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NFL PLAYOFFS : He Can’t Settle for Less : Only Super Bowl Will Satisfy Chargers’ O’Neal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When San Diego defensive end Leslie O’Neal had a message for his teammates, he did not send it only to them. Two days before the Chargers’ AFC playoff game against Miami, he went on national television and criticized some of them, along with the team’s management, for what he considered their lack of commitment to reach the Super Bowl.

While some quietly questioned the timing of his complaint, they heard what he was saying: The Chargers should not be content merely to play in the postseason.

“I like what Leslie said because, when I first got here, a lot of guys on the team were just happy to be in the playoffs,” said Chris Mims, a third-year defensive end who, as a rookie, played on San Diego’s previous playoff team.

“I think what he said really woke a lot of people up. It’s like, ‘He’s right.’ I know my attitude has changed in that I want more than just to be in the playoffs. We’ve been there before. Now, I want to go to the Super Bowl. I’ve never experienced that before, and neither have most of the guys on this team or most of the players in the league.”

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The Chargers recalled O’Neal’s comments at halftime last Sunday, when they trailed Miami by 15 points after playing like a team that was looking forward to the off-season.

“It was clear that in order for us to move on, we would have to stop making stupid little mistakes,” O’Neal said about the Chargers’ mood at halftime. “We’d been in that situation before and we all knew that we needed to make things happen. If we didn’t, we would have had to go home as losers and would have had the rest of the year to think about it.”

The Chargers responded with one of the best comebacks in playoff history to win, 22-21.

So did that make O’Neal happy?

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“Like I’ve said before, we are not where we need to be as a football team,” he said. “We need to play the first half like we did the second half (against the Dolphins). When we do that, then we’ll be a good football team.”

Angering O’Neal most was the Chargers’ decision to squib the kickoff following wide receiver Mark Seay’s go-ahead touchdown catch from quarterback Stan Humphries with 35 seconds remaining.

After the ensuing return by Miami’s Ronnie Williams, the Dolphins started their final drive from their 38. San Diego then had to survive a missed 48-yard field goal try by Pete Stoyanovich.

“Basically, by not kicking it deep, we gave them an extra 10 to 15 yards,” O’Neal said. “We can’t keep giving teams extra chances like that.”

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Based on his outspoken views on what the Chargers need to do to reach the Super Bowl, one would think that football consumes O’Neal.

“Football is not a game I always dreamed of playing,” he said. “It’s a business and I’m good at it. That’s all.”

O’Neal, 30, was so good this season that he was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his nine-year career. He led the team with 12 1/2 sacks, second in the AFC, and led the defensive line with 60 tackles.

“Leslie has got so much pride,” San Diego General Manager Bobby Beathard said. “I think he’s the kind of guy on the field who sets a great example for all players because he’s a student of the game. He’s got one speed; that’s to play hard. He’s very competitive.

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“Leslie gets upset when guys aren’t carrying their share of the load. He truly understands the team concept. We can have our stars, but Leslie is a team guy all the way. He has a good idea of what it takes to win, the big picture overall, not just his position. I know how badly Leslie wants to win.”

The Chargers drafted O’Neal in the first round out of Oklahoma State in 1986. He recorded 12 1/2 sacks before he injured a knee and missed the last month of his rookie season. The injury was so severe that he missed the 1987 season and the first seven games of 1988 before he returned to make the Pro Bowl his first two seasons back.

At 6 feet 4 and 265 pounds, O’Neal has 93 sacks in 117 regular-season games, making him the Chargers’ all-time leader. He feels that he would have led the AFC this season if not for the tactics used by Pittsburgh in the final game of the regular season.

“Yeah, they held on to me and double-teamed me all game, even on plays that they didn’t have to,” he said. “They did it so I wouldn’t get any sacks and (Pittsburgh linebacker) Kevin Greene would lead the league.”

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So how does O’Neal view Sunday’s AFC championship game showdown at Pittsburgh?

“Just getting to the AFC championship (game) is not good enough. Think about it, does anyone remember who played in last year’s game? No, but I bet people can tell you who played in the Super Bowl. That’s where I want to be.”


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