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San Diego CHARGERS
Michael Silver
August 30, 1999
After a season of discontent there's reason to be upbeat: Ryan Leaf is out, two veteran passers are in, and the new coach, unlike the old one, is a nice guy
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August 30, 1999

San Diego Chargers

After a season of discontent there's reason to be upbeat: Ryan Leaf is out, two veteran passers are in, and the new coach, unlike the old one, is a nice guy

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GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

Last season the Chargers' defense held its opponents without a first down on 47.2% of their drives, the highest percentage in the NFL. But San Diego's offense evened things out by failing to produce a first down on 46.2% of its drives, also the highest rate in the league.

Highest Percentage, defense

Drives

No first down

Pct.

Highest percentage, offense

Drives

No first down

Pct.

Chargers

214

101

47.2

Chargers

212

98

46.2

Bills

189

78

41.3

Raiders

216

92

42.6

Buccaneers

89

77

40.7

Rams

200

83

41.5

When Jim Harbaugh arrived in San Diego after being traded to the Chargers in March, he got a bigger welcome in his new team's locker room than George W. Bush at an NRA convention. A similarly buoyant reception awaited Erik Kramer upon his signing with San Diego in July, including this warm welcome from All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau: "I'm glad you're here, but why didn't you come last year?"

If Seau sounds a tad bitter, he's not alone. Quarterback Ryan Leaf's rocky rookie season created a rift in the Chargers' locker room last season that has yet to heal. The biggest charge coming out of San Diego in '98 was generated by the friction between the team's top-ranked defense and a sickly offense that produced a touchdown or less in all but four games.

Harbaugh, 35, and Kramer, 34, may not be the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL, but they're regarded as saviors by the Chargers, whose 5-11 record was directly traceable to a dearth of poise and leadership at the game's most important position. With the immature Leaf and overwhelmed Craig Whelihan taking turns flailing, San Diego defenders such as Pre Bowl strong safety Rodney Harrison experienced "a nightmare you can't even imagine."

"If I had to go through another year like that," Harrison says, "I'd probably quit playing." A repeat of that horror show was ruled out when Leaf, 15 minutes into his first training camp practice, tore cartilage in his right shoulder. He will almost certainly be placed on season-ending injured reserve.

General manager Bobby Beathard had already made some key moves in the off-season, including the hiring of coach Mike Riley, an offensive guru from Oregon State, but without the addition of at least one proven quarterback, there might have been mutiny. "They had to do something, because that s—had to stop," outside linebacker Lew Bush says. "Try going into a game you have no chance of winning, knowing that if you give up more than one touchdown, it's over."

The Chargers might say they're hoping to turn over a new leaf in '99, except the mention of Leaf and turnover in the same sentence brings back too many bad memories. The team's NFL-high 51 giveaways in '98 included an appalling 34 interceptions, and though Leaf was responsible for a mere 15 of them in 10 games—against two touchdown passes—the No. 2 pick's aloof behavior and sense of entitlement made him a symbol for the franchise's futility. Now, says Seau, "you can't imagine the security we feel as teammates knowing we have two quarterbacks who have performed in this league and know how to handle themselves as players and as leaders."

The crafty Harbaugh, coming off a mediocre year with the Ravens, and Kramer, coming back from knee and shoulder injuries that limited him to eight starts with the Bears last season, will compete for the right to hand off to feature back Natrone Means and to throw high-percentage passes. Means appeared to be headed for the Pro Bowl last year before a broken foot sidelined him in the 10th game, and the Chargers' above-average offensive line should provide ample running room as well as good pass protection. Third-year tight end Freddie Jones is a huge target (6'5", 270 pounds) who caught a team-high 57 passes last year and seems headed for stardom.

In addition to undoing the damage caused by Leaf, there has also been a concerted effort to wash away the vestiges of Kevin Gilbride's short but salty 22-game reign as the Chargers' coach. After enduring the grumpy Gilbride, who was fired six games into the '98 season, San Diego's players are aglow over nice-guy Riley, probably the NFL's most player-friendly coach since Marv Levy retired. Of more significance is Riley's offense, which is less intricate and, theoretically, easier to run than Gilbride's. Says Kramer, "They've tried to simplify the offense so that one day Ryan could step in and run this thing."

It's questionable whether that will ever happen—last week Leaf told USA Today he plans to void his contract and leave as a free agent after next season—but this much is clear: The Chargers aren't standing around waiting for him to grow up. They want results now, and they've even taken the drastic step of turning the 6'3", 255-pound Seau into a two-way player by his own request. Riley created the "Junior" package, featuring Seau as an H-back behind Jones, and has visions of putting Seau's pass-catching and drive-blocking skills on display for up to 10 plays a game.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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