Chargers push Eagles, woes aside After summer of turmoil, AFC champs return to big-play form, 27-21


-- PHILADELPHIA -- One teammate died last June after an automobile accident. The quarterback had off-season surgery. Four starters on the offensive line missed substantial time in preseason camp, and the head coach had emergency surgery 10 days before the season opener.

And you thought you had problems. . . .

Just when some were calling the San Diego Chargers' 1995 Super Bowl appearance a fluke, the Chargers rekindled some old magic and reworked the formula of a year ago in a 27-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles before 63,081 at Veterans Stadium yesterday.

The Chargers' Natrone Means was his rugged self, punishing the Eagles for 122 yards rushing. Quarterback Stan Humphries was erratic overall, but precise on the long ball as usual -- including a 38-yard touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson, and another 38-yard completion to Tony Martin to set up a 35-yard field goal from John Carney. The Chargers' defense allowed 319 yards of offense, but still got a big play from linebacker Junior Seau for a touchdown, and even a bigger play from Andre Coleman, who returned a punt 88 yards for a touchdown.

"Last year people picked us to finish last in our division, and we got to the Super Bowl," said Humphries, who completed only 10 of 23 passes for 143 yards. "Now we find ourselves still not getting the respect we deserve.

"This was a good character win for us," said Humphries, whose team fell behind 14-0 in the first 16 minutes of the game. "We got behind early, but came back to win because we made the plays when we had to, and took advantage of our opportunities. That's our style. It still goes to show that even though we've had a lot of distractions, we're highly motivated to get back and finish the job from a year ago. [The Chargers lost, 49-26, to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX]."

It's been a long off-season for the Chargers. On June 20, linebacker David Griggs was killed in an automobile accident in Florida. Then San Diego suffered from the ramifications of a Super Bowl appearance with several players staying out of camp to renegotiate contracts, including Means, and four of his blocking buddies.

Humphries did not start the season at full strength because of elbow surgery, and head coach Bobby Ross had to have scar tissue removed from his small intestine on Aug. 24. The Chargers even struggled in a 14-10 win against the Seattle Seahawks last week.

"Everywhere you turned, people were talking about us having so much turmoil," Chargers linebacker Junior Seau said. "We're not in top form yet, but I think we put some of our fans in a comfort zone today."

But it wasn't easy. San Diego didn't have it won until there were 13 seconds left and Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham had his last desperation pass picked off at the Chargers' 34-yard line.

San Diego (2-1), though, starting turning the momentum with 1:29 left in the first half. That's when Cunningham completed a 9-yard pass to receiver Calvin Williams, but the ball was knocked loose on a hit from cornerback Willie Clark.

Seau recovered the fumble and broke two tackles down the left sideline for a 29-yard touchdown run that put the Chargers ahead, 17-14, at the half.

After the Eagles (1-2) failed to get a first down on their first possession of the second half, Coleman took a punt 88 yards untouched down the right sideline for a touchdown and a 24-14 Chargers lead, and Carney added a 21-yard field goal with 5:35 left in the third period to increase San Diego's lead.

"It's all a matter of getting through the first wave," said Coleman of his punt return for a touchdown. "We had noticed some weaknesses in the film, and quite honestly, we thought the Eagles would be more concerned about other areas than special teams."

Translation: Cunningham's fragile psyche.

A week ago, Cunningham was replaced by Rodney Peete in the second quarter of the Eagles' 31-19 win over the Phoenix Cardinals, and Cunningham didn't get the starting assignment until the middle of last week.

Cunningham played well yesterday. He completed 23 of 39 passes for 196 yards, and threw for touchdowns of 4, 1 and 3 yards. The last one, the 3-yarder to tight end Ed West that brought the Eagles within 27-21 with 1:30 left in the third period, was excellent with Cunningham moving to his right, and zipping a pass through two defenders.

Cunningham was the least of Philadelphia's problems. So was flamboyant and controversial running back Ricky Watters, who two weeks ago was booed by the home crowd, but rushed for 76 yards on 19 carries yesterday.

The Eagles need special teams help. Immediately. Coleman had 133 yards on four punt returns. They need better kickoff coverage. San Diego returned four for 82 yards, including one by Coleman for 41 yards.

They need some bigger bodies on the right side of the defensive line. San Diego gained most of its yards behind left tackle Harry Swayne and left guard Eric Moten, and against right defensive tackle Mark Gunn and defensive end Mike Mamula. The Eagles need a better pass defense, and a little more protection for Cunningham wouldn't hurt either.

And you thought you had problems. . . .

"The only thing I know is that was the ugliest that I've ever seen," said Eagles coach Ray Rhodes of his special teams. "This is the third week of not getting things done from a special teams' standpoint. I'm very disappointed in our effort. We still haven't learned how to win yet."

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