SAN DIEGO — Sunday afternoon in Seattle, the Chargers will begin an effort to piece back together a season that started with a series of contractual and personnel setbacks in training camp and now is laboring under a 4-game losing streak.
Injuries, paucity of talent, lack of depth, painfully inopportune penalties and a failure by the defense to create turnovers are just a few of the reasons the Chargers are 2-6 halfway through the 1988 schedule. Attendance at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium reached a 5-year low Sunday in the team's 16-0 loss to Indianapolis. The Colts were the second team this year to shut out the Chargers at home.
Alex Spanos, the owner, has said he is disappointed. Al Saunders, the coach, has said the Chargers must do better.
Ultimately, the man responsible for removing Spanos' disappointment and providing Saunders with the ability to improve is Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers' director of football operations. Ortmayer's tenure with the Chargers will reach 2 years in January.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Times, Ortmayer discussed his assessment of Saunders, the alarming attendance drop-off, UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, front office philosophy, how Chip Banks "chose to let us down," the Chargers' aims in the 1989 draft and when Ortmayer second-guesses himself.
Question: Disappointments so far this year?
Answer: Obviously, our No. 1 disappointment so far is our record. And I think it's disappointing not in light of what the cold, hard facts were and not what the projections were, but it's disappointing in light of the fact that, over the course of the first 8 weeks, with a bounce here or a break there, this thing could very easily be 4-4, if not better. And in this year of a down cycle in the AFC West, 4-4 puts you right in the midst of it.
I would say the next most disappointing thing at this point is that we lost a number of talented young players right off the bat--guys we felt were going to come along during the course of 1988 and solidify holes that we had coming in. And I'm talking about guys like (rookie linebacker) Cedric Figaro, a guy like (tackle) John Clay; a couple of young offensive linemen like Joey Howard and Stacy Searels (both rookies).
Third, and perhaps the major factor in disappointment to us, is the fact that (free agent linebacker) Chip Banks chose to let us down and (linebacker) Billy Ray Smith was injured for an extended period of time. So two of the guys that we built our defense around a year ago, all of a sudden, we didn't have for an extended period of time.
Q: Pleasant surprises?
A: I think you can count the approach to the game that this team has chosen to take as a pleasant surprise--the ability that Al Saunders has maintained to keep the concentration headed in an upward direction. That's where teams go wrong when the records become 2-5 and 2-6. They lose concentration. This team has not lost concentration, and that is a tribute to Al and the coaching staff. At the present time, we don't have a 30-year-old on the football team. And things can go in any-which direction if you don't have strong guidance.
Additional pleasant surprises have been the definite inclination to a stronger running game that we have been able to coordinate over 8 weeks. We have a very good per-carry average (4.7). And if it ever gets to the point where we can get a complete rhythm back from the standpoint of our defense and our special teams, then I think this running game will become more and more effective as the year goes on.
Also, I think we've gotten big plays from some unexpected people on defense. Gill Byrd (cornerback), Vencie Glenn (safety), Lee Williams (defensive end) and Joe Phillips (defensive tackle) in particular have made significant individual strides as players.
The thing that's been a chink in our armor defensively is that we haven't been able to make the big play to turn the football over and establish field position for our offense. We've put too much pressure on the offense to move the ball too far, too often.
Q: You mentioned Saunders among the positives. Yet there is a perception in certain quarters that you and Saunders are not on the same page. Is that a legitimate perception?
A: I don't believe it is. We work together in a number of different areas to put this thing together. And we continue to do so. And we see very much the same perspective on many, many things.
I don't think you're ever going to have two people who agree completely on everything. And I don't think that would be extremely healthy if we did because there is no one way to skin a cat. But I certainly have respect for his input, and I think that feeling is mutual.
Q: Do you believe in creative tension in an organization?