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Chargers Getting Passing Grade

October 27, 2002|Bob Oates | Special to the Times

With quarterback Brian Griese apparently in sharp comeback form, the Denver Broncos will face Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady at New England today in the AFC game of the week.

But regardless of how well they play, the Broncos won't be able to dislodge the San Diego Chargers from first place this week in the AFC West.

For the first time in his long career, San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who draws a bye today, has a complete team that can pass, run and play defense well enough -- without its best player, linebacker Junior Seau -- to upset the Oakland Raiders.

The pass plays that San Diego used last week to win, 27-21, were as well thought out as they were brightly polished.

One, called at the Oakland three-yard line, was a slow-developing play that required San Diego's linemen to hold their blocks while running back LaDainian Tomlinson faked a block until he could sneak into the end zone for quarterback Drew Brees' touchdown pass.

For a team that might be en route to a new home in entertainment-capital Los Angeles, that was sufficiently sophisticated.

Change of Strategy

Few football fans expect the 6-1 Chargers to hold first place forever against the 4-2 Raiders or the 5-2 Broncos, who, still favored in the AFC West, beat 3-4 Kansas City last Sunday, 37-34, on Griese's passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe.

As Schottenheimer knows, he's in a respectable division.

In his Kansas City days, he coached the Chiefs into the playoffs seven times. At 59, he's been in the playoffs 11 winters in all, more than any other active coach. The difference at San Diego is that with Brees pitching, he has a pass offense.

With their old horse-and-buggy offense in Kansas City, his teams were locked out of every Super Bowl and into every conservative's dream world. As those people invariably say -- and Schottenheimer was once one of them -- their life's goal is to run the ball and stop the run.

He changed his philosophy in Kansas City too late to drive the Chiefs into the NFL championship game.

His old associates said it was in Schottenheimer's 10th and final year in Missouri that he finally identified passing as the weapon of decision. You can run your way into the playoffs, they said he'd said then, but not into the Super Bowl.

Having proved this in his first 16 NFL seasons, he's throwing a lot now with Brees. And still running, of course, with Tomlinson.

Not long ago, Tomlinson had everything but the will to mix it up with the big guys in the closeness of contact. Or so it looked. But he's changed too, along with his coach. It's a new day in San Diego.

Suspensions Hurt

One reason Denver struggled a week ago in Kansas City is that it was minus its strong safety, the defensive player who on any NFL team is instrumental. Kenoy Kennedy was benched that day by the NFL, which ruled that he had been making too many head-to-head hits.

Those are not only illegal in pro football but unquestionably unsporting.

Kennedy was fined $25,000, not harsh enough, and suspended for one game, too harsh.

Despite the predictable reaction in Denver, strong NFL action was necessary. The first game-time responsibility of the league, as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledges, is to keep its artists alive and playing football.

And that can be properly done only with heavy fines that discourage scofflaws.

The problem with a player suspension is that it penalizes the team as well as the player. A number of innocent people go down with the one convict.

Nor, to maintain order, are suspensions required. Fines accomplish the same thing -- if they're large enough.

The only reason I can think of that Kennedy keeps hitting people illegally -- when he knows it will cost him a bunch of money -- is that it doesn't cost him enough money. He should have been fined $50,000 or more, whatever it takes.

He was the one at fault, not his team, and not the football fans of Denver.

Nebraska Sounder

A college coach, Frank Solich of Nebraska, also faced a disciplinary problem this month and handled it with greater wisdom, which, perhaps, is more than can be said for his approach to Xs and O's.

In the Oklahoma State game Saturday, Solich started his first-string quarterback, Jammal Lord, despite calls for Lord's suspension.

The player had been cited for "disturbing the peace" with a girlfriend, Nebraska volleyball player Greichaly Cepero, in his apartment one morning three hours after midnight. Complicating Solich's troubles, the volleyball coach did suspend Cepero, the team's best player.

There are better ways than suspensions to discipline college athletes. Better ways, that is, so long as their infractions -- parking in handicapped-parking spaces or whatever -- don't land them in jail.

All college players, for example, have privileges that can be restricted, particularly on trips. For some infractions, a coach can refuse to award the guilty letter winner a letter. And there are other measures.

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