In Any Given Season...
By Dave Distel
(page 1 of 2)
Good news, San Diego faithful: Not one week will go by without at least one Charger getting major airtime on Monday Night Football. Unfortunately, nobody from this year’s team has been invited to the parties, any of them.
Indeed, the Chargers’ most high-profile guy these days—as he was a few years ago—is Dan Fouts. He’ll be in the broadcast booth with Al Michaels and some comedian. Too bad Fouts won’t be wearing one of those baby blue jerseys.
Alas, the current Chargers drew a blank once again on MNF. This is noteworthy because the Monday night participants are the teams ABC expects to be the hot commodities in any given autumn. Eighteen teams will be represented this fall, 13 of them at least twice. St. Louis, Tennessee and Washington will make three appearances each.
Guess who the hottest teams are supposed to be? Guess how many times St. Louis and Tennessee were on MNF en route to their Super Bowl showdown last season? Zilch. Neither one got a call. So much for benchmarks.
In fact, the Rams’ run from gauche to glorious—4-12 to Super Bowl champs—certainly raised the level of optimism throughout the league. If they can do it... “And what about Tennessee?” says Dean Spanos, the Chargers’ president. “They weren’t expected to be there. And neither were we, the year we went.”
Optimism oozes throughout the Chargers’ encampment in Murphy Canyon. This team—the Y2K version—may have a glitch or two, but no one in the AFC is without imperfections. This team can make the playoffs, and anything can happen from there, the ’94 Chargers being Exhibit A.
“I look at the end of last season,” Spanos notes, “when we won four out of our last five. We came within one game of winning our division. Barring major injuries, I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t make the playoffs this year.”
Mike “Gee Whiz” Riley, the effervescent coach everyone loves, has a slightly different spin, not negative but maybe a tad more realistic. Four of the five teams in the AFC West finished at 9-7 (Seattle and Kansas City) and 8-8 (Chargers and Raiders). “Gosh,” he says, “we were only a hair away from going 10-6. But we were also only a hair away from going 6-10. That’s how close we are. The competitive balance in our division is terrific. It’s up for grabs, and it’s all going to come down to making the right plays at the right time.”
Much has happened to the Chargers since they closed the 1999 season with that 12-6 victory over Denver up in Mile High Stadium. Much of what has happened—maybe the best of what has happened—has been quietly accomplished. The biggest of headlines was controversial in nature, and had nothing to do with the product being assembled for the 2000 season. You saw it: “Spanos wants a new stadium.”
This was not Dean Spanos. This was Alex, his father. This was Alex, the chairman of the board. This was Alex, who does not always choose his words with the most judicious care. And this was the biggest off-season news, at least in terms of working the community into a frenzy.
“What you see with Dad is what you get,” son Dean explains. “He’s never less than totally honest, but I think this was taken totally out of perspective. He’s coming out of a meeting at 5:30, and some guy walks up and says, ‘Would you like a new stadium?’ Dad says, ‘Sure, who wouldn’t want a new stadium?’ And it went from there. It was totally unfair.”
The whole stadium thing—as it relates to both football and baseball—is the competition factor. The Padres’ push to move downtown is a prime example of the need to remain fiscally competitive. Even the Green Bay Packers are leery of remaining financially competitive in legendary Lambeau Field. “San Diego is where we want to be,” Dean Spanos insists, “but the key is to remain financially competitive. Right now—not next week or next year—there’s absolutely nothing to discuss.”
This brouhaha came only days after the Chargers—i.e., Alex Spanos—donated $3 million to a countywide high school scholarship program for students, educators and schools. And it was not long after that another donation was made, this one for $250,000, to begin the restoration of ninth grade sports to San Diego city high schools. Guess which story got the biggest headlines and stirred the biggest commotion?
All of this tended to obscure some nice work being done by Billy Devaney and Ed McGuire up on the second floor of Chargers headquarters. They were doing football work. They assemble the team. “When we’re done,” Devaney says, “it’s up to the coaches.”
It would be an oversimplification to say that this tandem is replacing the retired Bobby Beathard. They are essentially doing what they have done, the difference being that the buck now stops with Devaney as it pertains to personnel matters. McGuire, now as then, is where the buck starts, because he has to juggle budgets as well as the parameters of the NFL’s incomprehensible salary cap.
“Billy and I work hand-in-hand,” explains McGuire, the vice president of football operations. “I don’t tell him who to sign or who not to sign. I work with Dean on the budget, and then it’s up to us. We find out that this guy will cost X amount, and then we look at our options.”
Among the options is playing fast and free with the salary cap. McGuire equates it to credit cards and the family budget. There are ways to live a little higher on the hog in the present, but the piper shows up with his hat down the road. The San Francisco 49ers, for example, are paying the price for free-spending. The Washington Redskins are pushing the envelope this year with free-agent signings.
“If you feel one or two guys are going to make the difference,” McGuire says, “maybe you do what Washington did this year. If you win it all, you did the right thing. If you don’t, it’s going to be very easy to second-guess.”
The Chargers are maintaining what might be called fiscal sanity. This too might be second-guessed by folks who do not understand the ramifications of going over the edge, as the Niners did and as the Skins are doing.
A number of Chargers players were lost in the off-season, among them defensive tackle Norman Hand, linebacker Lew Bush, offensive linemen Aaron Taylor and John Jackson, cornerback Terrance Shaw and running back Natrone Means. Though Means, being a running back, probably drew the most attention, the biggest hole was created by Hand’s departure to New Orleans.
“We didn’t want to lose Norman,” McGuire says, “but we would have gotten in too much trouble if we’d tried to keep him. We had a couple of free agents we wanted to add, and we had some veterans we really felt we needed to keep.”