This is a football team that has spawned a verb all its own – “to Charger,” meaning to lose in unexpected, creative and painful ways.
It has given us the memory of the interception Marlon McCree fumbled away in the 2006 playoffs, which resuscitated the New England Patriots, doomed a San Diego team that had been 14-2 in the regular season, and might be the rawest, most painful example of “Charger-ing.” It has provided plenty of examples of gut-grinding losses in little games and big: A 29-56 record since 2010 in games decided by seven points or fewer, 18-29 with the margin a field goal or less.
But the current stretch might be the most excruciating of all, and it suggests someone in their former home city is seriously busy sticking pins in a Bolts voodoo doll. The Chargers have let leads of 17, 17, 16 and 21 points evaporate in their last four games, they’ve squandered an impressive start by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, and the only reason they didn’t lose all four is because one of those blown leads came against the Jacksonville Jaguars and they rallied to win anyway.
(Do the football fans of north Florida use the verb “to Jaguar?”)
With a 2-5 record going into Raider Week, with the Chargers’ historic rivals visiting SoFi Stadium on Sunday, the questions must be asked:
• What are head coach Anthony Lynn, and particularly defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, still doing here?
• And what are they going to do – what can they do, really – to reverse this trend of blown leads and blown games?
Lynn acknowledged in the immediate wake of last Sunday’s come-from-ahead 31-30 loss at Denver that “when you’re not winning, you should be” concerned about job security. But he noted a day later that it wasn’t totally the defense’s fault, saying, “We kicked three field goals on our last three drives on offense. We gotta score touchdowns, OK? You’re not gonna win in this league kicking field goals.”
He added, “I’m not in the business of pointing fingers. I’m in the business of solutions. And that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Lynn stressed this isn’t the same as last season, when offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was fired with the Chargers at 3-5 after being held under 40 rushing yards for four straight weeks and averaging 19.6 points per game through the first half of the schedule. (They averaged 22.5 points over the final eight weeks, but 45 of those were against Jacksonville. Maybe that’s the meaning of “to Jaguar.”)
“Two totally different situations,” Lynn said this week. “I don’t like to let anybody go. That’s not my goal when I hire these men. We work through things, we get through things together. That situation’s different.”
But does it become more similar if the defense spits up another big lead or two?
The crazy thing is that for 2-1/2 quarters last Sunday in Denver the scheme worked, which explains why they were leading 24-3. Lynn said in that first segment of the game they “looked like the ’85 Bears.” The final 22-1/2 minutes, they looked more like The Bad News Bears Play Football.
“I think in the Denver game we had 10 series where they averaged 3.5 plays a series,” Bradley said this week. “There’s times when I look at it and I go, ‘That’s exactly how it should look like.’ … I’ve got to look at our players and make sure that we’re not asking too much of them in these situations. It seems like a broken record a little bit, but we’ve just got to keep going through these growing pains at times.
“They hurt and I hurt. And, you know, that’s how you’re going to get it right.”
Youth might be a factor, and so might the COVID-related wipeout of springtime work and preseason games, especially when Lynn says communication and execution – i.e., tackling – are issues. The Chargers’ current defensive two-deep includes two rookies, starting linebacker and late first-round pick Kenneth Murray and backup safety Alohi Gillman, a 2020 sixth-rounder from Notre Dame, as well as two second-year players, safety Nasir Adderley and linebacker Emeke Egbule.
But it’s not all on them, by any means.
“Our issue a little bit is that you have maybe 10 guys executing and then one guy might not execute a certain play,” Bradley said. “And it’s not one particular guy. Maybe guys are taking turns a little bit. So that’s what we’ve got to work on.”
But how do they get past that “here we go again” feeling if things start to slide off the rails? Will there be a point during the second half on Sunday when the Chargers have a lead but their defensive players are fighting that sense of impending doom?
It could happen. These blown leads have obscured a brilliant professional beginning for Herbert, who leads the AFC in passing yards (303.3), has thrown his 15 touchdown passes to eight different players, has the second-best passer rating by a rookie in NFL history (104.5, just a tick behind Dak Prescott’s 104.9 for Dallas in 2016), and has rendered irrelevant that grand Los Angeles football tradition, the quarterback controversy.
The Chargers have had a third-quarter lead in all but two games this season and won one of the games when they didn’t, the opener at Cincinnati when the Bengals’ Randy Bullock missed what would have been a game-tying field goal with seven seconds left. They could be 5-2 or even 6-1 instead of 2-5, in which case Herbert would be the talk of the NFL and the Chargers would have a chance to at least get L.A.’s attention.
Instead, Lynn is banking on a repeat of the second-half surge of 2017, his first year and the team’s first in L.A., when the Chargers started 3-6, ended up 9-7 and had an outside shot at a playoff berth going into the final day but didn’t get the help they needed. The next season they went 12-4 and won a postseason game.
“That team developed a killer instinct,” Lynn said. “There’s no reason why this one can’t.”
If it doesn’t? Well, let’s just say that beginning right now, people are playing and coaching for their jobs.