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Charging back

After years of futility, San Diego makes surprise return to playoffs

Posted: Friday January 7, 2005 2:24PM; Updated: Friday January 7, 2005 2:24PM
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Drew Brees
Drew Brees' shocking turnaround propelled the Chargers to a 12-4 record.
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

He whipped out the brick-shaped cellular phone and dialed a number in the 704 area code, smiling buoyantly while the Chernobylesque doses of radiation seeped into his cranium. "Mama, it's me!" Chargers running back Natrone Means screamed into the bulky mouthpiece. "Yeah, I'm in Pittsburgh, in the  locker room. That's right, Mama-we're going to the Super Bowl!"

It was January 1995, almost a decade ago, and the plucky Chargers, 9 1/2-point underdogs to the Steelers, had just pulled the biggest upset in 25 years' worth of conference championship games. Peace and prosperity were the rage, Doc Martens were mandatory and the Olsen twins were subsisting on small rations of Spaghetti O's.

Picked to finish last in their division by many experts before the '94 season, incensed upon learning of the Steelers' team meeting earlier in the week in which players choreographed a Super Bowl rap video, the Chargers played lights-out and then reveled in the majesty of their stunning achievement. When no-name linebacker Dennis Gibson lunged over the back of All-Pro halfback Barry Foster to break up a fourth-and-goal pass in the final minute, San Diego had pulled off a 17-13 victory that sent its players into unfettered giddiness.

Of all the smelly, debris-filled locker rooms I have had the pleasure of navigating in 16 years of covering pro football, the visitors' quarters at Three Rivers Stadium on that unseasonably mild Sunday afternoon ranks as my unquestioned favorite. Cigars were being passed around like meth at a truck stop, smoke wafting through a crowded room laced with equal parts tears and jeers.

"I'm gonna show you what a real Super Bowl video's like," chortled mammoth defensive tackle Reuben Davis. "Knowing (the Steelers), theirs probably would've been on Beta. We'll put ours on VHS." (Note to those readers 25 or younger: Don't even bother trying to get this joke. Instead, try substituting DVD for VHS and stone tablets for Beta.)

Cornerback Darrien Gordon was smiling, but his eyes were ablaze. "Because we're a California team, everyone assumes we're not overly physical," he said. "But we showed them today who the most physical team is. We'll play these guys anywhere, any time, and the result will be the same... Yeah, we're mad. You're damn right."

Everywhere a young reporter turned, there was a player expressing raw emotion. In a world of canned statements, spin control and sound bites, it was a journalist's dream. Defensive end Chris Mims, who grew up in the hardscrabble L.A. ghetto -- and who I'd met for the first time 10 days earlier -- hugged me so hard I thought I was going to explode. "How you like us now?" Mims asked softly as my face turned the color of his blue uniform pants.

The last man to emerge from the showers was also the most vaunted. In what was one of the most stirring performances I have witnessed by an athlete, All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau upped his legendary intensity to an otherworldly level that day and carried 44 others with him on a Magic AstroTurf ride. Despite aggravating a nerve ailment that essentially rendered his left arm useless, Seau was a terror from the game's first play, on which he ran down Foster to register the first of 16 tackles, each of them punctuated by fist-pumping fury.

When he finally sat at his locker and dressed -- in a green, hooded pullover sweatshirt and multi-colored board shorts, and white Nikes with no socks -- Seau struggled to put his feelings into words. "You can never measure character," he said. "You can never measure heart. You saw it out there today. You don't know whether to cry, to laugh, to smile. This is a great moment in time for the city of San Diego, for everyone involved with the organization. That's how big this is."

When the Chargers completed their five-hour flight home from Pittsburgh, they boarded buses that took them to Qualcomm Stadium, where more than 60,000 fans awaited them. "It was surreal," recalls long-snapper Dave Binn, the only current Chargers player who was part of that '94 team. "They were turning people away because the stadium was packed. I mean, people were just nuts."

It was the high-water moment in franchise history. At that point, anything seemed possible for the Super Chargers. They were a young team with guts, having come from behind in 10 of 13 victories, as they arrived in Miami for the team's first Super Bowl appearance. Though they were facing one of the greatest clubs of alltime, the Steve Young/Jerry Rice/Tim McDonald/Deion Sanders 49ers, these Chargers dared to dream.

"We're going to beat you guys," Binn said shortly after the team's arrival in South Florida. We were in a convertible with two of Binn's former Cal teammates who played for the Niners, kicker Doug Brien and defensive lineman Rhett Hall, and all three of us burst into laughter.

"Dude," Brien said to Binn, "have you seen our team? Our defense is like a Pro Bowl unit, and we have Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and Ricky Watters..."

Maintaining his surfer-style California drawl, Binn smiled as if he knew a fantastic secret and said, "We have a plan to take away 60 percent of your offense."

At that point, we really laughed.

