LA JOLLA — The Chargers have a hunch that it's time to give Rolf Benirschke the proverbial swift kick.
Football coaches continually plan, and the Charger coaches think Benirschke--the greatest placekicker in team history--might not be headed in the same direction they are.
"What you're wondering is, did he just have a bad year last season, or is he through?" special teams coach Wayne Sevier said.
The Chargers don't want a replay of 1986, when Benirschke made his kicks when the games were out of hand, and failed to make them when they were at hand. He missed important late field goals against Kansas City and Dallas and also failed on an extra point for the first time since 1983.
It's not that his field-goal percentage--16 of 25 for 64%--was outrageously poor, and it's not that he's ancient at age 32. It's just that he might have been giving the Chargers a signal of things to come, and they figured they had better take precautionary measures.
So Steve Ortmayer, the director of football operations who is a former Raider special teams coach, brought in two kickers to liven up training camp, which used to be boring for Benirschke, who has been with the team since 1977.
Now also competing for the job are Jeff Gaffney, a rookie from the University of Virginia, and Vince Abbott of Cal State Fullerton, who is Ortmayer's pet project.
Ortmayer gave Abbott a tryout with the Raiders last season and stayed in touch with him all year, even after Chris Bahr narrowly beat out Abbott for the job. Ortmayer invited Abbott to every Raider home game last year, and when Ortmayer joined the Charger management, he gave Abbott a call and signed him to a free-agent contract.
Abbott has made his boss look brilliant so far. He went 2 for 2 on field goals and even made two tackles on kickoff coverage in the team's 29-0 win in its exhibition opener against Dallas. Gaffney missed a 28-yarder, and Benirschke was wide on an extra point.
Sunday night's game against the Rams is Phase II of the competition that Benirschke refuses to let faze him. In 1979, he had ulcerative colitis and nearly died of complications involving two surgical procedures, so he has keeps football in perspective.
Consequently, he has taken quite kindly to Abbott and Gaffney, who, by the way, are inseparable. Benirschke has brought both of them into his home; he has shared meals with them.
"I don't want anyone to say I was a jerk," Benirschke said.
On Oct. 18, 1979, honorary Charger captain Rolf Benirschke, who weighed 123 pounds then, walked to midfield at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for the coin flip.
The next season, Benirschke returned from his illness weighing 50 more pounds. The city of San Diego applauded his courage, but he didn't need their sympathy; he needed his job back.
At the time, Benirschke was concerned that the Chargers would simply hand it to him.
He thought: "What else could they do? They'll feel too sorry for me to cut me."
So he visited Gene Klein, then the Charger owner, and asked Klein to let him earn it. Klein, who also had been concerned about the public sentiment, said: "I appreciate that, Rolf."
But Benirschke won the job fair and square, and the accomplishment is relevant even during this camp. Benirschke is considered to be one of the nicest guys around, but he also is darned determined.
People in the Charger organization still bring up the day in 1984 when Benirschke gave a thumbs-up signal to Denver kicker Rich Karlis just before Karlis beat them with a game-winning field goal. The new owner, Alex Spanos, was particularly peeved, and Benirschke has no idea whether it will still be held against him.
"It (being friendly with a fellow kicker) doesn't mean I compete any less hard," Benirschke said the other day. "I compete, but competition doesn't mean wishing the other guy misses."
So Benirschke says his desire to be the 1987 Charger kicker should not be questioned. He has so much here in this city. He owns a travel agency and a limousine service, and he still "Kicks for Critters"; after every field goal, Benirschke donates $50 to research to aid endangered animal species.
"I'd like to kick here," said Benirschke, whose most famous field goal was a 29-yarder, 13:52 into overtime, to lift the Chargers over the Miami Dolphins, 41-38, in a 1981 playoff game. "I've thought about what would happen if I had to go to another team, and I don't know what I'd do. . . . A lot of things are keeping me here."
Benirschke will not make excuses for last season or the last four years. He's the third most accurate kicker in NFL history (70.2%), but he has only made 64% of his field goals since 1983.
In his defense, there has been a revolving door of special team coaches, holders and snappers.
Benirschke thinks Coach Al Saunders does realize what has happened.