DENVER — The Great Letdown.
The Chargers' highly-regarded defense was going to provide the foundation for success during the 1991 season, but instead it has become the springboard to victory for the opposition.
The Chargers pulled within a point of the Broncos twice in the fourth quarter, but a series of defensive blunders forced them to retreat further on the scoreboard.
The Broncos took advantage of the defensive miscues, and behind the three-touchdown performance of running back Gaston Green, defeated the Chargers, 27-19, in front of 73,258 in Mile High Stadium.
"The same baloney we could talk about every week," said Charger defensive coordinator Ron Lynn. "We could give the same answers every week to the same questions. These are not necessarily assignment errors, this becomes a discipline deal."
Last week the Broncos gained three yards in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks; this week they gained 147.
"All we have to do is just stop them, and we couldn't do it," said nose tackle Joe Phillips. "What's that tell you? We just couldn't get it done in a crucial situation. It's very demoralizing.
"It's like ever since I got here it's 'one more play.' If we can stop them for one more play, our offense can come in and win. When's it going to come to the point when we're going to do it, and stop saying, if, if, if? It's sickening. It's putrid. It's terrible."
It's one more loss, and for those who might still be counting, that's four consecutive defeats this season, seven in a row going back to last year and nine in their last 10 games.
The Great Letdown continues: The Chargers' defense began Sunday's play ranked No. 28 in the league, and re-emphasized exactly how poorly it has played this season by allowing the Broncos 360 net yards.
"I'm (ticked) off," linebacker Gary Plummer said. "And the hardest part is you don't have any answers."
The Chargers' defense ranked fifth in the National Football League in 1990, and it features six first-round choices in 1991. Defensive expectations convinced the Chargers they could trade their starting quarterback to Atlanta and begin the season with an inexperienced John Friesz.
But add up the miscommunication, mental errors, botched assignments and Sunday's offsides penalties, and this defense has sabotaged the team's chances for success.
"This is a time when a team has to stiffen up," Coach Dan Henning said, "and we didn't do that today."
After John Carney's fourth field goal of the day, the Chargers trailed the Broncos 13-12 with 14:23 remaining in the game.
The Broncos took possession of the ball on their 35 after Carney's kickoff went out of bounds, and after Green ran right for two yards, Green took the handoff on a draw and went 63 yards for a touchdown.
Linebacker Junior Seau made a dive for Green at the line of scrimmage, and Martin Bayless had last-line-of-defense responsibilities, but they could not prevent Green from registering the Broncos' longest run since Oct. 7, 1973 when Joe Dawkins went 73 yards against Kansas City.
The Chargers bounced back, however, behind the powerful and acrobatic running of Marion Butts. On third and one at the Denver 27, Butts was smacked behind the line of scrimmage by a big-hitting Steve Atwater, but he shucked Atwater aside and kept running.
"I didn't feel him," Butts said. "You mean I got hit?"
A pair of diving Denver defenders missed Butts and banged helmets, and then Butts took aim at safety Dennis Smith. Earlier in the game, Smith had leveled Butts with a jarring knee-high tackle.
"I figured he was going to try the same thing," Butts said.
So when Smith lowered his helmet to cut down Butts, Butts went high into the air and hurdled the defender, landing gracefully before continuing on for the touchdown.
Check it out: The Chargers trailed the Broncos, 20-19, and there was 6:11 to play.
The Chargers' defense, however, could not shut down the Broncos' offense. On third and 12 at the Denver 47, John Elway went into shotgun formation and completed a 33-yard pass to a wide open Mark Jackson at the Charger 20.
Two plays later, the Broncos ran another draw play, and that man Green, who began the game without a rushing touchdown in his four-year career, went 20 yards for the game-breaker.
"It's been the same crud for three years; I mean it's discouraging there," defensive end Burt Grossman said. "If it happened once or twice in your career, you'd say that's football. But when it happens this many times, I don't know what it is."
Some things cannot be explained. The Chargers' defense worked overtime in practice preparing for Elway's head bob and ability to draw the opposition offside, and yet they were lured offside three times.
"He gets guys offsides every week," Lynn said. "The officials do not call the head bob, but that's the way it is. You got to play it that way. There's no way you justify jumping offsides."