This is a city gripped by panic.
That feel-good 6-0 start for the San Diego Chargers is gone, replaced now by fear of a great collapse after three losses in the last five games.
The letters to the editor in the local newspaper read like fanfare for teams residing in Tampa or Cincinnati:
--"Will somebody please wake up the Chargers? No intensity at all. The whole team seems to feel, 'Oh well, we lose, we're still on top.' With that attitude they are due for a rude awakening." (William D. Lawton, San Diego)
--"The Chargers have been losing to teams they should beat--and there aren't many of those left on the schedule. . . . Maybe it's time to ask Dandy Don to sing, 'Turn out the lights.' " (James D. Shepherd, National City)
--"I've read some rash statements . . . but the one about Stan Humphries being an undisputed leader was a lulu. He could not be an undisputed leader of a sandlot team." (Wayne Briles, Spring Valley)
The lunch-hour crowd at the LaFiesta Deli near San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium is losing its appetite: "People are just sick about what has happened to this team since they stopped wearing their throwback uniforms," said store owner B.B. Hanhan.
Despair has even infiltrated the Charger front office: "We might not win another game, and if we do, I'm not sure 9-7 is going to put us in the playoffs," a club official confided.
The Chargers finish the season with four of five games at home, but a combination of jacked-up expectations and now a quarterback gone sour has raised tough questions about Stan Humphries and brought an immediacy to Sunday's game with the Rams.
For the first part of this season the Lightning Bolts were back in their glory uniforms from the past, and Stan was the man, the toast of the town and the highest-rated passer in the game. But ever since the second half of a 36-22 victory over New Orleans on Oct. 16, the man has struck out.
Since then Humphries has thrown three touchdown passes with seven interceptions, while completing 51% of his passes. And as Humphries goes, so go the Chargers.
"It's too early to tell how Stan will come out of this," said Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard. "I'd like to believe he can lift himself above this and become a real good quarterback in this league over a long period of time."
Humphries may be worried, but he has a grip on reality.
"People see us go 6-0 and then we're 8-3 and it's like, 'My God, what's going on?' " Humphries said. "We're on top of our division, we've lost only one game in the division and it's not a reason to get overwhelmed."
Tell that to the second-guessers who are asking for more of Gale Gilbert and less of an injured Stan Humphries.
"There's always something that people latch onto when you're not winning, and unfortunately the quarterback is usually the guy," said Dan Fouts, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame after a distinguished career with the Chargers. "A lot of people in this league would like to have the problems Stan Humphries has. The Chargers are still in control of things and from what I've seen of Stan and from what I know about his personality, he'll fight his way through this and come out on top."
Humphries' personality allowed him to scrap successfully and rise from obscurity in Washington to become the savior in San Diego. Traded to the Chargers after a season-ending preseason injury to John Friesz, and without benefit of a training camp under new coach Bobby Ross, Humphries carried the team on his big-play arm to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
"Two years ago this team went out expecting to compete hard," Humphries said. "Now it goes out expecting to win."
Humphries' leadership qualities, along with Ross' intensity and Beathard's skill for assembling talent, have given area fans cause to get excited. Although injuries have sabotaged Humphries' play at times, in his three years with the Chargers he has compiled a 25-10 starting mark, a .714 winning percentage matching Kansas City's Joe Montana, who is tops among active quarterbacks.
But what has he done lately?
"When we were doing well I said at the time we were learning something new about this team every week," Beathard said. "How was the team going to handle it when everyone pointed at them, and that included the quarterback. . . .
"I'm interested to see how Stan handles this. Does he pull himself back up, or is there something that would keep him from pulling himself back up, like injuries or what's going on in his mind. It's all new, all new to Stan, because he's never been the guy until now."
There is a feeling within the Charger organization that maybe Humphries has lost his confidence and is now pressing to live up to expectations and an early season sky-high quarterback rating. But there are mitigating circumstances for his midseason slump. This season Humphries has suffered a deep hip bruise, injured a knee, sprained an ankle and on Monday he required arthroscopic surgery for a dislocated left elbow.
While playing hurt, he has been asked to throw the ball to a corps of shaky receivers. A breakdown in pass protection, which has resulted in 10 sacks in his last four appearances, and an ineffective running game lately have also crippled Humphries' chances for success, but still Stan's supposed to be the man.
"That's what I hope doesn't happen," Beathard said. "I hope he doesn't think he has to do it all because then he will be pressing to make the big play."
The Charger passing game hasn't produced more than 200 net yards since the third game of the season. Of Humphries' 10 touchdown passes, six came in the first three games. In the past three games, which included one Gilbert start, the Charger offense has scored a total of three touchdowns.
"Sometimes when I get in the huddle I think, well, we're struggling a bit on offense, and maybe if I make a great throw or make a great play then the whole offense will come out of its funk," Humphries said. "I'm going to throw some interceptions, make some bad plays, but I'm going to make some big plays. The big plays I make lift our offense and our whole team up to another level."
Big plays were at a premium while the Chargers were desperately searching for a replacement for Fouts. After Fouts' retirement following the 1987 season, the team won 22 games in the next four seasons under the direction of six different starting quarterbacks. Humphries' acquisition, which prompted former Charger coach Don Coryell to proclaim, "Good God, in my mind it's a steal," propelled the team to an overall mark of 27-16 the last three years.
"I think people are looking now to see how a guy . . . is going to step up and get everybody else to rally around him," Humphries said. "But it hasn't been one guy, or two guys that haven't played well recently, it's been all of us. And it isn't going to be one guy who brings us out of it. That's why we were so successful earlier in the year; we were playing as a team."