- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Billy Ray Smith—"the best-kept secret in the NFL," according to Lynn—was moved from inside linebacker to his natural position on the outside. On Sunday his diving interception on the Raiders' 22-yard line set up the Chargers' only TD. Banks came from Cleveland in a trade. Elvis Patterson, who was cut by the New York Giants this season after having started at cornerback for them in the Super Bowl, was a strike replacement player who stuck. The front line has gotten tougher, more physical.
The Raiders' patchwork offensive line was overmatched by the San Diego defense, and that was perhaps the biggest single factor in the game. The Raiders had a team-record 186 yards in penalties, including seven offensive holding calls. Los Angeles didn't score until the fourth quarter, getting its final touchdown with 16 seconds to play. To be sure, the Chargers' defense can improve. It still has a few gaps, and it's vulnerable to the run. But, goodness, compared with what it used to be....
"Al Saunders is the wild card in this deal," said Fouts when he was in the middle of his hassles with management. "He's making sure things get worked out." Saunders says he doesn't get involved in contract disputes between players and management, which is what coaches traditionally say. In fact, he sat in on two major meetings between the Chargers and Fouts and his agent, Howard Slusher.
"In the chemistry of trying to build a winning team, Dan is extremely important, and it's extra important that he feels himself a part of it," says Saunders. "Hey, he's a Hall of Famer. During the strike I asked him to provide the leadership and take charge of the offense with the guys who were out. He did that in exemplary fashion."
Saunders inherited a 1-7 team when Don Coryell quit last year, and the club won three of its last eight games. He had made his reputation as a bright, young receivers coach with the Chargers, but nobody knew just how tough the man was. He has also gained the respect of his players with his honesty. "So far," says Slusher, who isn't always easy to please, "he's been totally honest with us. And that's all you can ask."
The first thing Ortmayer, who was Al Davis's righthand man while with the Raiders, did after taking over as director of operations was to give the coaching staff more input into the draft. "It was a pleasure to watch the way the draft was run," says San Diego owner Al Spanos. "Defensive coaches, offensive coaches, everyone had access to the big board. In the past the draft was run by only one or two guys."
Ortmayer swung the Banks deal. He rounded up a replacement team that went 3-0, without one active veteran crossing the line. That's where his experience as a college recruiter paid off. Ortmayer, pro personnel director Rudy Feldman and player personnel director Chet Franklin were all at Colorado together in the late '60s when the Buffaloes had nationally rated teams thanks largely to a heavy load of out-of-state talent. When the NFL strike threatened, the trio went to work recruiting.
One example: the theft of Wimpy Wheeler. An offensive lineman, Wheeler had played several games with the Raiders, who cut him in preseason. When the strike hit, L.A. wanted him back. The Chargers wanted him, too. Wheeler was staying in a San Diego hotel. The Raiders were phoning him every five minutes, as were the Chargers. Ortmayer got the hotel operator to block the Raider calls, but she went off duty at 12:30 a.m. So Franklin was dispatched to sneak Wheeler out of the hotel, but Wheeler remained registered. As the Chargers moved in for the kill, the Raiders were calling an empty hotel room. Wheeler eventually became a three-game starter for San Diego but was not one of the nine who made it with the team, seven of whom were in uniform on Sunday, including three defensive starters. Now that's recruiting.