SAN DIEGO — After being struck with a natural disaster of shattering proportions Sunday, the Chargers were trying to put on a brave face and pretend everything really is going to be OK.
The loss of quarterback Dan Fouts, who suffered a knee injury in a 21-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns, was the overwhelming concern among players, coaches and staff officials.
The bravest--and probably the most forced--assessment came from Ron Nay, chief scout and top adviser to team owner Alex Spanos.
"We lost a great player, but our season didn't end today when Dan went down," Nay said. "It's not the end of the world. The first thing we have to do is erase that attitude.
"You can still win in pro football with defense, kicking and rushing, and Dan Fouts does none of those things. I hope we don't think we have to throw for 300 yards to win a game."
The Chargers will be without Fouts for a minimum of three to six weeks, meaning they will have to win by doing things Nay prescribed, things they haven't shown much affinity for this year.
The preliminary diagnosis was that Fouts suffered a tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee when hit in the first quarter by Cleveland linebacker Eddie Johnson.
The Browns, overcoming a 7-0 lead, tied the game at halftime, then scored on their first two possessions of the second half. They were threatening to score again on their third and final series, reaching the San Diego six before graciously standing around as time expired.
In the season's first three games, Fouts passed for 1,002 yards, an average of 334 per game. At that pace, he would have netted 5,344 yards for the year, breaking the record set last season by Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins.
"It was a very depressing loss," Coach Don Coryell said.
Much of the blame, inevitably, went to reserve quarterback Mark Herrmann, a journeyman who won the the No. 2 role in the second half of the final exhibition game, his only live action of the preseason.
"We didn't use as much of the game plan as we would have with Dan," said Herrmann, whose statistics (16 for 23, 178 yards, 2 interceptions) were not bad. "It's tough to come in and duplicate his performance. It's hard to be in top form when you haven't had the work."
The Chargers lost Fouts on a blitz by Johnson, a play the Browns dubbed Ted Cover Five.
"We designed it this week," Johnson said. "Bob Golic (the nose tackle) opened a hole and I rushed the A gap between center and guard. I was totally free. No one touched me."
The Charger blocker who was supposed to pick up the blitz was tackle Sam Claphan. At least, Claphan assigned himself the blame for not stopping Johnson.
"No excuses, I just had a technique breakdown," Claphan said. "I saw the guy hit Dan in the knee and I feel sad within. I'm the reason Dan is hurt."
Several of the Browns, including Johnson, seemed almost as upset as Claphan.
"I hope the injury isn't too serious because the NFL needs Dan Fouts," Johnson said.
Coach Marty Schottenheimer spoke in the same vein. "I certainly hope Fouts is OK," he said. "I can't tell you the admiration I have for Dan Fouts."
Fouts remained in the game for one play before limping off the field. He clapped his hands in disgust as he reached the sidelines.
The Chargers were clinging to a 7-0 lead when Fouts went out.
The Browns staged an early threat when Kevin Mack bolted 61 yards on the first play from scrimmage, but a fumble by Clarence Weathers at the seven-yard line aborted the drive.
Fouts strung together a 93-yard drive, with a 54-yard scoring pass to Jesse Bendross putting the Chargers ahead 7-0.
The Browns tied it late in the first half following an interception at the Charger 37 by Don Rogers. A 12-yard run on fourth down by quarterback Gary Danielson kept the short drive alive and set up a 10-yard run by Mack.
Cleveland went ahead, 14-7, in the third quarter, thanks mostly to a 48-yard reception by Weathers that preceded a 10-yard scoring toss to Ernest Byner.
The Browns put the game out of reach, 21-7, when Mack caught an 11-yard scoring pass from Danielson early in the fourth quarter.
The Chargers didn't really come close to scoring following the loss of Fouts.