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COMMENTARY : Chargers’ Past Not on the Side of Dan Henning

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Chargers will take the easy way out, and shortly after the team plays its final regular-season game Dec. 22, they will dismiss Coach Dan Henning and his staff.

Anyone who has spent any kind of time around Alex Spanos and the team he owns knows it cannot happen any other way.

Spanos will not order General Manager Bobby Beathard to fire Dan Henning because “it’s Bobby’s team,” but Spanos’ day-to-day haranguing of “do something, Bobby,” will have taken its toll.

Henning might expect Beathard to intercede on his behalf, but Beathard knows he cannot ask--and anyone who has spent any kind of time around Beathard knows he would never demand--patience from Spanos.

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Henning might have considered Beathard his ally. Great expectations, however, insist that Beathard start delivering on his own reputation. And although he recommended Henning for the Chargers’ job, Beathard has the chance now to remind everyone the manner in which he succeeded in Washington.

So Beathard will express disappointment and great sorrow at having to let Henning go, as he had to let Jack Pardee go in Washington. Then he will introduce a rising star as Henning’s replacement, just as he introduced Joe Gibbs as the Redskins’ next head coach.

Beathard will be banking on history to repeat itself. Folks will get excited about the Chargers’ new leader and the team will announce a rise in ticket prices. The new coach will offer no timetable for success, but he will promise to field a disciplined and competitive team.

Spanos will smile. He will say he has found the right man for the job-- for the third time in the past six years .

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The right man for the job, however, might be the man they will be asking to leave.

Dan Henning has ignored the biting criticism and the overwhelming outcry for his dismissal to keep his team together through the most trying times.

* In Los Angeles, John Robinson says his job status adversely affected the play of his lackluster team.

* In Pittsburgh, Chuck Noll has had to contend with an insubordinate Bubby Brister.

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* In Cincinnati, Sam Wyche has gone bonkers, while his team has lost five games by 23 or more points.

* In Indianapolis, the players packed their bags weeks ago.

* In Tampa Bay, Richard Williamson is left to wonder each week if his team will show up.

* In San Diego, the Chargers remain a good bet to scare the playoffs out of the best of teams.

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You can continue to say this about Dan Henning-coached football teams--they lose. But contrary circumstances, including difficult ownership in Atlanta and San Diego, and the lack of a proven quarterback in either locale, have prohibited Henning from achieving any overnight miracles.

In his fourth and final season in Atlanta, the Falcons opened the season 4-0 with a Henning-developed David Archer at quarterback. Archer went down with an injury at that point, however, and the Falcons limped home at 7-8-1. Since Henning’s departure, the Falcons have compiled a 25-52 mark.

In this his third and final season in San Diego, Henning has taken a virtual rookie quarterback in John Friesz and has given fans their greatest hope for the future.

He has made a Pro Bowl performer out of Marion Butts, a seventh-round draft choice. He has turned tight end Rod Bernstine into one of the game’s most effective big backs. His system has allowed an ever-changing offensive line to prosper. His club fielded the league’s No. 1-ranked special teams last season after he came up with the idea of hiring a special teams coordinator .

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His personnel decisions have been made with the club’s long-range future in mind, although there have been no assurances he would be here to see them to fruition. If Jim McMahon had stayed, if Vencie Glenn had remained, if Lee Williams hadn’t been traded, the Chargers’ chances for immediate success surely would have improved.

He lost Gary Anderson before he started, opened his first training camp with Mark Malone, David Archer and Billy Joe Tolliver at quarterback and took orders from Steve Ortmayer. Good luck!

He had praise for Ortmayer on his departure, although it flew in the face of the screaming mob. He defended Tolliver when no one else would. He has remained a man of conviction, and while he’s not always right, he has been honest and accommodating on a daily basis.

His teams continue to lose, however. They lose by just t-h-a-t much, and is that result of a lack of talent and a seasoned quarterback down the stretch or simply poor coaching?

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When the team broke training camp, Beathard said the Chargers were more talented than last year’s team, which suggested an improvement on last season’s 6-10 finish. Beathard, however, is in charge of personnel.

Safety Stanley Richard might be more gifted than Glenn, George Thornton might one day play better than Williams, and Friesz offers promise, but talent takes time to mature. Eric Bieniemy is talented, but his potential sits in waiting behind Butts, Bernstine and Ronnie Harmon.

Duane Young, Floyd Fields, Yancey Thigpen and Terry Beauford have talent, but right now it’s of no use to Henning. Take away Williams and Glenn, and the Chargers were not as strong on defense this season as they were a year ago. Anthony Shelton reportedly had talent, but he had to be benched.

The lack of overall team depth has manifested itself in the dropoff in special teams play. Were the Chargers really more talented in 1991 than in 1990?

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It just takes time. Three years after Beathard began stockpiling talent in Washington as general manager, the Redskins finished 6-10. It just takes time.

Henning’s time, however, began to run out from the day he arrived here with his 22-41-1 record as a head coach. Fans groaned, and everything that has happened since that day has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He failed to play to the public. He lost the close games, he held tight to Tolliver and he lacked the Mike Ditka sideline fire that fans so admire.

Fans point to the resurgence of the Patriots under a fiery Dick MacPherson, but New England has only two more victories than the Chargers--it also has beaten Indianapolis twice. Cleveland gets credit for the job of new Coach Bill Belichick, but the Browns have only one victory this season over a team with a winning record.

If John Carney is on target in the closing seconds against the Falcons, Browns, Chiefs and Raiders, the Chargers are 7-7. But he’s not, so Henning can’t coach.

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Next year the Chargers will play Indianapolis twice, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Phoenix--come on, even Henning can’t screw that up.

Who knows, given the chance to remain, by this time next year fans might even come to appreciate the coach they have loved to hate.

If given the chance to remain, of course, there are problems. Henning’s coaching staff has lacked a sergeant at arms ever since Larry Beightol and Gunther Cunningham left. There are philosophical differences with the approach taken on defense.

Mistakes are not immediately corrected on the practice field. Henning does not always make sense when answering questions. The front office wants more discipline. There is no one on the headsets on game day with the gumption to challenge or advise the head coach.

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Those are concerns that could be addressed by general manager and head coach working together during the off-season. Those are concerns that could be addressed without a total overhaul. Teams throughout the league have similar troubles, and react accordingly without dumping the head coach every three years.

Not here. Impatience has laid waste to the Chargers. And now it’s poised to strike again.


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