SAN DIEGO — Charger Coach Al Saunders tried, and failed, to hide his smile.
"They say Warren Moon is hurt, huh?" he said. "How bad?"
The news out of Houston Wednesday had most everyone in the Charger camp using their hands to cover their smirks.
Moon, Houston's starting quarterback, is suffering with an impingement (read: mysterious pain) in his right shoulder and has been listed as doubtful for Sunday's game against the Chargers in the Astrodome.
If he plays, it is only because the Oilers have decided a half moon is better than none at all.
"I hurt it in the Cleveland game (two weeks ago) and then it got worse last week," said Moon Wednesday afternoon. "This week, the doctors told me what it was and have sat me out of practice. Friday we'll decide whether to do an arthrogram on the shoulder to see if it's a torn rotator cuff, or to go ahead and let me play.
"I want to play, but they don't want to ruin my shoulder for the future."
Which is just fine for the Chargers. Moon runs the Oiler offense. In plenty of ways, he is the Oiler offense.
In last week's 51-27 loss to Indianapolis, Moon threw three touchdown passes for the fourth time in his four-year Oiler career. His 327 yards passing marked the 12th time he has surpassed 300 yards.
His career-high 17 touchdown passes ranks second in the AFC this season behind Miami's Dan Marino (18). He ranks eighth in the conference in passing efficiency with a 72.9 rating, ahead of Charger quarterback Dan Fouts' 72. He has also rushed for 105 yards, which is just 23 fewer than Charger fullback Tim Spencer.
According to Saunders, Moon can be another John Elway, at a toned-down level.
"I know his stats haven't been too good lately, but Moon has the same skills as Elway," Saunders said. "He's not as good overall, but he has the same skills, and that scares you."
Also according to Saunders, don't believe everything you hear from Houston.
"I would be very, very surprised if he is not the quarterback Sunday," Saunders said. "That game is important to them like it is to us. They have to win that game. Moon is a competitor. I expect to see him on the playing field."
Without Moon, the Oiler offense is, well, Brent Pease. He's a rookie quarterback from Montana who was cut this fall from Minnesota and led the Oiler replacement squad to a 2-1 record. Since then, though, he has only played for a portion of one quarter.
"He's certainly capable, but it's unfair to put him in a game this big," Moon said. "Hopefully, it won't come to that."
Moon has missed games against San Diego the last two seasons, giving way to Oliver Luck, who went 1-1 against the Chargers and has since retired from football.
Charger quarterback Dan Fouts missed practice Wednesday, as expected, but will return today. His sore shoulder was termed, for the first time Wednesday, a "slightly separated shoulder," by Coach Al Saunders. That sounds a lot worse than a sore shoulder, but not according to Saunders. "Dan has always had a slight separation, for years" he said. "Some guys have loose knees, Dan has a loose shoulder. It's nothing." For the record, Fouts is listed as probable. . . . The only other Charger injury is a knee sprain suffered by cornerback Daniel Hunter, the sixth defensive back in the Charger pass defense. He missed the last half of practice, and was replaced by rookie Lou Brock, who is eligible to come off the injured reserve list and will likely do so if Hunter can't play. . . . If tackle Gary Kowalski's bad wrist heals in time, he'll regain his starting spot, sending Broderick Thompson to the bench. Saunders said Kowalski's biggest problem is that the right wrist is heavily bandaged, which shows you how much offensive linemen actually need their hands. "I don't like to teach holding, but . . . it's hard to grab the other guy with a bad wrist," Saunders said.