SAN DIEGO — Don Coryell went away last week, and Air Coryell seemed to go with him.
The San Diego Chargers lost a coach and an approach to football when Coryell resigned last Wednesday.
After having lost seven straight games throwing under Coryell, they lost running Sunday under new Coach Al Saunders, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs, 24-23, on Nick Lowery's 37-yard field goal with seven seconds left.
Saunders had thrown out many of the fancy elements that were staples of the Air Coryell approach. He had to be conservative because Dan Fouts and Mark Herrmann were hurt, leaving Tom Flick as the starter, a role he hadn't experienced since his senior year of college.
The Chargers (1-8) tried to play ball control most of the game with just two healthy runners, Gary Anderson and Tim Spencer. They nearly made it work, despite frequent booing from fans used to a flashier attack. Anderson gained 100 yards and Spencer 61.
After running the ball 47 times and throwing only 12 times, with two completions and three interceptions, the Chargers changed character in the final two minutes and nearly won in their accustomed manner, passing.
Flick became a different player late in the game, or so he said.
"In the end, it started to flow and got away from being a thought process," he said. "I became a good quarterback. I felt very sure of myself. It irked me the way I threw some balls today, but put me in the same spot again and I won't float that sucker. I'll put some pepper on the tomato."
In the end, it seemed the Chargers' old nemesis--pass defense--survived the change in coaches and beat the Chargers again.
As the Chiefs rallied, the immortal combination of Bill Kenney to Emile Harry teamed for a five-yard touchdown pass and a 47-yard throw that set up a short scoring run by Mike Pruitt. Those scores helped the Chiefs (6-3) overcome a 16-0 deficit and take a 21-16 lead with 1:46 to play.
Flick, suddenly resembling a quarterback who belonged in a pro football game, completed two passes totaling 33 yards to Wes Chandler as the Chargers advanced to the Kansas City one-yard line. Flick then ran a bootleg to put San Diego back in the lead, 23-21.
But there was 1:02 remaining, ample time for Kenney to work on the brittle Charger secondary, particularly cornerback Donald Brown.
Kenney went to Carlos Carson for 18 yards and twice to Henry Marshall for gains of 16 and 13, sandwiched around a Billy Ray Smith sack, San Diego's seventh of the day.
"Our object," Brown said, "was to give them the short pass, but they added up. I was trying not to let anybody get deep, and maybe I was playing off the receiver too much.
"You have to respect the speed of Marshall and Carson, and you can't hold those guys down for the whole game. We played pretty well, but I'm not satisfied with myself. I felt I let my teammates down on the last drive."
Kansas City Coach John Mackovic turned the game over to Lowery when the Chiefs reached the San Diego 19.
Earlier, Lowery had missed the first field goal of his career from less than 30 yards when San Diego's Jeff Walker blocked a 29-yard try.
"I was glad to get another chance," Lowery said. "That (37 yards) is a good medium-length kick. But I guess anything is possible, since I had missed before from inside the 30."
The failure by the San Diego defense in the final minute was worse than disappointing, according to defensive coordinator Ron Lynn.
"It was crushing," he said. "We had shut them out in the first half and were where we wanted to be. We just needed to continue that tempo and style of play. What you saw today was the best and worst we could play."
Saunders seemed less crushed than Lynn.
"It was a tough one," he said, tie loosened and stray hair damp on his forehead. "It was a very emotional game, and the exciting thing was the way the guys pulled together at the end and got a touchdown."
It was also an emotional day for Flick.
"I played horrible, I played terrible football, and I'm sorry my performance wasn't up to par," Flick said after completing 4 of 17 passes for 42 yards and 4 interceptions. "I was trying to be too exact. I wasn't fluid. But I learned from this, and next time I'll take control of my situation better."
With only two healthy running backs, the San Diego offense was singularly unimaginative.
The Chargers had a chance to win ugly, but they wound up losing ugly.
"The fans here are great fans, used to exciting football," Saunders said diplomatically. "The most exciting football is when the ball is in the air."
Saunders showed little confidence in the arm of Flick, who threw only eight passes in the first half for a net of minus-one yard.
In the first half, Flick completed one throw to a Charger and one to a Chief. Both receivers were in the Kansas City end zone. Chandler caught a seven-yard throw for a touchdown, while Lloyd Burruss intercepted a throw in the end zone.
Flick's first two passes in the second half were intercepted by Kansas City's Albert Lewis.