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Chargers' Win Not Just for Appearances

November 11, 1986|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Appearances count for a lot with Al Saunders, the new Chargers coach.

Consider his attire for Sunday's game at Denver, which the Chargers won, 9-3, to end an eight-game losing streak.

Although it was cold and windy enough for many fans to wear down-filled parkas, Saunders wore a white shirt with a scarlet tie. No hat, no gloves, no jacket.

Underneath, he had a layer of thermal underwear, but the image that came across was of a young executive on his lunch break on a mild San Diego day.

Saunders, who has been on the job less than two weeks, is shaping an image for himself and reshaping the way his team is seen.

The task won't be completed anytime soon, but already this much is clear: Saunders is briskly efficient and attentive to detail, isn't bound by the traditional view of what the San Diego Chargers are all about, and is as optimistic as he is square-jawed.

"We have emotional players and an emotional coach," Saunders said. "We are trying to progress to the point where we have 60 minutes of intense, emotional football every week.

"Our record is 2-8 . . . but I don't feel we are a bad team. I don't think there are any bad teams in the NFL. They all have good coaching staffs and players. It's who is playing the best on a given Sunday."

Much can be learned about Saunders from his approach to Sunday's game.

The Chargers weren't given much chance of beating the Broncos, who were 8-1. The Chargers had lost 11 straight road games.

"We went into it feeling there was no one in the world who thought we could win," Saunders said. "We were underdogs by anywhere from 13 1/2 to 16 points.

"What we wanted to do was shorten the game, use as much time as we could running, throw high-percentage passes and create turnovers. If you have a great fighter and a not so great fighter, the longer it goes, the better the odds for the great fighter."

His blueprint for victory was executed almost flawlessly. The Chargers kept the ball away from Denver, controlling it for 36 minutes and making only one offensive turnover. They also intercepted three John Elway passes, two in the end zone, including a game-saving interception by safety Vencie Glenn in the final minute.

"My philosophy is to do whatever you have to do with the people you have available," Saunders said. "We'd love to see intense, aggressive defense, an errorless kicking game and an offense that produces points and critical third down conversions. . . . We'd like to think we'll be very industrious in all those areas."

Saunders, who said he is trying to establish the foundation of his program in what remains of the 1986 season, stressed emotional intensity before his first game as coach. Before Sunday's game, he preached avoidance of turnovers. For this week's game against Dallas, he will push the team concept of winning with offense, defense and special teams.

Concepts are fine, but the more important and encouraging development for the Chargers is the recent play of their defense.

"Our defense is playing real well, doing all we have asked," Saunders said.

Some lineup changes paid dividends at Denver. Because of injuries to linebackers Woody Lowe and Andy Hawkins, the Chargers played more of a four-man rush, adding Earl Wilson to the lineup. They also altered their secondary, moving Gill Byrd to cornerback and starting Glenn at free safety.

The defensive backfield alignment may be permanent, according to Saunders. The only constant in the secondary this year has been change, but the Chargers may finally have located a workable combination.

Saunders said there appears to be little hope of John Hendy returning this season because of a knee injury that has kept him on injured reserve. Hendy had been projected as a starter at either safety or cornerback, but his inability to play, along with the early-season injury to Danny Walters, created instability that is only now being resolved.

Quarterback is another position with week-to-week uncertainty.

Tom Flick probably will start his third straight game, barring an overnight recovery by Dan Fouts.

Flick's remarkable improvement in the span of a week can't mask the fact that the Chargers will be a much more diversified offense when Fouts recovers from his concussion.

Saunders has been diplomatically evasive on when the job will revert to its mainstay of 14 years, Fouts.

"We'll have to see how Dan progresses," Saunders said. "He hasn't been cleared to play yet. We're taking it a day at a time. This is a head injury situation, and we have to see how Dan reacts in practice. Any suggestion of Dan as our starter (this week) would be premature.

"We have to allow his health and rehabilitation to take the proper course. If he were to start practicing Tuesday, take every snap, and be totally OK, we'd have him as our starter. If he was totally clear, and in his own mind he felt 100% clear, (he would be in the lineup)."

Mark Herrmann's return is even less certain. Herrmann, the team's backup quarterback who also is recovering from a concussion, is listed as questionable this week, Saunders said.

The return of linebackers Lowe and Hawkins seems more imminent. Hawkins, who has a pulled hamstring, could play this week. Lowe, who has a groin injury, wanted to play Sunday despite the injury.

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