Young Chargers 6-0 And Counting An Electrifying Start

October 23, 1994|By Josie Karp | Josie Karp,Contributing Writer

San Diego -- The San Diego Chargers had just returned from New Orleans after beating the Saints, 36-22, last Sunday to raise their record to 6-0, the team's best start since it went 11-0 in 1961.

When the team bus pulled into the parking lot at Jack Murphy Stadium at approximately 11 p.m., it was met by "thousands of people, cheering," according to Reggie White, formerly of Milford Mill High and currently second on San Diego's depth chart at right defensive tackle.

The crowd was closer to 500 than 1,000, but that wasn't the point. The point was that they were there, seven hours after the game had ended, and well after the sun had gone down.

"San Diego is a day town, not a night town," said White.

San Diego is always a good weather town, not always a good sports town. But that's changing, as sellout crowds pack the Murph to watch the most surprising team in the NFL.

The Chargers were 8-8 last year and then said goodbye to 10 starters, including their two leading offensive weapons. Wide receiver Anthony Miller, a free agent, signed with Denver. Running back Marion Butts, also a free agent, signed with New England.

The Chargers broke training camp with only 33 of their 62 players remaining from 1993. They opened the season with the youngest roster in the league -- an average age of 25.6 years.

With Miller gone, they had a starting receiving corps that began the season having played a total of eight games. Filling in for Butts was a second-year running back out of North Carolina, Natrone Means. The only given for Means, 5 feet 10 and 245 pounds, was that he could take up the space once occupied by Butts.

"Everybody was saying we were going to come in last," said Billy Devaney, the Chargers' director of player personnel. "Then, at the beginning of the season we were thinking, it's falling into place for us. Let everybody say that this is a rebuilding year. We'll sneak up on people.

"Nobody in their right mind thought we would go 6-0."

*

Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard and his staff have )) turned teams around before. As Washington Redskins general manager from 1978 to 1989, Beathard built Super Bowl teams by using the draft and free-agent market to construct strong offensive and defensive lines.

"We only really know one way," said Devaney, who worked under Beathard in Washington, too. "Stop the run first on defense. Have two big defensive ends as your pass rushers. On offense, (( have a big offensive line and be able to run the ball.

"That's certainly not an enlightening package, but it's comfortable. It's what we know."

Beathard, who came to San Diego in January 1990 after resigning from the Redskins, appears to have pulled the same trick that he managed in Washington.

Beathard signed free-agent defensive tackle Reuben Davis to strengthen the line. It was one area that management and coaches felt positively about from the beginning. They had the players, but wondered if the unit would manage to click.

The offensive line was a question mark, with the right side anchored by Joe Milinichik, who was coming back from off-season knee surgery, and Stan Brock, entering his 15th season.

According to Devaney, the doubts -- about the receivers, the play of Means, the ability of the defensive line to jell and the offensive line to endure -- gnawed less after the Chargers went to Germany in August to play an exhibition against the New York Giants.

"We felt good coming back from Germany after practicing with the Giants," said Devaney. "We knew they were a typical NFC smash-mouth football team and our offensive and defensive lines really controlled them.

"I think even Coach [Bobby] Ross felt good about the way things went."

Yes, and no. Chargers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has coached alongside Ross for most of the past 18 years, from Ross' first days at the Citadel, to Maryland, to Georgia Tech and, finally, to the Chargers.

"He hasn't changed in 18 years," said Friedgen. "He's the same guy, all 18 hours a day."

Which means that Ross is still consumed by winning. He wanted to win that game in Berlin. He wanted to win every preseason game.

"He wants to win more than anyone, anyone on this team," said offensive lineman Eric Jonassen, from Mount St. Joseph High.

Ross builds confidence

Turning floundering programs into winners is nothing new to Ross. He did it at Maryland and at Georgia Tech. He had even done it once before in San Diego.

In 1992, Ross' first season with the Chargers, San Diego opened the season with four straight losses.

"Coach Ross never panicked," said Friedgen. "We had a lot of players who had never really won, so there was a lot of finger-pointing. We brought the whole team in and he [Ross] said he didn't want the finger-pointing, but that he was going to show everybody why we weren't winning.

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