SAN DIEGO — Given his druthers, Earl Ferrell might have headed for the nearest exit and simply kept on running.
What else would go through the mind of a football player who had just dropped the potential game-winning pass? There are many ways to lose a game, but none any tougher than the way Ferrell, a veteran running back, unwittingly bailed out the Chargers Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
Quarterback Neil Lomax put the ball in Ferrell's hands on the Chargers' one-yard line with 16 seconds left. Had Ferrell hung on to it, the St. Louis Cardinals, down 28-0 at halftime, would have completed an almost incredible comeback with a 31-28 victory. Instead, all they got was the solace of a 28-24 near-miss.
Four plays earlier, Ferrell had made a spectacular reception and run that covered 17 yards and gave the Cardinals a first down on the Chargers' five-yard line. If it hadn't been for him, the Cardinals probably wouldn't have been in position to win the game on that breathtaking fourth-down play.
But, the game came down to that last pass.
"I just didn't catch the ball," he said. "It was a pass pattern where I flare out, and it was designed to go to me. It was a bit underthrown, but it was the kind of pass you have to catch. I should have caught it. I didn't take my eyes off the ball. It hit my hands, and I dropped it.
"I usually make that catch. I was shocked that I didn't make it. This was the first time I was ever in position to win a game personally, but it just didn't happen. I blew it."
Of the earlier pass play that Ferrell gained 17 yards, he said, "I didn't really have the ball at first. A San Diego guy was right with me. I don't know who it was. Then I reached up and got it, and went around him. I could have gone out of bounds to stop the clock, but I was trying to score. Every time I get the ball, I want to score."
Ferrell, 29, a sixth-year man from East Tennessee State, became one of Lomax's favorite receivers last season, catching 56 passes for 434 yards. Sunday, he caught 4 for 32 yards.
"He's one of the best backs in all of football," Lomax said. "He'll get that pass 99 out of 100 times. But it shouldn't have come down to that one play. We just dug ourselves too big a hole. In the National Football League, you can't afford to get 28 points behind.
"I didn't think we had a chance when it was 28-zip, but I sure did when it got to 28-10. San Diego just ran out the clock the whole second half, and that helped us almost catch up.
"What hurt us down the stretch was that we ran out of timeouts, and when we got first down on the five, I had to throw the ball away to stop the clock. We could have used one more down.
"Still, I thought we had it. They had single coverage on Ferrell, and I just threw the ball into the flat."
Actually, the Cardinals' second-half rally shouldn't have come as a surprise to the Chargers. Last week, the Cardinals beat the Dallas Cowboys with 21 points in the last 1 minute 58 seconds.
Cardinal Coach Gene Stallings was asked if he had given his players a lecture at halftime.
"We visited," said Stallings with a smile. "I was embarrassed by the way we had played, and I told them so in some well-chosen words. We made a few changes, but basically, we just started doing some things that we hadn't done in the first half. We could have folded, but we didn't, and I'm proud of them for that.
"I felt bad for Earl. To tell you the truth, I felt bad for me too."