An 0-4 start should end in the playoffs

December 20, 1992|By N.Y. Times News Service

SAN DIEGO -- When his Chargers were 0-4, Bobby Ross would call mulligans during practice. In a simulated-game drill in September, quarterback Stan Humphries dented a fence with an errant pass, and Ross interceded.

"First down again," the coach said.

San Diego's machismo defense wondered why.

"Pass interference," Ross said, poker-faced, although a defender had not even breathed on the intended receiver.

Nine weeks later, Humphries and the offense need no such perks. The Chargers have taken nine of their last 10 games and one more victory makes them historic.

No National Football League team has ever reached the playoffs after starting 0 for 4, but a 10th victory will guarantee San Diego a wild-card berth.

"Interesting to see how we respond to winning," defensive end Bert Grossman said, "because we already know how to respond to losing."

The Chargers last printed playoff tickets in 1982.

"Was a freshman in high school," Grossman said.

What San Diego does is run the Washington Redskins offense better than the Redskins. Its general manager, Bobby Beathard, came from Washington; its quarterback, Humphries, came from Washington; its one-back scheme came from Washington; its running backs are huger than Washington's.

"I'm too small to play in the backfield here," said Grossman, a 270-pounder.

"Well, I'm 240 pounds," said one of the Chargers' actual running backs, Rod Bernstine. "And Marion Butts is 250. But we mix it up on teams. We've got Ronnie Harmon, who's the cat-quick one, and Eric Bieniemy, who's a bowling ball you can't find."

What San Diego does is churn up the clock with nondescript runs and filter in a few big-play passes from Humphries to Anthony Miller, who once nearly beat Darrell Green, reputedly the NFL's fastest man and from Washington, of course, in a foot race.

"The offense has turned it around," Grossman said. "An example is our last game against Cincinnati. Our defense was only on the field for four plays the first quarter and for 40 all game, and my rookie year we averaged like 70."

Ordinarily, this year's San Diego team leans on its defense. It has a domineering linebacker, Junior Seau, whose eyes widen and bulge like Mike Singletary's, and a defensive end, Leslie O'Neal, who leads his conference in sacks and his team in intangibles.

O'Neal's father and his aunt, who helped raise him, have each lost their legs because of diabetes, so he said his 15 sacks are dedicated to them.

The Chargers are so much in sync, it is somewhat imponderable that they were once 0-4. But their starting quarterback, John Friesz, had torn up his knee in preseason, and Humphries was not obtained until 10 days before the opener.

"At the beginning of the year, Stan just didn't know where his secondary receivers were," Bernstine said.

The losses were to Kansas City, Denver, Pittsburgh and Houston, and that was business as usual for an organization that has not been on "Monday Night Football" since 1986.

"How was 0-4? It was like it usually is around here," Grossman said. "We're always 0-4 or 1-5. It wasn't like we're San Francisco, and 0-4 was something new for us. How was 0-4? It was crappy, like it always has been."

It is difficult to tell how delirious the fans are in San Diego. There has been only one home sellout -- against the hated Raiders, whom they play again today in Los Angeles -- while one of the team's most senior players, defensive back Gill Byrd, said he can still walk around anonymously in malls.

"Yeah, but we'd always get 40,000 at our games before, and now we're getting 50," Grossman said. "So, it's about a 10,000 difference. We come back from the airport now, and there's like 500 people to greet us and stuff, and that was unheard of before.

"When I was drafted here in 1989, and I was holding out back in Pittsburgh, I went to Cleveland's training camp. There were like 10,000 people at their practices and there were concession stands, and I'm thinking, 'Wow, this NFL is great.' But I came out here and there were five people at practice."

Their turnaround can be attributed to three items: Ross, Humphries and a favorable schedule.

Ross is a Marv Levy disciple (Levy employed Ross with the Chiefs and at William & Mary). Ross, who has been compared with Felix Unger, mapped out a six-month schedule for the team back in July and has not deviated a minute from it.

"His middle name should be 'Attention to Detail,' " offensive tackle Broderick Thompson said. "But that's what we needed."

The Chargers always had the personnel, just not the coach to nurture it. Beathard, however, was the one in Washington who hired an untested assistant coach named Joe Gibbs, and Beathard is the one who talked Ross away from Georgia Tech last winter.

Until he signed Ross, Beathard was taking continual heat from the public for the Chargers' malaise, but few realize that he had not prospered in Washington, either, until he ordained Gibbs. Beathard's most astute roster moves, then, may have been coach hirings.

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