last season. He was concerned that other teams might pass on him if he was labeled a troublemaker. He remains cooperative with the media, but he has put a muzzle on his opinions.

Advertisement

“It’s my way of beating the system; that’s the way they want me to play ball and I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ll have a good contract next year, whether it’s here or somewhere else, and that’s the bottom line.”

The Chargers never understood why Williams was upset about the move from end to tackle, and now they will have to deal with O’Neal, who becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

“In 1989 the guy (Williams) went in and led the AFC in sacks, so that’s a copout,” Henning said when asked about O’Neal’s comparison to Williams. “If he’s (O’Neal) not playing as well as he thinks he should be playing, that’s something he has to address. Not me.

“My job isn’t to keep Leslie O’Neal happy. Leslie is a gifted human being and a gifted athlete and he’s a good football player. I don’t know that since I’ve been here that I’ve ever really seen him happy. He doesn’t seem to be somebody that gets happy. He gets content. . . . I don’t think anybody would say Leslie O’Neal is necessarily a happy guy. . . . He’s probably the happiest when he gets a birdie.”

Advertisement

O’Neal is distressed, although he is not complaining. His comments are measured, and when asked to discuss his 1991 campaign, he defers to Henning.

“My concerns are second to what this team has asked me to do,” he said. “I moved because of the benefit of the team. That’s where I’m playing, my numbers are down, so what? I’m doing it for the benefit of the team. I’m doing it for those 21 sacks and that 3-11 record we have right now.

“I can’t say I’m happy, but my happiness is not the concern of this organization.”

An unhappy O’Neal, however, will be looking for a pay raise in 1992 without benefit of flashy statistics. He will lose money in 1991 for making the move inside because he will not have the opportunity to cash in on incentives, including a handsome payoff for being selected to play in the Pro Bowl.

Advertisement

“I think Bobby Beathard is a fair man and he knows I’m a fair man,” O’Neal said. “I started something here six years ago and I wanted to be a part of building the franchise into a winning team. If I was to leave and they started winning, I’d feel I didn’t stay long enough. I want to be part of it, but the bottom line is I need to get paid.

“If I’m going to take that extra beating (inside) by going against those bigger guys then I want to get paid for it. No, I’m not going to be like Burt Grossman and cry because he’s playing against 300-pound guys, and then they feel sorry for him and move him back outside. There will have to be considerations in my next contract for any position move I make.”

There is also the possibility that the courts will rule in favor of free agency in February when a ruling is expected. And how many teams might be interested in bidding for O’Neal’s services?

“Since I’ve been here I’ve lost some money because I took some chances (incentives) in my contract,” O’Neal said, “and I just don’t know if I’m willing to take those chances anymore considering how things have shaken down.

Advertisement

“If they (Chargers) pay me, then yes, definitely I want to stay here. I want to make the most money. If Green Bay is going to pay me a lot more money than playing in San Diego, then I’ll go to Green Bay.”

O’Neal’s concern for making more money may disturb some Charger loyalists, but Henning understands.

“Football is not the most important thing to him,” Henning said. “It’s a means to an end; he’s on record as saying that. With that in mind, you have a gifted individual there, and if he doesn’t have the same motivation as somebody else, he can still play at a higher level because he is so gifted.

“I haven’t been unhappy with his play. I’d certainly like to see him enjoy what he’s doing more than he does, but I can’t make that happen. But if Leslie O’Neal plays the way he has in the three years I have been here, I think anybody would want him on their team.”

Advertisement


Advertisement
Advertisement