CINCINNATI - DECEMBER 26: Norv Turner (center) the Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers walks off of the field following the Chargers 34-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals during the NFL game at Paul Brown Stadium on December 26 2010 in Cincinnati Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
If you weren't here a few days ago, I am going back over the Chargers late-season loss to the Bengals. It was, at the time, a bit of a head scratcher and with some time to forget about the lesser points it's become even more mysterious. I'm looking for a definitive answer as to why the Bolts lost that game.
I started by going back through BFTB's posts the days following the game. That lead me to believe that the fault of this game rested on the shoulders of Norv Turner and Ron Rivera for their playcalling. Other things happened (a serious injury to Mike Tolbert, a really bad series by the offensive line on the Bengals' 1 yard line) but none had the same impact.
Let's look through the box score and see if we come to a different conclusion.
Here's a fun, yet predictable stat.....
Philip Rivers Pass Attempts in Wins: 29, 20, 36, 23, 24, 23, 24, 25, 37
Philip Rivers Pass Attempts in Losses: 39, 53, 42, 37, 50, 39, 40
Under 30 pass attempts for Rivers equals almost guaranteed victory. Over 30 and you're either facing a really poor secondary (Titans, Broncos) or losing. Now do you see why it was so important for the Chargers to move up and pick Ryan Mathews last year? Rivers actually cannot do it all on his own, as much as it seems like he can. In this game, Rivers threw the ball 40 times (including a late interception).
Another fun stat: The Chargers played 7 games after their bye week last year and won 5 of them. In those 7 games, the amount of passing yards the Chargers accumulated remained roughly the same (as did the number of turnovers by the Chargers offense) . In the 5 games they won, they got at least 100 yards rushing. In the 2 games they did not, they rushed for just 21 and 64 yards.
Whether or not we want to admit it, to win a football game the Chargers need a balanced offense. Heck, Norv's offense doesn't even make sense unless you can be equally strong running and passing.
In this game, Ryan Mathews ran the ball well. Unfortunately, he was the only one. Before leaving the game with an injured neck, Tolbert managed -2 yards on 4 carries (and a fumble). Darren Sproles picked up 8 yards on 3 carries. Jacob Hester averaged a half of a yard after getting 1 total yard on 2 carries.
Plain and simple, the Bengals picked their battle. They saw the swirling winds would kill the Chargers deep passing game, they knew Antonio Gates wasn't around to burn them up the middle, and they focused their defense on stopping the run first and worrying about the pass second.
The logical counterpunch to that would've been for Turner to ride Mathews to 20+ carries, since he was averaging 4.58 yards a carry (55 total yards) and even got a TD on the ground against this run-focused defense, but he didn't. Maybe he didn't trust him,maybe when the team fell behind it was just easier to put his faith in Philip Rivers (I'd be hard-pressed to argue that philosophy), or maybe the offensive line showed it's weakness when they couldn't get a single yard in three tries. For whatever reason, on a day where the passing game was basically playing in a small area and could not make big plays, Turner gave up on the running game.
It didn't help matters much that Ron Rivera doesn't like to blitz when behind. And it really didn't help that he didn't have much besides Shaun Phillips to rush the passer with. With the wind and Marvin Lewis forming a tandem gameplan against the Chargers, all Carson Palmer had to do on offense was wait for one of his big/fast receivers to get open or hand the ball off to Cedric Benson (52 yards) or Bernard Scott (50 yards, 1 TD).
So I suppose I'm changing my stance a little bit. It wasn't equal parts incompetence on the parts of Rivera and Turner. This loss is tacked on the fear of both coaches. A few of blitzing on behalf of Rivera, and a few of putting the game in the hands of the rookie RB on behalf of Norv. Would those adjustment have won the game? I have no idea, but they were the adjustments that the situation was begging for and neither man identified the opportunity. After winning 6 of their previous 7 games, and with every game having a playoff feeling, fear kicked in and lost the season.
Am I saying I'm glad Rivera is gone? No. I like Ron and think he's an excellent defensive coordinator, maybe the best in the league with a lead. I also like Norv and credit him with a lot of this team's success. Everyone has an off day or makes a mistake. For those people that want to fire Norv, you should remember that Marty Schottenheimer would do this every single year starting with the first playoff game. People are allowed to make mistakes, but in my searching for an answer as to why this talented Chargers team got knocked off by a beaten-up and not-so-talented Bengals team I was really hoping I could find a reason better than "bad coaching." The problem with this game wasn't so much that Norv and Ron screwed it up, it's that the terrible first-half of the season put them in a position where having an off day would end their playoff chances.