American Football: Bobby beat recharges the Chargers: Matt Tench on the reasons behind the remarkable revitalisation of San Diego, who are two wins away from the Super Bowl

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The Independent Online
WHEN the American sports paper, the Sporting News, assessed the NFL's 28 teams before the start of this season it ranked the San Diego Chargers at No 22. If anything that seemed a mite generous, all the more so a month later when the team had lost its first four games. Yet on Sunday the Chargers march on Miami with the Super Bowl only two victories away. American football prides itself on its capacity for rejuvenation but even by its quixotic standards the recharging of the Chargers takes some beating.

For the best part of a decade the Chargers had ailed and failed, apparently taking out a tenancy on the bottom two floors of the AFC West (finishing last and last but one four times apiece). The turnaround has been engineered by a couple of Bobbys, the general manager, Bobby Beathard, and the head coach, Bobby Ross, though the team's owner, Alex Spanos, would like it known that he deserves some of the credit. More of Spanos later.

Beathard arrived in 1990, hailed as the miracle man ready to ignite a fading franchise. He had made his reputation in Washington, as the Redskins general manager, where his wheeling and dealing and eye for talent were crucial in establishing one of the most successful organisations in the league.

Beathard's reasons for leaving the capital remain shrouded in the unfathomable labyrinth of power- politics and big-money sport. There was a short break before he arrived in San Diego to be greeted by a huge salary and expectations to match. He cut an unlikely figure: much younger-looking than his 55 years, he often came to work in shorts and sweatshirt - the impression that he was a surf bum enhanced because that appeared to be his favoured topic of conversation.

His reign did not start well. The team went 6-10 and 4-12 prompting last season's newspaper headline: 'Has Beathard Lost His Touch?' Another bad year and Beathard might have lost his job as well. It was time for action. He fired the head coach, Dan Henning, and in his place hired a 55-year-old with no experience as a head coach in the pros.

However, Bobby Ross had astonished the nation in 1990 by guiding Georgia Tech, primarily an academic institution, to a college football championship, and Beathard insists that once Ross showed an interest all other applications were superfluous.

In some ways the two Bobbys were lucky. Seasons of struggle had left the Chargers with a number of underachieving high draft picks. The talent was there, it just had to be moulded into a team. The players now say they sensed a difference in training camp, where Ross's demanding nature immediately made an impact, but perhaps the crucial time was in those first four weeks. As the team continued to lose a clearly puzzled Ross chose to question himself rather than the team. The players were good enough, he insisted.

This contrasted with the approach of some of Ross's predecessors, and buoyed by the confidence of their leader on 4 October the Chargers beat Seattle to record their first victory of 1992, The have lost just one game since.

The biggest factor in their success has been an intimidating defense coached by the veteran Bill Arnsplarger. Leslie O'Neal and Burt Grossman are arguably the best pair of defensive ends in the conference and if they don't get you Junior Seau probably will.

Seau, a Samoan who grew up in the area, is an extraordinarily athletic linebacker, who often appears unaware how it is he has got to the ball. Seau claims this used to be so, but not any more. 'For the first time I've got awareness of the scheme, so I can attack with more intensity,' he says.

This is news to some of those watching. 'Scheme, what scheme?' Matt Millen, a former linebacker now working as a television analyst, said. 'He looks like he's playing his own scheme out there.'

On the other side of the ball the biggest factor has been a tubby quarterback, apparently resigned to a back-up role. Stan Humphries had been in Washington for three years to no great effect, and came to San Diego only because John Friesz, a promising youngster, was badly injured in the Chargers' first pre-season.

When Beathard dealt for Humphries few questioned the Redskins decision to let him go. A season later he looks one of the more accomplished quarterbacks in the league and, given Mark Rypien's indifferent form, there are mischievous voices wondering whether the Redskins traded the wrong quarterback. Beathard's magic is beginning to tell in San Diego.

Humphries's development has been much assisted by the Chargers' powerful running game. This has always been a priority for Beathard and with that now flourishing, plus a dependable quarterback and abrasive defense, many feel he and Ross are developing a team capable of surviving against the more physical NFC sides, as opposed to the finesse teams which tend to inhabit the AFC.

Can they beat Miami? Definitely. Marino and his men are never to be underestimated, but they have struggled of late and the Chargers' comprehensive victory over Kansas City in the first round of the play-offs last weekend suggests they are a team getting better all the time. If they do win then only Buffalo or Pittsburgh (neither of them overly daunting propositions) stand between the Chargers and the big one. The California dream of a Super Bowl - between San Diego and San Francisco, in Pasadena - is a distinct possibility.

If so Alex Spanos will be unable to contain his delight. The Chargers' owner is an impatient, irascible figure who suffered the difficult times with notable bad grace. His outbursts and meddling hardly endeared him to the team's long-suffering fans.

Winning though has mellowed him and now he even smiles about his turbulent past. Recently he recalled a public relations disaster when he had gone down on to the pitch only to be booed by his own fans. 'To tell you the truth,' he said, 'if I'd have been in the stands, I'd have booed my ass as well.'

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