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Even in Private, Chargers Are a Sight

The Chargers have just moved into an $11.8-million publicly financed practice facility, which is off limits to the public.

The team with no incentive to win--it is already guaranteed 60,000 sold tickets a game or the city must make up the difference--has decided to also prohibit reporters from watching practices.

Presumably, this was done so the guys could party and goof off in private, and that must have been some hangover in New

England last week, because in this day and age of parity, and with nine months to prepare for one game, it’s not easy to get hammered, 41-7.

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Closed practices, like losing, have become something of a tradition in San Diego, however, and every two years or so, when the team hires a new coach, he comes in all huffy and puffy, throws tarpaulins on the fences and institutes Pentagon-like security.

True story: Don Coryell used to stop practices every time a helicopter crossed Charger airspace and on several occasions asked team administrators to drive five miles down a highway and up a mountain to check out parked cars aimed in the direction of the practice field.

True story: When Dan Henning took over, he told reporters he didn’t want his players distracted, so he closed the gates. The reporters moved to Scribes’ Hill, a little rise overlooking the practice field, and brought lawn chairs, binoculars and a barbecue grill, on which they cooked brats and hamburgers, much to the amusement of Henning’s distracted players. There were plans to invite a stripper to Scribes’ Hill to cap off the season, but the reporters didn’t want to be distracted from doing their job.

General Manager Bobby Beathard was hired the following year, and there’s no one more accessible in the NFL than surfer Bobby, so the first thing he did was open Charger practices. Then he fired Henning.

True story: Bobby Ross came in and allowed reporters to watch practice because he figured they had no idea what they were seeing.

“You guys couldn’t even name the starting offensive line if we didn’t tell you,” Ross said his rookie season.

Naming the offensive line was easy, of course: “Five Stiffs Who Can’t Block.”

Ross is gone now, and based on first impressions, it’s understandable why Buddy Ryan once took a poke at Kevin Gilbride, the Chargers’ new paranoid coach. Lacking his own ideas, Gilbride makes it clear he idolizes Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin, the Roseanne Barr of football, who insists on controlling everything and making everyone miserable in doing so.

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Although advised by upper team management that it was both ill-advised and unnecessary, Gilbride demanded that practices be closed, locking out the three or four hometown “Gee, aren’t the ‘Bolts great!” reporters and columnists who cover the team, one of whom drives to work every day with Beathard.

When Gilbride announced his decision to shut down everything, he told reporters, “You’ll just have to trust us.” Sounds as if he’s auditioning to become a coach with the Raiders.

Gilbride also demanded that surfer Bobby wear a tie on the team’s plane to New England last week because that’s what Coughlin would have done, so as a group, the Chargers were the best-dressed team to get drilled on opening weekend.

Beathard has left town to scout and has declined to comment on Gilbride’s marching orders. It’s unclear if he will be required to watch practice from the hill, like everyone else, when he returns.

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The Green Bay Packers have open practices and they won the Super Bowl, but it’s obvious this closed-practice routine is catching on. This NFL-exclusive exercise in fighting windmills--especially by new coaches already in over their heads--has always been a curious one.

No one, anywhere in the country, writes strategy or trick plays. The reason for watching practice--it’s the same reason reporters spend all day with a football team--is to get to know all parties concerned and to provide better information and depth to analysis.

What’s to hide? The Chargers are going to run right for two yards, run up the middle for no gain and then one of their receivers will drop a third-down pass, requiring a punt. Everyone knows that.

You can see for yourself: Take Interstate 15 to Aero Drive, go west and then right at Ruffin Road and right again at Ridgehaven Circle to the end. You are now standing on Mt. Gilbride, overlooking the Chargers’ closed practices.

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Anyone can stand on the public ground behind the sheriff’s department administrative offices and, with binoculars, watch every play unfold. As one sheriff’s department employee said while watching practice, “No one would have known about this place and been up here had they not closed practice.

“We’ve been joking about calling all the teams and offering our services as scouts,” he said. “We got the directional microphones and equipment to pick up everything they are doing.”

Gilbride, advised that reporters and fans can now watch his practices, said, “That’s fine. . . . To be quite honest, I really don’t care.”

OK. In preparing for New Orleans this week--and most teams merely have to show up--the Chargers lined up on their first play and put Tony Martin wide left, Charlie Jones in the slot alongside him and used two tight ends. Gary Brown was the running back, Jim Everett the quarterback.

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Jones went in motion to the right, and Everett went back to pass. It was obviously a trick play, since the Chargers always run on first down. The dummy defense, assigned to make like the Saints, sacked Everett. There were no reporters there to laugh.

None of the players wear numbers because the Chargers don’t want anyone to know how they are employing their personnel, but when the quarterback throws the ball and it’s intercepted, it’s obviously Everett, even to someone standing on a hill 10 miles away.

Two of San Diego’s TV stations videotaped practice last week from up high and the Chargers called and demanded that the tapes not be shown. Channel 8 put the footage on the air, but added floating tiles over the players’ faces to hide their identities.

No such protection here: On the Chargers’ second play, they reran the first play, and this time after Jones went in motion, Martin ran straight down the field from the left side--straight down with no zigs or zags--and Everett went deep to him into double coverage and the ball fell to the ground incomplete.

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They put wide receiver Bryan Still in the lineup for the third play, an obvious decoy because he can’t catch, and then Everett threw to tight end Brian Roche, who didn’t even play last week. Does that mean the Chargers intend to surprise the Saints by unleashing Roche?

They used their tight ends a lot in practice, throwing to them as they slanted across the middle, and setting up a screen pass to Brown, which they also had to do over because of poor execution. Note to New Orleans: They ran it on the right side--coming toward your defense.

They fumbled the snap on the fourth play, overthrew a wide receiver badly on the right sideline on the fifth play--note to New Orleans: Eric Metcalf was on the field--and went to the tight end on the sixth play.

Loud screams from reporters on Mt. Gilbride to “Put Metcalf in!” and “Get the ball to Metcalf!” were obviously being heeded.

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Then the Chargers did something they didn’t do in their first game: They put five wide receivers on the field at the same time.

Everett failed to connect with any of them, of course, but no doubt the Saints will be surprised when San Diego comes out Sunday with five wide receivers--unless they have a subscription to the Los Angeles Times.

If reporters had been allowed to watch the Chargers’ practice, such strategy would never have been revealed, in keeping with a league-wide agreement among writers.

But, up on Mt. Gilbride, everything is fair game.

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“We have closed practices to create the best working atmosphere for the guys that will make the difference on Sunday,” said Gilbride, and it’s working well so far. “It’s also for efficiency purposes, so our guys can come right off the field after practice and go to meetings.”

If Gilbride’s players need to get to their meetings and can’t break through a line of three or four Charger-friendly reporters, who already have the autographs they need, how are they going to get to Heath Shuler on Sunday?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Necessary Equipment

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There’s a whole trunkload of stuff that NFL equipment managers have to prepare for a game. A look at a typical game-day equipment checklist for Denver Bronco equipment manager Doug West:

Footballs: 36

Rolls of tape: 300

Pairs of shoelaces: 48

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Gallons of Gatorade: 35

Extra chin straps: 36

Sticks of eyeblack: 4

Towels: 400

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Kicking tees: 2

Bags of ice: 25

Sticks of gum: 400


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