SAN DIEGO — With a punchless offense and a controversial fourth-down call, the San Diego Chargers lost to the Denver Broncos, 21-7, Sunday before 56,079 at Qualcomm Stadium, leaving the team at 0-6 and groping for ways to salvage something of an increasingly gloomy season.
"We're struggling right now to put the whole game together and find an identity," said center Roman Fortin.
The victory put the Broncos at 3-3. Brian Griese passed for three touchdowns: twice to Ed McCaffrey on plays of two and five yards and once to Dwayne Carswell on a 14-yards play.
Griese completed 27 of 40 for 235 yards.
Bronco rookie running back Mike Anderson, a former Marine from Camp Pendleton who entered the game as the AFC's top rusher, gained 52 yards in 14 carries.
In the second half, the Broncos shifted to KaRon Coleman, who had 37 yards in 14 carries.
The Chargers' chances skittered away when, trailing 14-7 with six minutes remaining, a wobbly fourth-down pass from Jim Harbaugh was intercepted in the corner of the end zone by cornerback Terrell Buckley.
"If things go the right way then he [San Diego Coach Mike Riley] is a genius, if things go the wrong way, then that's a 'dumb play,' " said Charger linebacker Orlando Ruff. "I don't think it was a bad call. We just didn't execute well."
Riley said he went for the touchdown rather than a field goal on fourth down at the Bronco five because "we hadn't been exactly down there a lot so I was going to take my opportunity to get that touchdown right then."
If nothing else, the Charger loss, giving the team its worst start since 1975, will ensure more civic turmoil in this season when the phrase political football is taking on a literal meaning.
Both mayoral candidates in San Diego have blasted the team ownership for allegedly not doing enough to pack the stands and last week the City Council went into emergency closed-door session to consider suing the team.
At issue is the team's lease to use Qualcomm Stadium that requires the team to pay the team for unsold tickets. At kickoff, the city was already on the hook to the team for nearly $5 million, with that figure destined to jump after Sunday's sub-capacity crowd.
One mayoral candidate has even suggested that the team does not care if crowds are small because it plans to exercise an escape clause in its lease and move the franchise in 2003, possibly to Los Angeles.
The fact that Charger owner Alex Spanos has denied any desire to move has done little to dampen the political fires.
One way to boost attendance would be to score more points, but the Chargers could manage but one touchdown on a 26-yard pass play from Harbaugh to Freddie Jones in the second quarter.
Harbaugh, who became the starter after injuries to Ryan Leaf and backup Moses Moreno, completed 18 of 43 passes for 237 yards but also had three interceptions and was sacked four times.