Originally created 08/08/99

Falcons, Chargers have a lot in common

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The season after the franchise's first Super Bowl, the workhorse back became an ugly training camp holdout as he demanded a restructured contract.

Several veterans, including key starters in the secondary and linebacking corps, were deemed expendable and were traded or waived.

The fourth-place schedule turned into a first-place schedule, and the magic of an inglorious Super Bowl run to Miami never could be recovered.

If you've answered "Who are the 1999 Atlanta Falcons?" think back five years.

The team just described is the San Diego Chargers, losers in Super Bowl XXIX and never heard from since.

Is it me or are the parallels between those Chargers and these Falcons eerie? Consider that:

Both teams had injury-prone veteran quarterbacks -- Stan Humphries in San Diego, Chris Chandler in Atlanta -- who posted career years and stayed relatively healthy all season.

Tony Martin, in his first season with both clubs, became a potent deep threat. Natrone Means ran with the stubbornness and determination that Jamal Anderson possessed.

The Chargers snuck a home playoff win over Miami, scoring the final 22 points in a 22-21 win. The Falcons squeaked by the hated 49ers 20-18.

Both teams were major road conference championship underdogs -- San Diego traveling to Pittsburgh, the Birds to Minnesota. And to win both needed a good helping of luck. Martin scored a long touchdown on a busted coverage for the go-ahead score, while the Falcons needed a perfect kicker to miss wide left.

Once the teams reached Miami, ironically home of both Super Bowls, they acted as if they'd never been there before. Several Chargers accused each other of excessive partying, while the Falcons complaints stemmed from departing the airplane, to Eugene Robinson's Saturday night escapades.

When kickoff arrived, both teams played with stage fright. The potent 49ers overwhelmed the Chargers, while the Falcons never could string together consistent plays in a 34-19 loss to Denver.

Two different teams, five years apart. Since then, all the Chargers have done is finish last in the AFC West twice and lose a wild card game. From champs to chumps faster than you can laugh at Ryan Leaf's immaturity.

"No one here wants to be the Chargers," cornerback Ray Buchanan said with a laugh.

Don't think protecting against the one-year wonder tag hasn't crossed the minds of these Falcons as they toil through two-a-days here at Furman University.

Every day these players discuss how to protect against The Chargers Syndrome, yet so far the intensity you'd associate with a driven team isn't there.

At times they look wonderful, at times they look like the Falcons. You know them, right? This is the franchise that hasn't put together back-to-back winning years in 34 years.

"There's too much talent here to have a dropoff," linebacker Jessie Tuggle said. "But it's true, we haven't had that edge so far this camp that we had last year."

Through camp's first 10 days, they've had the troubles that tend to plague teams the year after winning. Success tends to swell heads and slow drives. It's always harder to maintain a high level than to reach it.

So be it Anderson's acrimonious holdout or the nagging number of injuries, nothing seems to be going right early in the title defense.

And after the Jacksonville scrimmages Saturday, coach Dan Reeves was visibly upset with the team's effort. They're the champs, yes, they just haven't started to play like them.

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.


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