Some players resented Ross's use of team meetings to announce fines and to criticize players' off-the-field behavior. "That wasn't professional," Martin says. "We are grown men, and if you're mad at someone, you should confront that person one-on-one. That's not everybody's business."
Mims, who was released in April and has since signed with the Washington Redskins, says Ross's public reprimands helped deflate a once jovial locker room. "The year of the Super Bowl, everybody enjoyed being at practice," Mims says. "There was a lot of joking around, and everyone felt free. The next year everybody started separating. You'd go to a meeting, and Coach Ross would confront you about being out the night before. You'd say, 'How did he know?' Pretty soon we stopped trusting each other." The paranoia soon extended beyond the locker room. Sources say Ross began to view Beathard as disruptive, and he chastised the general manager for discussing personnel and strategy with coaching assistants, especially offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
After starting the '95 season 4-7, the Chargers won four straight games and needed a road victory in their season finale against the New York Giants to clinch a playoff spot. San Diego won 27-17, but it was an unimpressive performance. Says Beathard, "I remember thinking during that game, Why aren't people into it? We didn't have that burning desire, but both teams played badly, and we won."
The following week the Chargers lost a first-round playoff game at home to the Colts 35-20, and the bloodletting began. The team did not re-sign two free agents: Harmon and Pro Bowl pass rusher Leslie O'Neal. Both were demanding more money than Beathard believed they merited, and both were viewed by management as being disruptive in the locker room. Many former teammates believe that Harmon, a quiet sort, did not deserve that rap, but O'Neal was outspoken and headstrong; one source says that he badmouthed the Super Bowl game plan to teammates before the game. O'Neal is now with the St. Louis Rams.
Then, in February '96, Beathard shockingly waived Means, who as a second-year back in 1994 had rushed for 1,350 yards but had struggled with a groin injury for much of the '95 season. Chargers executives believed Means had reported to the team out of shape following his '95 contract holdout, and Beathard was expecting another holdout during the summer of '96. "We didn't have a good feeling about anything that would happen," Beathard says. "Natrone's agent and I had some big differences."
This apparently was one decision on which Ross and Beathard agreed. Means, who was claimed by the Jacksonville Jaguars in March 1996 and gained 358 yards during the team's three-game playoff run last season, remains bitter toward both men, whom he accuses of character assassination. "Coach Ross always told us he'd never rip us in the papers, and the thing I'll never forgive him for is talking bad about me after they released me," Means says. "They [Ross and Beathard] were making it seem like I was going around San Diego boozing it up every night."
Ross, who had two years left on his contract when he resigned in January, has repeatedly refused to rehash the events that led to his departure. Asked for his views on the Chargers' precipitous drop, he said last week, "It would take too long [to explain]. It goes back too far for me to even remember." On Sunday, through a Lions spokesman, he declined to address the complaints of his former players.
Ross and Beathard did praise Means in recent interviews, and Beathard says he would gladly take Means back if he became available. "What happened was good for Natrone and bad for the Chargers," Beathard says. At the time of Means's release, Beathard said the team would rely on second-year back Aaron Hayden. But Hayden was beaten out by journeyman Leonard Russell in training camp and was waived after the '96 season. (San Diego has penciled in Gary Brown as the new starter. Brown played for the Houston Oilers from 1990 to '95 but was out of football last year.)
To San Francisco linebacker Gary Plummer, who played for San Diego from 1986 to '93, the pattern was familiar. Plummer cites Means, receiver Yancey Thigpen of the Steelers and defensive tackle Joe Phillips of the Kansas City Chiefs as examples of players who were allowed to leave San Diego too early. "It's unfortunately been an organizational trend for as long as I can remember," Plummer says. "We called it the revolving door. You look around the league, and rosters are littered with former Chargers who are productive. It just seems as if there's a brief window when you're the new kid on the block and everybody's excited about you, and after three or four years there's another kid to take your place."
Despite his reputation as a superb franchise builder, Beathard has made some regrettable personnel decisions. His penchant for drafting fast but relatively small receivers has resulted in some notable busts, including 5'10" Jimmy Oliver, a second-round pick in '95 who was waived earlier this summer. Beathard traded his '97 first-round selection to Tampa Bay for the Buccaneers' second-round choice in '96, which he used on Virginia Tech wideout Bryan Still. The 5'11" Still caught six passes as a rookie and currently plays behind Charlie Jones, a fourth-round pick in '96.