Six days and six Young touchdown passes later, the Niners had officially dispossessed the Chargers of that illusion, rolling a 49-26 victory that wasn't nearly that close. We all told ourselves that the Chargers would be back the next year, and for many more to come. Instead, after a first-round playoff exit the following season, San Diego slipped precipitously. There is not enough room in cyberspace to give a point-by-point breakdown of what went wrong in Chargerdom over the next decade, so let's cover the basics, CNN-scrawl style:

Coach Bobby Ross, GM Bobby Beathard wage "I'm the genius" battle... RBs Ronnie Harmon, Natrone Means sent packing... Kevin Gilbride does weak Tom Coughlin impersonation, alienates residents of America's most mellow city... Chargers acquire No. 2 overall pick, select Washington State QB Ryan Leaf... Leaf bombs in Kansas City, threatens photographer... Leaf jaws with heckler at training camp... Leaf, out with injured throwing shoulder, caught on videotape playing flag football-and throwing interceptions... Mike Riley, NFL's nicest coach, reaffirms old saying... GM John Butler jettisons defensive stalwarts Seau, Rodney Harrison.... Butler dies of cancer... New GM A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer close practice, banish beat writers to pre-fab trailer just north of Chula Vista... Chargers trade for No. 4 overall draft pick, QB Philip Rivers, hastening the imminent departure of starter Drew Brees... Rivers remains unsigned through most of training camp, handing Brees starting job by default...

It's a sordid little tale of bad luck and worse decisions, and before this season most people in my business (sports media) and yours (consumer of sports media) agreed that San Diego would be lucky to escape the AFC West cellar. But then, as they did in '94, the Chargers scoffed at their supposed destiny and shocked the football-watching nation. Brees, a disaster in 2003, became a Pro Bowl passer, leading an offense that no longer relied solely on terrific halfback LaDainian Tomlinson. Armed with five new starters, offensive line coach Hudson Houck molded his unit into one of the league's best, while new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips installed a 3-4 scheme that reenergized a moribund unit.

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Just as the '94 Chargers would have done, this team showed up for a late-season showdown with the Colts in Indianapolis and took it to the favorites, outplaying Indy despite a 34-31 overtime defeat. After watching that game, I know I'm not the only one who realized he was underestimating San Diego's potential. A second Super Bowl appearance won't be easy, not with Pittsburgh, New England, Indy and the Jets (Saturday night's wild-card round opponent at Qualcomm) potentially blocking the Chargers' path, but it's not a total stretch.

On Thursday night in La Jolla, I went out again with Binn, still the Chargers' long-snapper, and Brien, who kicks for the Jets. While enjoying the sushi and scenery at Café Japengo (eat your heart out, Josh Elliott), we remembered that decade-old Super Bowl that brought us together as rookies -- Brien and Binn as NFL players, me as an SI football writer.

That can't happen this year: After Saturday, Binn or Brien will be confronted with the end of his season. Even if it's Binn and his Chargers who suffer that indignity, they'll already have done plenty to wake the echoes.

THE MOST UNKIND OF BOWLS: I was standing in the Qualcomm press box when I officially learned that my alma mater would not be making its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959 -- and it was from the nosebleed section of the same stadium that I watched the California Golden Bears get rolled by Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl a week ago.

So here I am back in San Diego, admitting to all of you that, in the wake of Tech's 45-31 victory, the debate over whether Cal or Texas deserved the final BCS spot is now moot. As a Cal alum, there's simply nothing I can say.

However, as a columnist for the world's greatest sports-related Web site, I can and will say plenty about the fallout.

In the Holiday Bowl, Cal was undone by two glaring deficiencies -- an utter lack of pass rush (for the first time all season) and the inability of its receivers to get open. The latter phenomenon can be explained by injuries to the Bears' two best wideouts, Chase Lyman (torn ACL in the USC game in October) and Geoff MacArthur (broken leg in the season-ending victory over Southern Miss), and an alarming lack of depth.

If you look honestly at Cal's situation, the passing attack wasn't right since about the middle of the season, up to which point the Bears were clearly one of the four best teams in the country. After that, the Bears were a good team with a great rushing attack (take a look at J.J. Arrington's numbers and tell me how the kid could've finished eighth in the Heisman voting), but they clearly weren't as potent.

Texas, meanwhile, reaffirmed in its dramatic Rose Bowl victory over Michigan that offensively, it is a one-dimensional team. But man what a dimension: With star halfback Cedric Benson held in check by the Wolverines, quarterback Vince Young compensated for his lack of passing prowess by putting on one of the greatest non-Vick rushing performances I've ever seen by a quarterback. My guess is that the Rose Queen's corsage was touched more than Young last Saturday.

So congratulations to the Longhorns, and to the Red Raiders, who earned the right to chant "overrated" at their Cal counterparts toward the end of the Holiday Bowl.

As for the contention, enunciated so eloquently by many of you via e-mail, that the Tech victory over a Cal team still bummed over its Rose Bowl snub spoke to a larger truth about the strength of the two teams' respective conferences -- well, I guess burnt Orange describes more than a certain Big 12 South team's school color. I know they called this year's national championship game the Orange Bowl, but it was really more like an '80s-style Super Bowl, so thorough was USC's annihilation of Oklahoma.

As I overheard a couple of USC yell-leaders named Biff and T.J. say to Bob Stoops' team after the game, "Later, Sooners."

So, let's see, the Pac-10, as so many of you put it, is a "joke," while the Big 12 South is more potent than Jason Giambi on clomid, the Clear and the Cream combined? Uh, yeah. Whatever y'all say.

I'm certainly not an expert on cutting-edge vernacular, but that thing USC did to Oklahoma -- would it be fair to call it a beat-down?

ANGELS IN AMERICA: I'd love to goof on the newly rechristened Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but considering I live in a city that has a professional basketball team known as "Golden State," this is one rant from which I'll spare you.

Besides, I have to turn my full attention to the playoff game I'll be covering for Sports Illustrated between the Los Angeles Chargers of San Diego and the New York Jets of Hempstead/East Rutherford.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Silver sounds off weekly on SI.com.

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