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Chargers Disappointed in 1st-Round Pick : Is FitzPatrick in Danger of Being Cut? Are Coaches Lighting a Fire?

August 21, 1986|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Offensive lineman James FitzPatrick, a first-round draft choice from USC, is in danger of being cut by the Chargers, who are disappointed in his apparent lack of motivation.

Coach Don Coryell said Wednesday that the 6-foot 8-inch, 300-pound lineman "needs to get a fire going." In announcing that FitzPatrick would be moved from tackle to guard as an experiment, Coryell added: "We want to see what he can do inside. If he's going to make the club, he's going to have to play both positions."

FitzPatrick reported to the Chargers out of shape at 314 pounds after a weeklong holdout that ended with his signing a five-year contract worth about $1.8 million.

Charger owner Alex Spanos said Wednesday that he would not hesitate to absorb an investment in FitzPatrick that included a signing bonus of about $500,000.

"I met with my coaches today, and one of the things we talked about was FitzPatrick," Spanos said. "I hope he can make the club. He's still got two weeks (before the final cut to 45 players). I told my coaches I want the 45 best players. . . . I've got deep pockets. Just give me players who can win football games."

The Chargers were blunt about their desire to motivate FitzPatrick by raising the possibility of his not making the team. However, it is conceivable that they were posturing, because they denied that any attempt has yet been made to trade him. It would be unusual for a National Football League team to release a first-round draft choice without compensation or without suiting him up in a regular-season game.

General Manager Johnny Sanders, saying there are only two or three untouchables on the club, asserted that FitzPatrick's name has not come up in trade discussions in recent days.

"I haven't tried to shop him around," Sanders said. "I wouldn't do that without instructions from Mr. Spanos or the coaches, and they haven't told me to do that."

Sanders, however, had threatened to trade FitzPatrick to Buffalo or Green Bay during the contractual impasse in July. FitzPatrick's agent, Leigh Steinberg, said at the time that he was amused by the threat.

"It was very clever, but there was no chance James would have ever reported," Steinberg said. FitzPatrick jokingly left a message on his answering machine saying that he was going out to buy snowshoes.

FitzPatrick's relationship with the Chargers has been controversial since the day he was drafted. Spanos, in what he claimed was an off-the-record interview, told a reporter that FitzPatrick had tested positive for marijuana in drug tests administered to a group of several hundred college football prospects in January.

Later, after signing, FitzPatrick did not win converts by reporting to training camp at 314 pounds, the heaviest he has ever been. A team official said FitzPatrick's body fat was measured at 32%, high for a professional football player.

Dave Levy, the Chargers' offensive line coach, said Wednesday that FitzPatrick needs to get leaner and stronger.

And scouting director Ron Nay, who has been one of FitzPatrick's biggest supporters, said he, too, was disappointed the player came to camp so out of shape.

"James needs to mature some," Nay said. "He's a good prospect with good size and athletic ability. He's like a lot of kids who were always bigger and stronger than the kids they grew up with. He's got to learn to push himself beyond where he's been before."

Levy said the main issue with FitzPatrick is time.

"He is young chronologically and developmentally," Levy said of the 22-year-old lineman. "He has some very good qualities--size and intelligence--but he is behind in technique and needs a lot of work."

Levy said he doesn't know if FitzPatrick is capable of making a significant contribution to the Chargers this year. Both Levy and Coryell have been pleased with the overall development of the offensive line, and it would seem that FitzPatrick might be a player who could be carried as a luxury.

Not so, according to Levy. With only eight linemen, there are no luxuries. The five starters and three backups must all be able to contribute. The Chargers currently have 11 offensive linemen, of whom three must be cut before the regular season.

"If James were totally mature and a ready-made product, he would not have been available to us with the 14th pick in the draft," Levy said. "That doesn't mean he can't get there a year from now, but it's up to him to work at it. I have no master plan for his arrival."

Levy doesn't attempt to use the motivational tactics of a Marine drill instructor.

"I'm not holding the hammer over Fitz or any player," Levy said. "What we look for in a player are ambition and talent. If a player is lacking in either of those areas, coaching can't help him.

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