This is an editorial I've been thinking about for a while. It comes in the aftermath of listening to countless Charger fans, on the radio, on the internet, taking the 2009 season for granted. Because of the disappointing playoff loss to the Jets, fans are looking back at 2009 as if it never happened, viewing it only through the lens of how it ended.
This is a terrible way to remember the year. In 2009, the San Diego Chargers accomplished a great deal. Despite losing in the second round of the post-season, the Chargers overcame long odds to win as many games as they did. The adversity and hardship they overcame should be applauded, not derided. Individual members of the team also put up career-best, even historic performances.
Fans who think the season was a failure simply because the Chargers failed to win a Super Bowl have expectations that are far, far too high. Follow the jump, and I'll explain why the season should be considered a success, and why some are guilty of having expectations that are far in excess of reality.
Let's look at some stats for a moment. Feel free to skip ahead if you aren't a stat junky, but stick around and you'll see some interesting stuff. First, the obvious--the Chargers had a GREAT passing offense in 2009. A historically good one, in fact. They ranked first in FO's DVOA among all passing offenses with 62.2%. Since 1993, the only passing offenses that were better were the 2004 Colts (when Manning broke a bunch of records) and 2007 Patriots (when Brady broke Manning's records). That's really good. Unfortunately, that historically great passing offense was paired up with the worst (WORST!) running game in football. DVOA rated it as producing plays that were, on average, 11.2% worse than league average. That's really bad. The result was an offense that, while very good, and the best down the stretch, wasn't historically great by any means.
The best thing that could be said about the 2009 Chargers was that their passing game was great. The rushing offense stank. The defense was, at its best, average. Overall, DVOA ranked it as #23 in the NFL, actually worse than it was in 2008. It was a little better down the stretch, but not noticeably so. The special teams unit last year was dead average in DVOA--#16 overall, and worse in weighted DVOA.
People like to talk about the Chargers' "talent". They've been repeatedly referred to as "the most talented team in the league" in the media. It's been repeated so much that people start to believe it, and view everything the team does through that lens. I hate this. I hate it because it isn't true. The fact is that the Chargers are not some historically talented juggernaut of a team. In truth, the Chargers have highly skilled players at a few key positions--quarterback, tight end, and wide receiver. Outside of that, the team is average, and in some areas below average.
Conclusion? On paper, the 2009 Chargers just weren't that good. As I've stated, their passing offense was great, and everything else was average or worse. If you look at Pythagorean Wins (a projection calculated using points for and against) the Chargers were an 11 win team. If you use FO's Expected Wins formula based on a number of different factors, they were a 10 win team.
So why have I spent all this time in an effort to prove that the Chargers weren't as good as we all wanted to believe they were? Because despite all of that, despite an average-to-bad defense and a running game that was the worst in football, the Chargers STILL MANAGED TO WIN 13 GAMES. I don't think people realize just how difficult it is to win games in the NFL. This isn't baseball where even the worst teams (usually) manage to win over a third of their games. Teams in football routinely finished with one, two, or three wins total. We just had a team go winless in 2008. That the Chargers were able to post a 13-3 record despite being deficient in key areas is nothing short of amazing.
Let's go beyond stats. The Chargers suffered massive injuries at vital positions in 2009. They lost Jamal Williams, the cornerstone of the defense, for the entire year in the FIRST GAME OF THE SEASON. Sam put up a fanpost immediately after saying, "JAMAL WILLIAMS DONE FOR YEAR. SEASON OFFICIALLY OVER." One of my friends texted me during the Week 2 game vs. Baltimore and said, "Without Jamal, 6-10 at best." If you asked any Chargers fan before 2009 what would happen should the team ever lose Williams for the season, and they'd have uniformly told you that season would be a lost cause.
But it didn't stop there. Not only did they lose Williams, they lost his primary backup, Ryon Bingham, before the season even started. While Ryon wasn't considered to have the talent to match Jamal, he was still an experienced, valuable part of the defensive line and was expected to see significant playing time at both tackle and end. Moreover, the other projected started at defensive end across from Luis Castillo, Jacques Cesaire, missed all of training camp and pre-season as well as the first few games of the season. So the Chargers began the year with their 3rd string nose tackle and 3rd string defensive end. They had a rookie from Canada getting significant time at DE and an over-the-hill 4-3 tackle playing the nose. That had disaster written all over it.
And that's just on defense. On offense, the Chargers lost their starting center, and replaced him with a player who had never played a snap at center in the NFL before, and put a player who had been on the practice squad in 2008 next to him at guard.
Yes, I know. "Everyone has injuries, it's part of the game." But not everyone loses the centers of both lines and their backups. Those are huge blows. And the team somehow overcame. Credit the players, the training staff, the coaches for figuring out a way to get it done.
The Chargers overcame long odds to win as many games as they did. They persevered through crippling injuries and outperformed their numbers. Fans should be proud of the team for accomplishing what they did, regardless of what happened in the post-season.
The problem, though, is that a lot of fans have unrealistic expectations. They have become spoiled by a stretch of four division titles in a row, and five in six years. They've decided that the regular season "doesn't cut it anymore", and only playoff wins and championships will satisfy them. That just isn't fair.
The reason it isn't fair is because what happens in the playoffs is a giant crapshoot. The single-game elimination format offers way too small a sample size to reliably predict results. The consequence of this is that the better team doesn't always win. The fact that team A would beat team B eight or nine times out of ten doesn't matter if team B gets a couple lucky bounces and happens to pull off that one chance in ten.
To paraphrase another poster here, the NFL Champion isn't necessarily the best team. The Champion is the team that gets lucky in the crapshoot and goes on a 3-4 game win streak at the end of the season. It's unrealistic to EXPECT your team to do that.
Of course it's disappointing and devastating when the Chargers lose a playoff game in the manner that they did, and there's nothing wrong with feeling like that. But we've gotten to the point where many Chargers fans focus on that to the exclusion of all else. Stop it. It's not fair to the team, and it's not fair to yourselves.
No team deserves a championship, and no amount of talent "should" have won a Super Bowl. It's hard enough to win games in the regular season. Ask the Houston Texans, a team very similar to the Chargers in 2009. They had a great quarterback, great receiver, and great tight end matched up with a horrible rushing game and a mediocre defense. They played an easier schedule than the Chargers, and only managed to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs. Any Houston Texans fan would gladly trade their season for ours in a heartbeat.
Fans should be proud of what the Chargers accomplished this season, rather than grousing about not hitting 00 on the roulette wheel. They've become complacent, and spoiled. Winning division titles isn't impressive because the Chargers are "supposed to". Winning thirteen games isn't impressive anymore because the Chargers are "supposed to". In the NFL, nothing is supposed to happen. Winning your division and making the playoffs is the goal of the regular season, and accomplishing that should be celebrated, not dismissed as "expected". If we rewound the clock ten years to 2000, I'm sure many Charger fans would gladly take a 13-3 season and a playoff loss over what we were experiencing then. Too much winning has spoiled Charger fans, and we need to get over ourselves.
The Chargers were a good team in 2009. They overcame serious adversity and won eleven games in a row. That's a great accomplishment. We all would have liked to top it off with a Super Bowl victory, and it was disheartening to see the team lose. But that doesn't in any way take away from what the players and coaches accomplished in the regular season. Fans of the team need to stop having unrealistic expectations that no team can ever live up to.