SAN DIEGO — The Chargers stripped Babe Laufenberg of his most endearing quality Tuesday.
They stripped him of his professional innocence by naming him to be their starting quarterback Friday against the Rams and Sept. 4 in their regular-season opener against the Raiders at Los Angeles.
Yup. They went and did it. They busted Laufenberg from buck private to general. They made him the favorite. The target. The overdog. The man.
"This could ruin me," Laufenberg said. "It could be, 'Throw the Babe Into the Lake,' instead of, 'Save the Babe.' "
"I'm disappointed," said Mark Malone, the man who figured to win this job when training camp began last month.
Before Tuesday, Laufenberg, 28, was still 'Everyman.' He was the guy who had been cut seven times in the National Football League. One of those was in 1985 by the Chargers--the team that has now anointed him the lineal successor to Dan Fouts.
He doesn't look like Fouts. And he doesn't throw like Fouts. But there were plenty of reasons he beat out Malone, the former Pittsburgh Steeler:
Laufenberg is more comfortable with the offense installed by new offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome. Laufenberg has been a more consistent thrower than Malone since they began practicing under the Charger coaching staff last April.
Laufenberg has more verve and imagination than Malone when flushed out of the pocket. And Laufenberg's numbers have been better than Malone's in the three exhibition games to date.
Laufenberg, who has never thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game, has completed 31 of 58 passes for 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. His quarterback rating is 92.1.
Malone has completed 23 of 42 passes, with a touchdown and an interception. His quarterback rating is 73.3.
"I'm excited about both of them," Charger Coach Al Saunders said. But Saunders could only select one starter. "I think both will play for us this year."
Saunders said he could have waited until the morning of the season opener to make the announcement. And he said that would have made it more difficult for the Raiders to prepare defensively. But, he said, "I think this football team needs to know. The quarterback needs to know. And we need to know. Sometimes indecision is worse than indiscretion."
Laufenberg's promotion may change his image as the underdog. But he insists it won't change him or his approach to the game. "I don't anticipate falling on my face," he said. "If we win games, people will like me. If we don't, people won't."
Nobody is more aware of that than Malone, who played eight years at Pittsburgh and inherited the unenviable chore of replacing Terry Bradshaw there. Probably Malone's biggest obstacle this summer was learning the Rhome offense that Laufenberg had already studied under Rhome in Washington from 1983 through 1985.
Malone said he has received assurances from the Charger coaching staff he will get enough practice time running the offense to continue to "progress" under Rhome's system.
Malone and Laufenberg appeared together in a news conference after both had dined with Rhome in the mess hall at the team's UC San Diego training headquarters. Malone said Laufenberg told him he felt bad for him. Malone said he responded by saying, 'Don't feel bad because I'll be on your rear end the whole way, nipping at your heels, trying to get the job."
The Chargers' third quarterback will be second-year player Mark Vlasic. The Chargers waived fourth-string quarterback Steve Fuller Tuesday, along with cornerback Enis Jackson.
They also placed defensive end Leslie O'Neal on the "physically unable to perform" list while placing six players on the injured reserve list. Those six players were: tight end Brian Bedford (shoulder), safety Ken Hobart (toe), running back Robert Johnson (neck), safety Marvin Mattox (shoulder), running back Lynn Williams (back) and tight end Ronnie Williams (groin).
Those moves reduced their roster to 60 players. They must reduce that number to 45 (plus two inactives) early next week. By then Laufenberg will have started his third straight exhibition game.
Playing behind an offensive line of backups, Laufenberg led the Chargers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns in the team's exhibition opener, a come-from-behind 24-21 victory over Dallas. Malone started that same game and led the Chargers to no points.
Saturday night Laufenberg opened against San Francisco, the No. 1 defense in the NFL last year. When he left the game at halftime, the Chargers were leading, 20-10. Malone's first pass of the second half was a perfect 69-yard touchdown bomb to Jamie Holland. But the Chargers couldn't score again and lost, 34-27.