SAN DIEGO — Whatever occurs on the strike front, Coach Al Saunders will be forever grateful to the Chargers' personnel department for presenting him with one of the best replacement teams in the National Football League.
Thanks to a 2-0 start by the cast assembled by Steve Ortmayer, director of football operations, the Chargers will be playing for the AFC West lead when they meet the Raiders at the Coliseum Sunday. They haven't enjoyed that distinction since the last game of the strike-shortened 1982 season. On that occasion, they lost to the Raiders at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, 41-34.
Perhaps the regular Chargers would have beaten both Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, as the non-union players did the last two Sundays. But they were 1-1 against Kansas City and St. Louis. Certainly they weren't ranked with the league's elite before the players striked.
In any case, the two Charger teams have a combined record of 3-1.
"We got an earlier start in preparing for the strike than some of the other teams," Saunders said at his weekly news conference Monday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. "Our personnel people did a great job in lining up players quickly.
"When the NFL meetings were held in March, I became convinced that a strike was a strong possibility. In fact, I thought it was almost inevitable. The owners indicated at the meetings that we would keep playing during a strike, so I pushed for a larger group of players than usual for training camp. We brought in 120 players instead of about 100.
"We wanted to give all the players, not just the ones who were going to make our 45-man roster, as much work as we could. We weren't able to sign them all, but the ones we did sign have really helped get our new team off the ground."
The Chargers' replacement roster includes 19 players who were cut in camp, 6 of them with NFL experience elsewhere.
Saunders said he has even found elements of leadership among the newcomers, something that has been lacking on the regular squad. He said quarterback Rick Neuheisel, cornerback Elvis Patterson and defensive end Joe Phillips have led the non-union players. Neuheisel and Phillips are rookies, Patterson a three-year veteran from the New York Giants.
Saunders said he believes the replacement games should count in the standings.
"It would be a giant fraud if they weren't counted," he said. "If they weren't going to count, our staff would have been better off on vacation, because we've aged six-fold since the strike started."
Gill Byrd, the Chargers' assistant player representative, reported that he sensed no change of attitude among the strikers after a brief workout Monday morning. "I don't have any feeling that any of the guys will cross the picket lines," he said. . . However, third-year defensive back Jeff Dale, who is on injured-reserved, did become the first Charger to cross the picket line Monday. Dale, a two-year starter who has been on injured reserve since failing his training camp physical because of a bulging disc in his back, consulted with team doctors at the club's training facility, said Steve Ortmayer, director of football operations. "We're putting him on a different (rehabilitation) program," Ortmayer said. "We're still trying to keep him from being operated on in hopes that he can play this year." . . . Ortmayer said he was close to a deal for linebacker James Johnson, a member of the San Francisco 49ers' replacement squad. Johnson, from San Diego State, was a third-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions in 1985. The Chargers need help at linebacker because of the loss of Chuck Faucette, a rookie from Maryland, who will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery Tuesday.