- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

Ten new starters, led by 38-year-old quarterback Doug Flutie. A new general manager. A new offensive coordinator. But after finishing 1-15 last year, it's surprising that the San Diego Chargers are that stable. San Diego was outrushed by 19 runners. No team had more giveaways or a worse turnover ratio. No AFC team allowed more points.

Third-year coach Mike Riley, who has lost 22 of his last 27 games, knows he'll be circulating resumes if his team doesn't make a major turnaround.

"The best thing about 1-15 is how motivating it is for everybody to never be in that situation again," Riley said. "We're excited to put that thing behind us. But it lingers until you make it go away by winning some games. We need a good start."

The schedule is certainly conducive. The Chargers are a 2-1/2-point favorite in Sunday's home opener against Washington and then after the bye week, they play four straight lightweights: Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland and New England.

"We have indications that we're better, but we have to prove it," said Riley, who knows his team's 3-1 preseason means less than usual since the Chargers enjoyed a 4-0 August last year. "We have a chance to be better on defense and a great opportunity to improve on offense. Our quarterback situation, which we thought going in a year ago was pretty solid [with 1998 first-rounder Ryan Leaf and veteran Jim Harbaugh], ended up being really topsy-turvy. That's one of the biggest reasons we can improve.

"We've had a good defense, but we needed [some help] at spots. We got some corners [Ryan McNeil from Dallas, and Alex Molden from New Orleans], and an end [Marcellus Wiley from Buffalo], and a guy returning who got hurt in the preseason last year and had been our best passrusher [end Raylee Johnson]. We have two bookend ends who should be big factors for the other team to handle."

Said Flutie, "I really feel confident about our chances. The talent level is there, but we've got to come together right away. We can't wait three or four weeks."

Flutie isn't one to wait to produce. He won his first NFL start with Chicago in 1986, did the same when he moved on to New England in 1987 and again when he returned to the league with Buffalo in 1998 after eight years in the CFL. No active quarterback with as many as 28 starts has a better record than Flutie's 30-14 (.682).

"Doug brings hope," said Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer. "When you have a guy like Doug who's so very resourceful, you always have hope that he might pull one out."

Riley said Flutie, a national star since winning the 1984 Heisman Trophy as the undersized underdog from Boston College, has already had a major impact on the Chargers whom he joined as a free agent on March 9.

"Doug brings a credibility to the position that's very important to our team and our fans," Riley said. "There's a definite added excitement. He's a national-type figure who has been a winner. He's a great example. He's a great leader."

Redskins safety Sam Shade has faced Flutie twice but still scratches his head trying to figure out how to control the 5-foot-10, 180-pound lightning bug.

"Flutie's the 'X' factor," Shade said. "He's hard to prepare for. You talk all week about keeping him in the pocket, but when I've played him, he's always gotten on the edges [of the defense]."

Combine Flutie's mobility and offensive coordinator Norv Turner's knowledge of the Washington defenders from having coached the Redskins from 1994 to 2000 and the opener is as good a matchup as could be hoped for a Chargers offense with just one lineman (left guard Raleigh Roundtree) in the same spot from last year and four starters who missed all or most of preseason (tackles Vaughn Parker and Ed Ellis, tight end Freddie Jones and halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, the top draft choice who held out for three weeks).

"Defensively this team has been as strong as anyone the last couple of years [allowing the fewest yards per carry from 1998 to 2000]," Flutie said. "If we can maintain that level and just eliminate turnovers offensively, it gives us an opportunity to win. It has been a little frustrating to not have Freddie in there, to not have L.T. in camp. But we're thankful that it's Week 1 and it seems like the pieces are going to come together."


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