I, like no one else who reads here, has any more interest in hashing out the playoff loss to the Jets. Still, I think this loss represents something of a "look in the mirror" moment for the Chargers organization, from Dean Spanos, A.J. Smith, Norv Turner, as well as every player in the locker room.
The Chargers are one of only 5 teams since 2004 to have won their division at least 3 times. Here are the other teams:
- New England Patriots (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009).
- Indianapolis Colts (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009).
- Seattle Seahawks (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007).
- Pittsburgh Steelers (2004, 2007, 2008).
The Chargers are obviously the only team in this group that has not yet appeared in a Super Bowl. We can currently discount Seattle, as their miserable 2008 and 2009 clearly show that they are a team that has entered their rebuilding cycle. The Patriots are a team going through something of a rebuilding process as well, but figure to be in contention as long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are running the show. The Colts are in contention as long as Peyton Manning is under center. The Steelers seem to have 1 mediocre season every 3-4 years, but are also in the hunt as long as Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are healthy.
The Chargers are well positioned to capture a 5th straight AFC West title next season, and the playoff spot that comes with it. The question facing the Chargers is this: What's missing?
Some ideas and thoughts below the jump.
To be perfectly honest, what has bothered me about the loss to the Jets was that I thought the Chargers' players had outgrown the point where they would be intimidated by the playoffs. Following the 2007 loss at home to New England, the Chargers won 3 playoff games during the 2008 and 2009 playoffs.
Looking Back for a Moment.
The previous 2 postseasons indicated that this team was playoff seasoned, gritty and able to deliver in the clutch. No performance will equal the AFC Championship loss to New England for grit. Two 4th Quarter / Overtime victories against the Colts, showed poise and resiliency. Coming off these performances and into this postseason, It was reasonable to think the Chargers might not win the Super Bowl, but that their opponent would have to be an equal or superior team that played better.
It took just over 3 hours to put that idea (and confidence) into the ground 2 Sundays ago. Suddenly, all the progress that had been made since January 2007 went up in smoke.
It's certainly possible that the loss to the Jets was a fluke, the perfect storm created by poor play, a difficult matchup, and an opponent playing with nothing to lose. However, if it's not a fluke, then the Jets game revealed things about the Chargers that need to be fixed.
This article is not referring to tangible things, like a new running back, or a successor to Jamal Williams (though we can discuss this in the comments). I will leave the details of free-agency and the draft in the capable hands of our other writers. Rather, I'm questioning the greatest difference between a contender and a champion - the six inches between the ears.
Toughness, Physical or Mental?
In this case, stats don't lie. The Chargers were awful at running the ball this year, and only marginally better at stopping the run. As the season progressed, the Chargers were decent at running in the red zone, and in 4th quarter of games (Dallas), or in blowout wins (Denver, Kansas City). On defense, once the Chargers defensive staff got their Defensive Line rotations set, they marginally improved against the run.
I'm not advocating the return of MartyBall, but it is paramount for this team to get better at running the ball and stopping the run next season. The ability to dictate to an opposing team that you can control the game at the line is the single biggest factor in winning and losing, excepting turnovers. It also gives confidence to a team that they can win any kind of game, regardless of style or score. Regardless of the cause, the Chargers believed (the game plan reflects this) they would have to out-scheme, and out-smart the Jets. I honestly believe that the Chargers lost their poise when they realized that they could not beat the Jets in a "street fight" type of game.
Earlier this year, in my admittedly way too early postmordem of this season, I suggested that one of the problems with this team was that there were players on this roster that cared more about what football allows them to do off the field, as opposed to wanting to win at all costs. I was wrong on more than a few of my points earlier this season, but I still think this point has some merit - especially considering the players who made the most noticeable mistakes. To be clear, I'm not advocating removing all of these players from the roster, but that the Chargers' organization has to question if these players (as well as some others) are truly committed to winning a Super Bowl above all else.
Antonio Cromartie - Seriously, he's still on the roster?
- Shawne Merriman
- Vincent Jackson
- Shaun Phillips
For those of you Norv Turner haters out there, I will not bash Turner for not being a maniacal, fire-and-brimstone coach. That is not who he is, nor will he ever be that kind of coach. Turner is an X's and O's offensive minded Head Coach, and solid staff organizer. His extension was deserved, due to the factors outlined in my post about Turner earlier this season. However, the Chargers do not have a true team leader (excepting possibly Philip Rivers). Though LaDainian Tomlinson disputes the notion that the team is lacking leadership, the leadership that exists is strictly of the "setting a good example" variety. This is evident in comments made by Tomlinson, in a radio interview, discussing how he felt as the game against the Jets was slipping away.
This is not to question the desire, or will to win of Tomlinson, or Antonio Gates, who said he was "devastated" in the postgame news conference. However, there is a subtle difference between a player feeling or saying "we're blowing it" (Tomlinson), versus telling teammates "We're not going to blow this game!" Again, besides possibly Philip Rivers, I'm not sure this kind of leader exists inside the locker room.
Frankly, the latter comment is designed to elevate the level of play - as opposed to giving in to panic or desperation, and is something that would be said by a Ray Lewis-type of player. And in terms of addressing character, does anyone seriously think that Antonio Cromartie would quit on a play in the 4th quarter of a playoff game, knowing he'd have to face someone like Lewis on the sideline or during the tape review?
Would getting a leader like this hurt? And what could be the potential payoff?
I think A.J. Smith knows he needs a really good offseason - and he must suspect that this team has hit the proverbial glass ceiling.
This Chargers team has, over the last 6 years, accomplished everything that can be accomplished during the regular season, excepting a perfect season. They've has the best record in the league. They've had the 1 seed, 3 seed, 4 seed, and 2 seed in that order the last 4 years. They've produced a league MVP. A passing efficiency leader. And so on and so forth. Going forward, it doesn't mean a damn thing.
A.J. Smith has said numerous times (I'm paraphrasing here) "Just get to the tournament, and hopefully one season it will all come together." The Chargers have reached a point, similar to the Indianapolis Colts a few years ago, where they are going to be judged strictly on playoff success. Hoping for the perfect end may not be an option for much longer. The Chargers are maybe a player or two away - the key is getting the right player or two.
In the meantime, I suggest the Chargers steal a line from the movie Network, and post it inside the locker room.
"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"