Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2008 | Airtime is approaching for “Football Night in San Diego,” as Jim Laslavic prepares studiously at his computer in a corner of Channel 7/39’s downtown offices and studios.
The former Chargers linebacker, a longtime sportscaster, hosts a weekly show that follows “NBC Sunday Night Football.” But his office corner is quickly transforming into a locker room setting.
Actually, it’s sounding and looking like a San Diego State locker room, influenced by the arrival of SDSU alums and NFL veterans Robert Griffith, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and J.R. Tolver. Jim Trotter, a Sports Illustrated writer who joins the cast when he’s in town, also arrives on this night.
“San Diego State is in the house,” Griffith will say later, explaining that the players have a bond as Aztecs that aids their rapport on the show.
But mostly the chatter picks up with Gbaja-Biamila’s arrival. Laslavic, who calls him “Mr. Big Personality,” shows him a football card in an idle moment of Laslavic from his days playing with the Detroit Lions. Gbaja-Biamila flips over the card to read the bio information.
“You were playing in the NFL in 1973 and 1974?” Gbaja-Biamila exclaims. “My mom and dad hadn’t even met yet.”
The conversation shifts to the Buffalo Bills’ comeback to beat the Oakland Raiders. Dysfunctional is the word used as they talk about how Raiders owner Al Davis is rumored to be on the verge of firing head coach Lane Kiffin.
Later, during the live broadcast, they’ll repeat what they were saying off camera, which is basically that Davis can’t keep switching coaches every couple of years and expect his team to win.
But what wasn’t repeated was Gbaja-Biamila humorously imitating Davis’ voice.
Gbaja-Biamila played for the Raiders, and he recounts how Davis tried to change his stance. He gets down on the floor to demonstrate, changing from his left hand down to his right hand down. Funny stuff — in fact, it’s too bad the cameras weren’t rolling yet. But there are limitations to a commercial broadcast.
Davis is widely been perceived as a manipulative owner, but few players or coaches publicly call him out. The “Insiders” aren’t afraid.
“That’s a very dysfunctional team,” Gbaja-Biamila said when the cameras were rolling. “Al Davis has his hand around the team. Al affects the team. Guys don’t respect Kiffin, because they know the final word is Al’s.”
The Insiders say no one stands up to Davis, and they agree with the rumors Kiffin will be fired soon.
“I’m going to put my resume in for the coaching job,” Griffith said. “It’s that kind of situation.”
If you’re wondering why 6-foot-5 Gbaja-Bilamila doesn’t tower over Trotter and Griffith as he stands next to them behind a wide desk, it’s because Trotter and Griffith are elevated as they stand on wooden boxes.
Laslavic asks his “Insiders” about the Chargers’ 0-2 record before Monday night’s game against the New York Jets. He suggests that if last year’s 1-3 start was on the coaches, should this year be on the players?
The “Insiders” agree it’s on the players, particularly on the defense needing to find a way to mount a pass rush without injured Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman.
“I’m so tired of people criticizing (Chargers defensive coordinator) Ted Cottrell,” Trotter says. “The players have to assume some responsibility for what’s going on here. Ted coached them into the playoffs last year. He didn’t forget how to coach over the summer. Go out and do what he asks.”
Gbaja-Biamila cites the red-zone failures, and he and Trotter go back and forth with exchanges.
“You want to fight,” Gbaja-Bilamila says playfully as Laslavic switches the subject to speculation LaDainian Tomlinson is getting old and fans should expect a drop off in his production because of the wear and tear from eight NFL seasons.
“What do you base it on?” Trotter said. “Compared to 2006? No other running back had a season like that. To me, this is still an elite player.”
Griffith adds that Tomlinson’s toe injury prevents him from making lateral cuts and that impacts his game greatly until he’s healthy.
When talking about other Chargers, the “Insiders” give some love to Kassim Osgood, the SDSU alum that is a backup wide receiver and Pro Bowl special teams player for the Chargers.
But what about some love for SDSU alum Kevin O’Connell? This was a day the New England Patriots quarterback made his NFL debut, completing 3-of-4 passes for 25 yards when he played late in his team’s blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins.
This was Tolver’s first appearance on the show, and Laslavic asks him for insight on Chris Chambers, the Chargers wide receiver who is off to a fast start. Tolver played in Miami with Chambers and had a chance to be influenced by him.
“He’s a pro’s pro,” Tolver said. “He can catch the ball; he has those long arms he uses to catch the ball.”
Later, all three of the Aztecs explain they are attempting to become more involved in TV and radio commentary, and Laslavic has provided them an opportunity by tapping into a ready pool of Aztecs with NFL experience and knowledge.
“Griff has really worked and applied himself,” Laslavic said. “He has great information. I think he’s on the verge of breaking through with other opportunities.”
“Akbar is like what was once said of (former NFL coach) Sam Wyche. The filter between the mind and the mouth lets a lot through; he says what he’s thinking. I’ve had a couple of instances when Chargers coaches have stopped me and commented about what Akbar has said on the air.
“And J.R. was terrific for his first time out of the blocks. We don’t have many offensive players, so he gives us another perspective. These guys are still close to the game, and it’s great to have them open up the way they do.”
And once the lights are off and they head home, they take the locker room chatter with them.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.