September 4, 1998


NFL '98: Charges Showing Some Life With Their Mouths, At Least

BY BERNIE WILSON
AP SPORTS WRITER

For a team coming off a disastrous 4-12 season, the San Diego Chargers have become big talkers.

Maybe it's a byproduct of getting brash Ryan Leaf with the second pick in the draft.

At the club's annual kickoff luncheon late last week, coach Kevin Gilbride said the Chargers would like to prove the so-called experts wrong for picking San Diego last in the AFC West.

"We'd like to shove it down their throats," he said. And Leaf, when asked his expectations for the year, said: "Just to win. And be around when the playoffs start late in the year. Nothing statistically or anything like that. The only statistic that matters is that won-loss one."

For the Chargers to make the playoffs this year would be astounding. San Diego made the playoffs in 1992 while coming off a 4-12 record, but first-year coach Bobby Ross had built Georgia Tech into a national power. Quarterback Stan Humphries came in knowing the offense.

Humphries is retired now because of two concussions suffered 18 days apart last season. The Chargers lost their last eight games, the only NFL team to do so last year. The culprits were injuries, inexperience and a horrible offensive line that also let backup quarterback Jim Everett fall to a career-ending injury.

Last year was "an experience no one wants to go through again," general manager Bobby Beathard said.

So in comes Leaf, a work in progress after leading Washington State to its first Rose Bowl in 67 years. He's the QB of the future, and the present.

The Chargers, seemingly intent on leading the NFL in surprises (once-exiled Natrone Means is back and top receiver Tony Martin was traded), released Casey Weldon at the final cutdown, meaning they go into the season with two quarterbacks. In just one game last year, Humphries and Everett were hurt, leaving Casey Whelihan to make his NFL debut in a rout at Kansas City. He wound up 0-7 as a starter, and is Leaf's backup now.

The Chargers were so intent on getting Leaf that they went for broke. Beathard sent Arizona two first-round picks, a second rounder, Pro Bowl return man Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp just for the right to move up from third to second in the draft.

Then the Chargers gave Leaf an $11.25 million signing bonus as part of a contract potentially worth $31.25 million over five years.

"We're counting on him," said Beathard, who has no first-round pick until 2001 — he dealt his from 2000 to Tampa Bay to draft receiver Mikhael Ricks, who like Leaf is 6-foot-5.

"Offensively, Ryan does make it exciting," Beathard said. "He's a gifted quarterback. Even this early, I think the players believe he can be the real deal."

Said Gilbride: "I think the key is just how fast Ryan comes along. It's just unfortunate there's no way you can rush it. He's got to go through the process."

Leaf looked both good and bad in the exhibition season. His history is that of a winner.

"For some reason we've always won." he said. "I won a state championship when I was in high school (in Great Falls, Mont.), a Pac-10 championship when I was in college. It just seems that we get things going, get the things done when I have my teammates around me. Hopefully that continues on."

He'll have Means to help take the pressure off, providing the Chargers single-season record holder with 1,350 yards in 1994 can stay healthy. He suffered a significant injury each of the last three years.

Besides Leaf, the single biggest upgrade came on the line. Beathard signed free agents John Jackson (Pittsburgh) at left tackle, Aaron Taylor (Green Bay) at left guard and Roman Fortin (Atlanta) at center. Raleigh McKenzie moves from center to right guard and Vaughn Parker from left tackle to the more familiar right tackle.

And they're charged with protecting the franchise quarterback.

"It's a lot of pressure on us," said Taylor, who like Jackson, McKenzie and Parker has played in the Super Bowl. "We knew that coming in here, what they were going to do at quarterback. The five guys we have are all pressure-player guys. We've been in big ballgames and we've protected good quarterbacks, so I think that's what they were looking for in terms of leadership and things like that."

Ricks and Bryan Still are the starting wide receivers. Still was a rookie bust two years ago before starting to come on last year. The only receiver with any name appeal is third-stringer Webster Slaughter.

A defense led by linebacker Junior Seau and hard-hitting strong safety Rodney Harrison is the weak link. While the Chargers beefed up on offense, they did virtually nothing on defense, failing to land an impact pass rusher and adding only backups. Depth is a big concern for a unit that allowed the most points in the NFL and had the fewest sacks, 27.

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