A few days after the nightmare of Super Bowl XXIX, San Diego Charger quarterback Stan Humphries headed up the California coast to play in the Pebble Beach pro-am golf tournament. He needed a break after his team's humiliating 49-26 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Humphries settled in on the practice range, and on his ninth or 10th drive he felt an intense pain shoot through his left elbow. I dislocated the elbow again, he thought to himself. Looking down, he saw that the bone was cleanly dislodged from the socket.
And so San Diego's off-season began. During the next seven months Humphries underwent reconstructive surgery on his nonthrowing elbow; a stalwart defensive player was killed in an auto accident; the team failed to sign either of the free-agent linebackers it needed; the star running back had a nasty contract holdout; the premier pass rusher announced that he wanted to leave San Diego; and the best cornerback ignored the team doctor's counsel and aggravated an injury that will keep him out until at least November.
A couple of shoddy preseason performances at home, including Sunday night's 17-6 loss to the 49ers, have further reminded the Chargers that the rosy glow of their unexpected success in winning the 1994 AFC title is long gone. Says G.M. Bobby Beathard, "When you don't see that same single-mindedness, that same dedication—and when a few other things seem to be going wrong—it worries you."
In fact, a lot has gone wrong for the Chargers lately:
?Under the contract he signed as a rookie in 1993, tailback Natrone Means was to have made $330,000 this season, but he held out for 11 days last month, seeking to have the contract replaced by a five-year, $16.6 million deal. When Beathard balked at Means's demands, the player ripped him in a statement issued by Means's agent. "I have a severe problem with the way Beathard has betrayed me," the statement read. The rhetoric was absurd. Means did gain 1,350 yards last year, but he had only one 100-yard performance in the Chargers' last 10 games, and he averaged a measly 3.39 yards per carry in November and December. Means settled for $7,337 million over four years, and he extracted a promise from Beathard that if he has a "good" year San Diego will draw up yet another contract in '96.
?On June 19 David Griggs, the starting strongside linebacker, was killed in a one-car accident in Florida. He was later determined to have been drunk. Having been outbid for free agents Kurt Gouveia and Rod Stephens, the Chargers were already weak at linebacker. To replace Griggs, San Diego has had to move up third-year pro Lewis Bush from his spot as backup to Junior Seau. But Bush has been hobbled by a bruised right leg, and one of the two linebackers drafted in April, Preston Harrison, has been hurt throughout training camp.
?The Charger brass awoke last Friday to read in the morning Union-Tribune that defensive end Leslie O'Neal, the NFL's sack leader of the '90s, had said "it would be lovely" to play elsewhere. O'Neal is bitter because last year's secondary coach, Willie Shaw, who is black, was passed over for the defensive coordinator's job in favor of former Kansas City Chief assistant Dave Adolph, who is white. "They make a big deal about continuity and loyalty here," O'Neal said to SI last week. "What happened to continuity and loyalty with Willie Shaw? Then I talk about it, and I'm the bad guy." San Diego chose Adolph because he has spent the past 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator, the last six of them in the Chargers' AFC West. Shaw had never been an NFL defensive coordinator, though after San Diego passed him over he was hired at that position by the St. Louis Rams.
? Darrien Gordon, the 1994 AFC punt-return leader and a rising star at corner-back, finished the season with a torn right rotator cuff, but he spurned the advice of Charger physician Gary Losse, who recommended major shoulder surgery, and instead chose to undergo less radical surgery. In the Chargers' first preseason game, against the Minnesota Vikings on Aug. 7, Gordon reinjured the shoulder. He has now had the operation that Losse suggested in the first place.
"There are so many different people who have such an impact on your team who aren't under your control," says coach Bobby Ross, who spent 17 years supervising far more malleable players in the college ranks before joining the Chargers in 1992. "Frankly, it's one of the things I don't like about the NFL."
There were several things Ross did not like about Sunday's game. Means, for example, dropped the only pass thrown his way and rushed eight times for all of two yards. But there were also a few rays of hope. The Charger offensive line protected Humphries well, letting the 49ers knock him down only once, and the struggling linebacker corps got an interception and 12 tackles from free agent Glen Young.