SAN DIEGO — Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes.
It sounded like a broken record in the Chargers' locker room at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium Sunday after their National Football League playoff hopes had been all but extinguished by a 20-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Quarterback Dan Fouts, who completed 22 of 37 passes for 257 yards but had 3 intercepted, began his postgame critique with the catch-all statement, "We just made too many mistakes."
Tight end Kellen Winslow, who caught six of Fouts' passes, amplified Fouts' remark a bit. "Simple mental mistakes beat us," he said.
Dennis McKnight, a guard by trade but an emergency center Sunday in the absence of the injured Don Macek, said: "We have to eliminate mental mistakes."
And so the story went, from whoever ventured an opinion about the Chargers' offensive futility in the wake of their fifth straight defeat.
Actually, these comments didn't come as a surprise. It was obvious to anyone who saw the game that mistakes, both mental and physical, had played a major role in the Chargers' undoing.
But why did such sloppiness manifest itself in the next-to-last regular-season game? At a time when contenders should be peaking for the playoffs, the Chargers have been getting worse instead of better.
Many of the mistakes involved Fouts' pass protection, or lack of it. He was sacked five times, and while understandably upset, Fouts did his best to be discreet.
"The Colts did a good job of pressuring the pocket," Fouts said. "Sometimes we didn't adjust. We began the game real well, but then we started to self-destruct."
Fouts referred to the fact that after the Chargers' 74-yard scoring drive to open the game, they never again crossed the Colts' 25-yard line.
McKnight was quick to take some of the blame on behalf of the offensive line.
"As a whole, we didn't work firm today," he said. "If we don't make our blocks, it throws our timing off, and Dan doesn't have time to get his passes off. I don't feel we protected him like we should.
"Maybe we're pressing, or maybe we're trying too hard. Whatever it is, mistakes are killing us. A blown block, a blown read of the defense, there's no excuse for things like that.
"Like the time Jamie Holland caught that bomb (for 45 yards early in the fourth quarter). (Two plays later), I missed a block, and we blew a chance to score." On that play, Fouts was sacked for a nine-yard loss, and the Chargers were forced to punt.
Some observers attribute the decline in the Chargers' point production to the loss of offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese to the Rams after last season.
In six of Zampese's eight seasons in San Diego, the Chargers had the top-ranked offense in the NFL. From a league-high 29.2-point average two years ago, they have skidded to an 18.5 average in their 11 nonstrike games this season.
Asked if there was any substance to this theory, Winslow said: "I don't know if it's that, although he (Zampese) was here eight years. The big thing is that we just haven't executed.
"Look what happened today. On our first drive, we put everything together. Everything clicked. That drive sparked everybody. We were looking forward to getting out of the humdrum routine of three plays and a punt, or six plays and a punt. But the next thing we knew, it was the same frustration all over again."
Fouts, asked what had become of the offense since Dave Levy succeeded Zampese, said: "I don't want to comment on that. I'm just disappointed, that's all."
Wide receiver Lionel James was so upset he didn't want to discuss the game. "I wish I knew what's wrong," he said, then walked away.
Veteran wide receiver Wes Chandler sought to sum up the Chargers' problems.
"I don't think this team realized what was at stake for us," he said. "This could have been our year. It's amazing what a change in tone comes from five weeks of losing football.
"You look at the last five weeks and you can't just point fingers. It's a matter of searching ourselves. People keep asking what happened to us. The answer to the question rests in our own souls."