SAN DIEGO — Look at it this way. While they were away, they went from 1-1 to 4-1. They went from a third-place tie to first place.
They rid themselves of three usually difficult road games, all with victories.
They rid themselves of maybe their toughest home game all season, against Seattle, thanks to a league cancellation.
They've got 6 of their last 10 games at home. Their nonconference road games are at Houston and Indianapolis.
They're suddenly one of the early AFC favorites for a playoff berth, their first in five seasons.
To endure it all, they are once again receiving large sums of money.
And the San Diego chapter of the NFL Players Assn. is going to complain?
Not the Chargers, and certainly not Monday, when the regular union team happily returned to work for the first time since the strike began last month.
With the replacements safely tucked away at the Hanalei Hotel, where they held a party Monday night, 50 regular players changed clothes at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium for the first time since Sept. 20. The only missing person was running back Barry Redden, who club officials had not found Monday night. They assumed he had not arrived from his Tampa home in time.
The regulars met with Coach Al Saunders at 3 p.m. They practiced, in shorts, from 3:40 to 4:50 p.m.
And then they just smiled.
"We have to go on," linebacker Gary Plummer said. "We have to look at the strike like it was just an expensive vacation."
Steve Ortmayer, Chargers director of football operations, was in an equally good mood.
"We've got a shot," said Ortmayer about postseason possibilities. "The situation presented to us is as good as we could ask for. We're certainly in as good a situation as anyone."
At that pre-practice meeting, Saunders discussed just how the players could keep it that way. Judging from their later comments, the players agreed to at least attempt to:
- Hold no on-field animosity toward the replacements.
- Not openly complain when a replacement player steals a roster place from a regular, which will happen.
- Worry no more about the strike; worry only about not blowing the good record wrought by the strike.
"Those replacements had nothing to do with us being on strike," running back Lionel James said. "They played well enough to win three games for us, and we appreciate that. What they did as replacements, it was a human thing. Looking back, I may have done the same thing."
Added Plummer, one of the more vocal strikers: "The analogy we used for the replacements was, they are like anybody who joins the team in the middle of the year. While they wear the same uniform as us, they are united with us. Of course, them winning three games will make all of this easier. I wouldn't want to be a New York Giants replacement player right now."
Not everybody shared those views. But everybody said they would try.
"I feel I'm still 1-1," center/guard Dennis McKnight said. "These guys did something for the Chargers, fine. But not for me.
"To see a replacement take one of our jobs would be very, very hard. Our guys sacrificed more than those replacements ever sacrificed. But I'll turn the other cheek."
Said nose guard Chuck Ehin: "It won't be from me, but something will happen between us and the replacements. Tempers will flare, there will be a incident or two. But we'll get over it. That's a minor hurdle now."
Just in case, the Chargers' management is taking it slow. The regulars practiced alone Monday, and will practice alone this morning.
By 1 p.m. today, the 115 players (regulars plus replacements) that currently fill the Charger roster must be cut to 85. The cuts will be made, probably down to about 60 players, and the replacements who survive will be brought in at 4 p.m. for a short practice, alone.
The teams won't practice together until Wednesday morning. The club then has until 1 p.m. Saturday to activate the best 45 players for Sunday's 1 p.m. home game against Kansas City.
Leading replacement candidates to make the squad would be wide receiver Al Williams, cornerback Elvis Patterson and defensive end Tony Simmons.
But on Monday, the regulars weren't thinking so much about that.
"It's too hard for us to prepare for Kansas City and worry about the replacements sticking around," Smith said. "People come and go whether there is a strike or not. We have to accept that."
Just how much can these players be prepared in time for Sunday?
"Everybody looks good," Ehin said. "We're tired right now, but if you're talking about being in shape, on a scale of 1 to 10, we're at about a 9."
The Chargers have signed Steve Dusick, a linebacker who has played for Denver and the Rams, but he is not expected to be activated for Sunday's game.