SAN DIEGO — Seems like new times.
Air Coryell is officially heir Coryell. The Chargers are 2-9 and they're still serving cornerback flambe. Bombardier Dan Fouts is out again, and even when everyone thought he'd play, the Raiders were six-point favorites.
But just when you thought it was safe to go back into Jack Murphy Stadium . . .
Jim Plunkett meets the Charger pass rush tonight. Two weeks ago, the Chargers recorded four sacks of Denver's John Elway, who said they had come after him "like Banshees." Last Sunday, they got Steve Pelluer 12 times. Pelluer is a scrambler of such note that he has been compared in Dallas to Roger Staubach.
Not to get too lyrical about the differences between Pelluer, Elway and the Raider quarterback, but Plunkett doesn't run as well.
Between the Chargers and a 38-year-old quarry is an offensive line that started last weekend as the second worst in the National Football League in sacks allowed. Unless it rallies, this is going to be like taking that lamp that's been in the family for three generations on the subway at rush hour. Or under the subway.
Has the turnaround started? The Raiders allowed only one sack last Sunday, although one skeptic says this will be different.
"Cleveland didn't come after us the way San Diego goes after people," Coach Tom Flores said.
The Chargers' 45 sacks lead the NFL. Left defensive end Lee Williams has 11. Right end Leslie O'Neal, the No. 1 draft choice and a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year, didn't get a sack in his first three games, but in his fourth, he had three, forced a fumble and recovered one. That was against the Raiders. O'Neal now has 11 1/2 sacks, 5 of them last Sunday.
Of course, behind them are the cornerbacks, who must play man-to-man while everyone else tries to pile on the quarterback. It was the duo of Donald Brown-Wayne Davis the last time the teams met. Marc Wilson was sacked eight times but he also threw for 314 yards, and the Raiders won, 17-13.
Since then, Brown has been benched for safety Gil Byrd, who had been moved to cornerback but was then forced to return to safety when his replacement, Vencie Glen, was hurt. So Brown is back at the right corner opposite Jessie Hester-Rod Barksdale, the Raider sprinters. On the left corner opposite Dokie Williams is Davis' replacement, Kenny Taylor, a Bear castoff.
In other words, the Chargers are still playing musical chairs in the secondary, taking players off the waiver wire and leaving them one on one against all the sprinters.
As the principal in "Up the Down Staircase" said to the complaining teacher: "Consider it an opportunity."
Everyone else has. In Al Saunders' first game as coach, the Chargers took a 16-0 halftime lead against the Chiefs--and lost.
In his second, the Chargers beat the Broncos, at Denver, 9-3.
In his third, the Chargers took a 21-10 lead over the Cowboys, led 23-21 with 1:02 left--and lost.
The 39-year-old Saunders is boyish-looking, pleasant, easy-going and remained so right up until the day that Don Coryell resigned, under several seasons of pressure from the new owner, Alex Spanos. Spanos had this season moved Saunders up to "assistant head coach," perhaps for just such an eventuality.
Had the Chargers turned into Coryell Country Club? On his first day, Saunders told his players they had to kneel on one knee when being addressed by a coach, and sprint to and from drills. Reporters and team officials, formerly free to roam the Charger practice site, were restricted to one set of bleachers.
The players weren't enchanted and said so. People recalled that Les Steckel, the young coach who turned the Minnesota Vikings' practices into a boot camp, finished last and was fired within one season. Saunders has since soft-pedalled the changes.
More substantively, he plans to go to a more conservative offensive game plan, running the ball more, getting physical and winning with defense, just like guess which hated rival? Spanos has been an avowed admirer of Al Davis.
Fouts' future in the program is still the subject of speculation. He missed 3 1/2 games with a sore right shoulder before returning against Dallas. The centerpiece of the franchise under Coryell, Fouts previously would have been back in the starting lineup at the earliest opportunity, but Saunders kept saying that these types of injuries couldn't be rushed.
Fouts originally was supposed to start tonight, but his shoulder and the short week got him. Saunders had hoped Fouts could practice by Wednesday, but when he couldn't, Tom Flick was named the starter once more.
Flick, the former Washington Husky, is in his third pro season and with his third pro team. He has started three games for the Chargers, two losses plus the 9-3 victory in Denver. His numbers are hardly Foutsian--a 44% completion average, 2 touchdown passes, 5 interceptions.