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WHAT ROSS IS FACING : QUARTERBACKS

C+: Coach Dan Henning and assistant Jack Reilly were befuddled. During the final week of practice before the game with Denver, John Friesz fell apart. He couldn’t do anything right, and while that’s what they had expected at the beginning of the season from this virtual rookie, their expectations now had been raised. Henning and Reilly huddled on the final day of practice, reviewed videotape and hoped for something better come Sunday. But Friesz played his worst game of the season against the Broncos and completed 12 of 34 passes with three interceptions. Was Friesz worn down from the long NFL season? Was he disturbed by the rumors of a coaching change? Did he lose his concentration? Did the opposition catch up with Friesz? Henning said later, “My worst fear was that defenses were going to force us to win with the pass. It didn’t happen until the final game of the year.” A strong running game took the heat off Friesz, but Ross wants a balanced attack. Will Friesz be up to it? Will the Chargers continue to place all their offensive hopes on his arm? Bob Gagliano offers Friesz advice, but provides no threat to his job. Beathard likes Jeff Graham; Jeff who? If Friesz gets hurt, pack up the equipment and send everyone home.

RUNNING BACKS

B+: One ball and four game-breaking runners. Does Rod Bernstine go the disgruntled way of Gary Anderson and Lee Williams and play elsewhere next season? Does Ross return Bernstine to tight end? The two-back set may accommodate Marion Butts and Ronnie Harmon, but how long before Eric Bieniemy starts grousing about a lack of playing time? Keep in mind that Henning made a star out of Butts, who was a seventh-round pick. Harmon didn’t get along with Marv Levy, but he played for Henning and was named MVP. Bernstine was floundering as a tight end, but Henning put him in the backfield and Bernstine worked overtime for extra yardage. How will these guys respond to Ross? Henning was a strong believer in keeping three or four backs to protect against injury. Will Ross agree? Or will he deal from strength and trade to shore up another hole?

RECEIVERS

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F: The rise and fall of Anthony Miller. Miller’s belly-flop in 1991 may have cost Henning his job as much as anything else. Henning’s offense was built on the idea of pounding the ball and then springing Miller deep. Miller dropped the ball, however. The front office contended that Charlie Joiner was too easy on Miller. Joiner’s gone and Ross, the disciplinarian, has been handed the whip. Nate Lewis had his moments, but like the entire receiving corps, there were no guarantees the ball was going to be caught. Shawn Jefferson came highly recommended, but he couldn’t remember the plays. Kitrick Taylor makes a fine No. 3 receiver, but who are Nos. 1 & 2? Yancey Thigpen managed to make it through the whole season without catching a pass. Who says these guys aren’t talented?

TIGHT ENDS

C-: Who knows what happens to these guys? Some of them were here because Henning was here. Goodby Craig McEwen. Duane Young provides beef for blocking duties, and if he continues to keep eating he can single-handedly replace the offensive line. Derrick Walker taught Miller everything he knew about dropping the ball. Walker had outstanding rookie season in 1990, but was phased out of passing attack after he couldn’t be counted on in crucial situations.

OFFENSIVE LINE

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C-: New head coach, new offensive line coach, and for the umpteenth consecutive year, a new offensive line. Tackle Broderick Thompson has become a marked man. The guys who sign his checks think he quits at times. They are looking to replace him, but then they were looking to replace him last year and no one stepped forward. They also don’t think much of David Richards, but have they been paying attention? Somebody had to clear the way for Butts, Bernstine and Harmon, and Richards has been a fixture on the line for the past 64 games. Ross might want to make sure that center Courtney Hall and left guard Eric Moten are happy, because next year’s line will be built around these two young players. A healthy Leo Goeas will make Ross look smarter. Tackle Harry Swayne earned high marks from Henning, but now he has to impress Ross. Mike Zandofsky adds depth, but Mark May will be left unprotected via Plan B. Will Beathard convince him to stay with a promise of more playing time?

SPECIAL TEAMS

D: Major overhaul here. Coaching change means fringe players on roster will be the first to go, and they play special teams. Both John Carney and John Kidd fell short of expectations. Remember what happened when Henning took over? Chaos. Chargers went through several kickers and punters, and now they have hired Georgia Tech’s Chuck Priefer to work with the special teams. No finer person than Carney around, but the choke collar’s got to go. Kidd was hurt, and his punting statistics proved it. Kidd, however, provides stability in the locker room, and as an added bonus, he can play quarterback if needed. Who would you rather have at quarterback, Gagliano or Kidd?

DEFENSIVE LINE

D: Ross says the key to playing good defense is in the people up front. Do you think he’ll reconsider, and ask to go back to Georgia Tech after meeting these guys? Chargers’ pass rush went to Houston with Lee Williams. Chargers used their top No. 2 pick to select George Thornton, and he had the kind of season that former No. 2 pick, Lou Brock, had just before he got cut. Mitchell Benson? Burt Grossman became a solid boring citizen and a very average football player. Joe Phillips provides muscle, bulk and effort at nose tackle, but this group lacks the fire in the eyes that they had while playing under Gunther Cunningham. George Hinkle played much of the year, but don’t feel bad if you didn’t notice.

LINEBACKERS

B-: Watch for the white flags when opponents begin lining up against Junior Seau. The man works hard in practice, doesn’t stop in games, and gives the Chargers’ new defensive coordinator more to work with than when Ron Lynn started here six years ago. Seau played here, there and everywhere while being labeled an inside linebacker, but might Ross make him happy and shift him permanently outside? Ross believes in treating all his players the same. He hasn’t met Leslie O’Neal, however. O’Neal packs the same value to the team on defense that Miller has on offense. But O’Neal has a king-size ego, he’s a free agent, and he doesn’t feel loved here. Will he cause problems in Ross’ first training camp by holding out? Will Beathard try and deal him? As long as Lynn was here, Gary Plummer was going to be here, but Lynn’s gone. Billy Ray Smith is going to be a father, not a grandfather, but will a new coaching staff want to build a defense with a high-mileage linebacker? Will Smith stay on at close to $1 million a year as a backup? Henry Rolling ran out of gas as year went on, but when up to speed, he provided big-play potential. Wasted No. 3 draft pick on Jeff Mills, who has moved on to Denver, comes back to haunt.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

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F: The team’s weakest position. Great experiment at safety contributed to Chargers’ woeful start. Anthony Shelton was a bust at strong safety, and Martin Bayless, who replaced him, will probably be left unprotected in Plan B. Rookie Stanley Richard failed to make the impact he predicted, but remember how much Seau improved after his rocky first season. Gill Byrd was rewarded finally with a trip to Hawaii, but he’s slowing down and is on his way to becoming a safety. Sam Seale gives it everything he has, but it’s not enough for the front office. Going into the draft the Chargers need cornerbacks, cornerbacks, cornerbacks. Donald Frank gets high marks for handling year-long criticism with class, but he’s shown no indication he can step in as a full-time corner. Darren Carrington, Cedric Mack and Tony Blaylock are also listed as defensive backs here, but that’s because no one else in the league wanted them.


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