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With Coryell Gone, the Curtain Could Be Falling on Fouts Era

November 01, 1986|Dave Distel

Dan Fouts, that devil, has deprived us of a little slice of Americana for so many years that most of us have forgotten what we're missing.

Ah, Americana.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July. Red barns. Turkey on Thanksgiving. Steam locomotives. Norman Rockwell paintings. Johnny Carson for insomniacs. Grandma's feather bed. World Series games on autumn afternoons.

And quarterback controversies.

Fouts has taken away San Diego's right, or need, to debate which quarterback should be piloting the local heroes on Sunday afternoons.

How long has it been since we had a good ol'-fashioned quarterback controversy?

Consider that Nixon was president when Fouts first started a game as Charger quarterback. The year was 1973. There was some controversy in the early years, as would be expected with a young quarterback on a struggling team, but not a whisper of debate since 1978.

Indeed, it was in 1978 that the Chargers hired a coach who went with Fouts like fireworks on the Fourth . . . with equally explosive results. That coach, of course, was Don Coryell.

Even the best of things must pass, and Coryell is now among them. He was replaced as the Chargers' coach this week by Al Saunders.

It is for this reason, and others, that I perceive that a quarterback controversy is on the horizon. It may well be coming at us like a tornado in the dark, unseen as yet but coming just the same.

With the exception of offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, Coryell was Dan Fouts' biggest supporter. This was, to be sure, a case of mutual admiration. Coryell could do no wrong in Fouts' eyes, and vice versa.

As long as Coryell was coaching and Fouts was healthy, Dan would be The Man.

However, Coryell is no longer coaching and Fouts is suffering from his second concussion of the season. He is expected to be out for the second straight week when Kansas City visits Sunday.

This has caused other quarterbacks to crowd the picture. Mark Herrmann had his chance last week in Philadelphia, but did quite poorly in the rain until he, too, was sidelined by a concussion. Tom Flick, Herrmann's replacement last Sunday, gets the start against Kansas City.

With Coryell as coach, Herrmann and Flick would be mere stopgaps until Mr. Fouts was ready to return.

That may be the case no longer.

A clue to the Chargers' thinking is that they favor drafting linebacker Cornelius Bennett of Alabama over quarterback Vinny Testaverde of Miami, should their record remain so pitiful that they have such a selection. This has not been announced, of course, but this is the direction in which the hierarchy is leaning.

What does this tell you?

It tells me that there is a feeling of security about the quarterback situation. This feeling cannot be attributed to the presence of Fouts, because injuries have sacked him for the last four seasons. For the Chargers to feel so secure, they must feel comfortable that someone other than Fouts can do the job . . . because someone other than Fouts must be ready to do the job.

This someone must be either Mark Herrmann or Tom Flick, unless the Chargers are interested in acquiring John Unitas or Mark Harmon or maybe Oil Can Boyd.

These conclusions lead me to suspect that the Chargers would like to give Herrmann and Flick a chance to show what they can do during the last half of the season.

If this, in fact, is what they would like to do, will they or can they do it?

It will be difficult to gracefully accomplish, because Dan Fouts is not the sort to let a concussion or two keep him inactive. When he is healthy, even reasonably healthy, he will show up with his lunch pail and ask for the playbook and football.

I can imagine the look Dan Fouts would give a guy who suggested a longer break might be good for him. It would freeze Mission Bay.

In Al Saunders, Coryell's successor, the Chargers have a man who can return such a glare icicle for icicle. He is a man who will do things his way. He is a product of The Alex Spanos Regime and, as such, lives for today and tomorrow and has little concern for institutions of San Diego's yesterdays.

Dan Fouts is a San Diego institution just as was Don Coryell. His security, too, was shaken when Coryell went out the door so fast that he left his glasses on his desk Wednesday.

The quarterback is no longer untouchable. He has thrown 19 interceptions in seven games, six of those being losses. The multitudes are restless, and the man in charge has been empowered to do things as he chooses to do them.

Things are different. Saunders indicated as much when the quarterback situation became the subject of give-and-take with reporters Thursday afternoon.

Asked if Dan Fouts would be the No. 1 guy when he returned, Saunders said: "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

"Do you mean it's not definite?" a reporter asked, his interest piqued by the evasive answer.

"I didn't say that," Saunders said. "You guys aren't going to get me to say that Dan Fouts is not our No. 1 quarterback."

This went on for 10 to 15 minutes, Saunders becoming increasingly uncomfortable. There was some backtracking and a bit of hemming and hawing. Saunders finally asked that the whole topic be off the record, but Associated Press ran an account.

After talking to reporters in attendance at this session, I came to two conclusions:

1. Al Saunders did not say that Dan Fouts would not return as the Chargers' No. 1 quarterback.

2. Al Saunders did not say he would.

Yes, things are different. Very different.

The quarterback is different now, but will he still be different when Fouts is ready to return?

This scenario has something you don't get with fireworks on the Fourth. This one has a time bomb.

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