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Spanos' Patience May Be Tested During 1985 : A Third Consecutive Losing Season for the Chargers Could Be a Costly One

March 11, 1985|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

Alex Spanos is an impatient man. He was pained by the Chargers' 7-9 record last year. Anything short of a return to the playoffs this season could mean sweeping changes from the executive level down.

Spanos so far has left his administrative staff pretty much intact. His goal has been to establish what he calls a comfort level among members of the front office. He has sought to learn the team's problems from the inside by imploring the staff to open up to him. In some cases he has been delighted by the candid opinions he has heard.

General Manager John Sanders, a tough but unappreciated negotiator, is respected by Spanos and appears to be on solid ground.

Coach Don Coryell, who has been perennially criticized for being too lenient, also has the full backing of Spanos.

But the Spanos also has made it clear he expects to see a much more disciplined team--one that is assessed fewer penalties and avoids the motivational lapses that have been apparent in recent seasons.

A third straight losing season could mean trouble for either Sanders or Coryell, or both. There has been speculation that Spanos will eventually bring in a member of his family to oversee operations. He has vested heavy responsibility in his sons and sons-in-law in the construction business, and it is likely one of them will move over to the Chargers in the next year or two.

There has been one significant change at the administrative level. Ron Nay has been elevated to chief of scouting and given free reign to hire a staff of his choosing. He will have considerable say in the draft this spring.

Following is a capsule look at what may transpire this year. It is based in part on talks with Spanos and staff members.

OFFENSE Backfield--Dan Fouts is more solidly entrenched than ever as the quarterback and team leader. He is the man looked to by owner, coaching staff and other players to hold things together and provide inspiration. The team goes only as far as his health permits.

Behind him there are questions. No. 2 quarterback Ed Luther has chosen to accept a lucrative offer to take over as No. 1 with the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League. The only remaining quarterback is third-year player Bruce Mathison, who is totally untested. The Chargers like what they have seen of him in practice. Mathison is agile and has a live arm. But they likely will pursue another quarterback, either through a trade or the draft, as insurance.

Last year's rookie sensation, Earnest Jackson, is clearly established as the No. 1 runner. Chuck Muncie's status is uncertain at best. National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle was supposed to have a ruling on his possible return from a drug suspension, but there has been no word yet. This much is known: the Chargers are not counting on him.

Receivers--Once the most talented unit in pro football, there are problems here now. Kellen Winslow, who suffered a devastating knee injury last year, may not be ready for the beginning of the season. There are two other capable tight ends, Pete Holohan and Eric Sievers, but Winslow is perhaps the best ever at the position, and his absence would be a major loss.

Flanker Wes Chandler has had two straight mediocre seasons, by his standards. Charlie Joiner, the game's No. 1 all-time receiver, can't be expected to catch 60 balls a year forever.

What the Chargers need is to get their hands on USFL star Trumaine Johnson, whose NFL rights they own. There is guarded optimism that Johnson may defect. If he does, this position takes on an entirely different light, and might have enough surplus talent to yield trade material.

Line--Until recently this was just about the most effective group of pass blockers around, but there has been a dropoff. Ed White, who is getting dangerously close to 40, remains among the top linemen in the league, and Don Macek is excellent when healthy. Doug Wilkerson is still a respectable guard and Dennis McKnight is regarded as the best of a group of mediocre young blockers. The Chargers are definitely looking for one or two talented men to add to the cast.

DEFENSE Line--A perennial weak spot since the departure of Fred Dean in 1981. The group has been almost completely reshaped in the past two years, and could use more reinforcements. The question is, which needs help more, the line or the secondary?

Linebackers--The addition of Shane Nelson, who is attempting a comeback after a three-year recuperation from knee surgery, could provide depth at the only impressive segment of the defense. Also trying a comeback is second-year man Mike Guendling, who showed promise before suffering a knee injury in training camp. Linden King, a free agent, has established himself as one of the more capable, if unsung linebackers in the league. Youngsters Mike Green and Billy Ray Smith are good and getting better.

Secondary--Ouch! Let's not even mention the No. 1 draft choice, Mossy Cade, who opted for the other league. Gill Byrd has made progress when healthy, but the other promising draftee from two years ago, Danny Walters, developed a drug problem last season. Other names to consider (or forget) are Reuben Henderson and Tim Fox. A priority is adding one or two gifted performers in this department.

SPECIAL TEAMS Look for the Chargers to bring in competition for both of their kickers, Rolf Benirschke and Maury Buford. Benirschke's relatively short kickoffs are a source of concern, and some team members wondered about the propriety of his giving the thumbs-up sign to Denver's Rich Karlis before he kicked a game-winning field goal last year. Buford's inconsistent punting also means his job is on the line.

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