Cincinnati tied the score at 7-7 on Jon Kitna's eight-yard touchdown pass to rookie wideout Chad Johnson 24 seconds before halftime. After the break the Chargers took charge. Tomlinson led the power surge, running for 88 of his 107 yards and three touchdowns. Picked fifth in the draft after San Diego passed on the chance to select Michael Vick as Flutie's successor, Tomlinson is the runaway leader in the Rookie of the Year race. "I thought he was good coming in, and now I'm convinced," says Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, an emerging star himself. "He has great balance, a killer change of direction and breakaway speed."
What's scary is that Tomlinson hasn't even showcased the last of those attributes but still ranks second in the league in rushing, with 310 yards. He has also been a tad sloppy, having lost a pair of fumbles—and a pair of diamond earrings—in his young career. The $20,000 clip-ons were dislodged during San Diego's 32-21 win over the Cowboys, and Tomlinson's ears have been burning ever since. "Yeah, I've gotten a lot of grief from the guys," he says, "but at least I had insurance."
As much as he coveted Tomlinson, Butler swears Vick would be in a Chargers uniform today had his predraft trade with the Atlanta Falcons not included ultrarapid return man and No.3 wideout Tim Dwight, whose third-down reception helped set up Tomlinson's go-ahead touchdown run midway through the third quarter. Butler, fired by the Bills last December, has been on fire since heading west. His decision to keep coach Mike Riley was popular with the players, and the addition of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator created an even bigger buzz. Turner, whom players have dubbed the Mad Scientist, called a typically brilliant game on Sunday. For all of his struggles as the Washington Redskins' coach during the previous seven seasons, the man has an excellent football intellect. "We go at it every day in practice," says Seau, who during his marvelous 12-year career has augmented his talent with an unrivaled strategic sense. "If it were a chess match, we'd both still have our queens on the table."
If Flutie is the hottest tiling going in San Diego, Seau remains the king of the Chargers' castle. On Sunday he demonstrated why, as they say in the locker room, he is still Dat Dude. Seau's 14th career interception set up San Diego's first score, and he energized the crowd with huge hits, as did Harrison (nine tackles and a forced fumble), an eight-year veteran who seems to be getting better with age. Two of Butler's free-agent signees, cornerback Ryan McNeil (two interceptions, giving him five for the season) and defensive end Marcellus Wiley (a sack and a forced fumble), also came up large.
"This team has so much character because of all it has been through, and it all stems from Junior," Wiley, another former Bill, said last Friday as he mixed a CD at his Cardiff hillside home. (A part-time DJ who goes by the name Wildstyle, Wiley persuaded a stadium official to allow him to select pregame music at home games.) "You've got to go all out on every play because you're petrified to look that man in the eyes if you don't."
Seau has seen enough football to know that the Chargers, though they are 3-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl season of 1994, are a long way from making ring-fitting appointments. Flutie, too, concedes that the team's early schedule—San Diego opened with a win over the Redskins and next has road games against the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots—is less than challenging. "It's kind of a honeymoon period," he says. "In the fans' eyes I'm pushing six feet—until we lose a game. Then I'll be back to five-foot-six."
List him at whatever height you choose, but know that Flutie's uniform has never fit better. He is San Diego's salvation, and San Diego is his—and there's nothing fishy about it.