SAN DIEGO — The Chargers went on strike 30 minutes too soon Sunday, but we've seen this act before, of course.
For some reason, the unofficial Charger game plan has always been to score like the dickens, stop, say a prayer and hope the opposition drops the winning touchdown pass. On Sunday, the Chargers scored like the dickens, stopped, said a prayer and watched St. Louis Cardinal running back Earl Ferrell drop a pass that could have led to the winning touchdown.
No matter that their fans booed and threw French fries at them, a win is a win is a win. In a jubilant locker room, the Chargers celebrated their 28-24 come-from-ahead victory.
"It's the first time I've ever won a game and been booed," cornerback Danny Walters said. "In a way, I feel like we lost."
In case you joined the game late, the Chargers led, 28-0, at halftime. Lionel James ran a punt back 81 yards, and then linebacker Billy Ray Smith scooped up a fumbled snap to set up Gary Anderson's short scoring run. This all happened in the first 5:24.
Later, quarterback Dan Fouts lobbed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Wes Chandler, and Smith set up another score when he intercepted a Neil Lomax pass. James scored the final Charger touchdown, on a seven-yard run, and you had your blowout.
Or did you? The Chargers took the second-half kickoff, went 71 yards to the Cardinal nine-yard line and stopped. Anderson fumbled Fouts' pitchout, and the Cardinals recovered.
Lomax--who completed 32 of 61 passes for 457 yards--led the Cardinals to scores on four of their next five possessions. The Charger lead was down to four with 1:48 left. The Chargers--in a final attempt to run out the clock--didn't. They held the ball for a total of 18 seconds and had to punt.
Actually, it wasn't much of a punt. Ralf Mojsiejenko booted a line drive that hopped 22 yards. With 1:15 left, the Cardinals had the ball 32 yards from the goal line. On one play, Ferrell caught a swing pass and appeared to bobble the ball. Charger defensive back Daniel Hunter swiped at the ball and missed. And then he missed Ferrell, who rambled down to the five-yard line.
Three incompletes later, it was fourth-and-goal from the five with 20 seconds remaining.
"What was going through my head? I think I said a prayer or two," Charger Coach Al Saunders said.
Lomax took his final snap and gingerly stepped to the right. Smith, the left outside linebacker, followed tight end Jay Novacek toward the middle of the field, leaving Ferrell wide open on the right. Charger strong safety Martin Bayless threw up his arms and gave chase. Too late. Lomax threw.
"As soon as I saw the coverage and Earl in the flat, I told myself, 'Six points,' " Lomax said.
Instead, as he was about to step into the end zone, Ferrell dropped the pass.
The Cardinals, who last week scored three touchdowns in the final 1:58 to beat Dallas, are 1-1. The Chargers also are 1-1.
Football coaches usually don't have many answers until they see the films, but here are a bunch of questions for them anyway.
Such as . . .
WHO HAD FERRELL?
None of the Chargers would come out and say it in so many words, but--from what they would say--Smith evidently took the wrong man, Novacek.
"In that coverage, (Ferrell is) the outside linebacker's man," Bayless said.
"Hey, man, we don't point fingers here," Smith said, grinning. "It could have been my man, you never know."
WHY THE COLLAPSE?
Blame it on human nature or Lomax, but it's tough playing a second half leading, 28-0.
"Forever in football, coaches have come in at halftime with big leads and said, 'Play like it's 0-0,' " Fouts said. "But how often does it work?"
It's clear that the game changed when Anderson fumbled that Fouts pitchout early in the second half.
"We weren't too conservative in the second half," said Fouts, who attempted 42 fewer passes than Lomax. "If we score on that drive, it's 35-nothing and over."
At that point, the Cardinals got hot for many reasons. Charger defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said he was so concerned about St. Louis' pass offense that he wanted his linebackers to drop back into coverage instead of blitzing. Of course, what this did was eliminate the Charger pass rush.
With a lot of time to stand and throw, Lomax stood and completed his passes. An eight-yard touchdown pass to Roy Green (7 catches, 139 yards) made it 28-7 with 6:43 left in the third quarter. Then, the next three Charger possessions ended in a dropped pass, a fumbled snap that Fouts recovered and an incomplete pass to James, who was wide open for a touchdown but mistimed his jump and couldn't reach the ball.
The results for St. Louis: A 38-yard field goal by Jim Gallery (he had two misses earlier in the game); a 22-yard touchdown pass from Lomax to Novacek, who beat Bayless, and a 17-yard touchdown pass from Lomax to running back Stump Mitchell, who bowled past Bayless and into the end zone. It was 28-24.