As time wound down on the San Diego Chargers, the call went out for the Jack Murphy Stadium security force to hit the field. Dressed in bright yellow jackets and some 75 members strong, the group made a tight circle around the turf then turned around to watch, with the rest of the crowd, the final, miserable moments of the Chargers' 25-17 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday. Stunned, perhaps, by the upset, the guards in the west end zone had no idea that a fan had slipped past their ranks until he was dancing a jig at the 50-yard line.
Although wearing heavy work boots and apparently inebriated, the fan still juked several members of the security detail before reinforcements arrived to manhandle him near the Chargers' bench. As he was cuffed and led away to a standing ovation, the Buccaneers' Michael Husted finished off San Diego with a 19-yard field goal. At that moment the fan's mad dash in the spotlight mimicked that of the Chargers' recent run: It was spectacular but brief, and when it ended, it ended brutally.
In the 27 games since their 49-26 loss to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX, the Chargers have rapidly short-circuited. They won their final five games last year to salvage a playoff spot, only to be bounced out in the wild-card round by Indianapolis, 35-20. Now, after Sunday's upset, which was Tampa Bay's third win of the season and only the franchise's second win ever in 21 trips to the West Coast, 6-5 San Diego looks like a long shot to be playing after Christmas. Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Denver lie ahead on the schedule.
"This is the worst loss I've been associated with as a Charger," said wideout Tony Martin, who joined the team in 1994 and was held to one catch on Sunday. "The intensity level is not here anymore, and it's the wrong time of the season to be ducking and hiding." Yet against the Bucs that seemed to be the thunderstruck Chargers' game plan: While the defense ducked, the offense went into hiding.
San Diego's D lined up in the wrong formation on three of its first four plays and proceeded to give up 327 passing yards to quarterback Trent Dilfer, the NFC's lowest-rated starting quarterback. San Diego was also caught flat-footed by a fake punt that gained the Bucs 25 yards and a first down in the third quarter, a play that elicited a loud chorus of boos and might have marked the end of an era—albeit an extremely short one. "In 1994 we had less talk and more action; now it's the other way around," said cornerback Darrien Gordon after the game. "There's a sense of panic here, and we still have five games to play."
Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries, meanwhile, threw three interceptions. The final two came on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, and the Bucs converted them into nine points to take a 22-17 lead with 6:02 to play. "We're not able to talk, or even think, about the playoffs right now," said San Diego coach Bobby Ross, whose team blew a 14-0 first-quarter advantage. "We just have to get our pride back and go from there."
But Ross and general manager Bobby Beathard may have stripped the team of that essential element during the off-season. They cleaned house during the off-season by letting go Leslie O'Neal, the Chargers' alltime leader in sacks; Natrone Means, their leading rusher the past two seasons; and three of their four leading receivers, including running back Ronnie Harmon. The moves were meant to give the Chargers some breathing room under the salary cap while ridding them of the malcontents who all but sabotaged the '95 season. "We were scraping and clawing to try to get back to the Super Bowl last year," said Martin. "And we had guys saying stuff like, 'Oh, man, I just wish the season was over.' "
But the Bobbies' strategy hasn't had the desired effect. Instead, the two have stripped the team of its renegade spirit and its core of talent. Nor have they replenished either through the draft: San Diego hasn't had a first-round pick in four of the last five years. Against lowly Tampa Bay, the Chargers mustered one sack, misfired on 18 pass plays and showed time and again why their rushing attack ranks next to last in the league. "We had a chance to get ourselves back in the playoffs with this game, and we didn't," said Ross. "It bothers me that we could play this poorly at this time of the season."
What really irks Ross, though, are the constant rumors that, frustrated by his team's rapid decline since the Super Bowl, he's considering leaving to coach in the college ranks next season. It's a charge both he and Beathard deny. When asked at his postgame press conference if he had spoken with Notre Dame, Ross became irate. "I've got a job right here," he said. "And I've got enough damn things to deal with right now."
But in about a month, if the Chargers continue to fizzle, Ross will have plenty of time to reconsider.