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Mike McCoy Shifts the Chargers Culture

A breakdown of coaching turnover for the San Diego Chargers, and something unique about the current head coach, Mike McCoy.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Each season, 37.5% of teams in the NFL make the playoffs. Only 25% of the teams make it past Wild Card Weekend.  By definition, a team that makes it to a division round game is special.  But something else happened last year that had never happened before in franchise history and of course, that got my attention.

A Brief History of Bolts Coaches

At the end of the 2013 playoffs in early 2014, 54 seasons of Professional Football have been played by the team known as the Chargers. 18 of those seasons, one third of the total played by the franchise, have resulted in post-season play.

After dumping Turner at the end of 2012 for failing to achieve a playoff spot for 3 straight years, I was somewhat apprehensive about the trajectory of the team for the 2013 season and beyond. I had my reasons.

Let's take a look at how previous coaching changes have screwed done for our favorite team:

  • Gilman - 1960 - 1969 & 1971 (10 years, 5 playoff appearances, 1-4 playoff record, 83-56-6 overall record)
  • Waller, C. - 1969 - 1970 (0 playoff appearances, 9-7 overall)
  • Svare - 1971 - 1973 (0 playoff appearances, 7-17-2 overall) (Note: Gilman went 4-6 to start 1971)
  • Waller, R. - 1973 (0 playoff appearances, 1-5 overall)
  • Prothro - 1974 - 1978 (0 playoff appearances, 21-39 overall)
  • Coryell - 1978 - 1986 (4 Playoff appearances, 3-4 playoff record, 69-56 overall)
  • Saunders - 1986 - 1988 (0 playoff appearances, 17-22 overall)
  • Henning - 1989 - 1991 (0 playoff appearances, 16-32 overall)
  • Ross - 1992 - 1996 (3 playoff appearances, 3-3 playoff record, 47-33 overall)
  • Gilbride - 1997 - 1998 (0 playoff appearances, 6-16 overall)
  • Jones - 1998 (0 playoff appearances, 3-7 overall)
  • Riley - 1999 - 2001 (0 playoff appearances, 14-34 overall)
  • Schottenheimer - 2002 - 2006 (2 playoff appearances, 0-2 playoff record, 37-33 overall)
  • Turner - 2007 - 2012 (3 playoff appearances, 3-3 playoff record, 56-40 overall)
  • McCoy - 2013 - (?) (1 playoff appearance, 1-1 playoff record, 9-7 overall)

(Coaches with playoff appearances are italicized.)

As you review that list, consider...

The Bolts have 5 previous coaches with winning record and not coincidentally, playoff appearances to their credit. Gilman, Coryell, Ross, and Turner had playoff runs that went sour, but their replacements were even worse. The one outlier on this list is Schottenheimer getting replaced with Turner; Marty was at the front end of a playoff run that was interrupted by dysfunction that would have put a soap opera writer to shame.

The Culture and Destiny

"Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny." Lao-Tzu (founder of Taoism ~ 400 BC)

As a franchise, the Bolts actions have resulted in a habit of replacing coaches with winning records and playoff appearances with coaches that fail. This has produced a character of inconsistency and a destiny of not winning a league championship for over 50 years.

Again, the one outlier to this pattern was the transition from Schottenheimer to Turner; this transition was not only an outlier for the Bolts, but for every team in the NFL. The only other reference I could find to ‘head coaches fired after making the playoffs' was Tampa Bay firing Tony Dungy after going 0-3 in the playoffs from 1999-2001. Had the Bolts stuck to their (and to be honest, most of the rest of the league's) usual pattern, a run of playoff appearances by Marty would have continued for another 2-3 seasons, followed by the return to mediocrity and the inevitable firing.

This did not happen in 2013. McCoy was able to accomplish what Charlie Waller, Al Saunders, and Kevin Gilbride had been unable to accomplish in franchise history. McCoy was able to take a team that had slid into mediocrity back to the post-season in his first year. This was first time ANY Charger coach had done so after taking over from a coach that had gotten the Chargers into the playoffs and then allowed the team to return to mediocrity on his watch.

This bodes well for the future of the franchise; past Charger re-builds resulted in long playoff dry spells. In fact, time between playoff appearances in the last few years of "great" Charger coaches and their replacements have averaged 10 seasons (TEN!!!) in the cases of Gilman (13), Coryell (9), and Ross (8). No other Charger Coach called upon to turn around the franchise's declining fortunes made the playoffs with the Bolts at all, let alone in their first year.

McCoy did have the benefit of a healthy franchise QB in his prime. Waller and Svare did not have a replacement for a used up Hadl. Saunders could not win with an old Dan Fouts. Gilbride did have a 32 year old Humphries for half a season and then diddly squat (aka Craig Whelihan) for a QB after Humphries got concussed out of football. So perhaps I am making too big deal out of McCoy's success; after all, having a healthy, skilled QB is pretty important for a team's success.

Except... Remember that a lot of us (me included) were wondering if PR still "had it" going into last season. After River's issues in 2011 and 2012, issues which were concerning to Rivers himself, it was an open question whether the Bolts actually had a franchise QB on the roster last September. One of the things that last year's coaching staff does not get enough credit for is bringing back Rivers to the level of play that makes him one of the best QB's in the NFL. That is just my opinion and I would have been happy enough if that is all that was done last season. Getting Ryan Mathews right, making the playoffs, the improvement in the O-line, all of that was wonderful to see, but getting our QB back to the top of his game was what I enjoyed seeing the most last season.

One other thing; McCoy's team actually won the first playoff game (on the road no less!) in which he coached the team. Coryell could not do that with Dan Fouts in his prime, the league's #2 ranked defense, a novel offense, a bye, and home game. Ross did win his first playoff game (at home) against the Chiefs, then coached by the maestro of the playoff snake bite, Marty Schottenheimer. 12 years later, the same Coach watched his first playoff game as the Chargers coach end in defeat at home, thanks to a rookie kicker with a case of the yips.

In winning his first playoff game as a Bolts head coach, McCoy joined Ross and Turner as the only Bolts coaches to do that, so he does have some company there. However, the real accomplishment was getting the team back into the playoffs in the first place.

Is This a Genuine Character Shift?

We all have places in our life that seem to just seem to suck the very life out of us within a few minutes of walking in the door. Conversely, there are places we can go to, even when we have had a crappy day, and within minutes, feel better, more alive, energized. People can do that  to us, also.  And organizations.

Some of my more spiritual friends term the effects of such places as "atmospheres." "Good vibes" and "bad vibes" are not unusual terms to hear in our culture. The atmosphere around the Chargers has been one of inconsistency, frustration, and of falling short. This character defining atmosphere has become a team of destiny and, prior to 2013, a dreary cyclical history.

This may be way too premature, but the breaking of the long play-off drought pattern I was expecting actually makes me wonder if McCoy has started a character shift that leads to a Super Bowl win. This team certainly needed somebody to break the pattern that held to form over many decades. I am certainly hoping that McCoy's reopening of the playoff window years before I expected it to happen means some other unexpected things in the next few years. Like a Lombardi Trophy in San Diego.

When a business changes CEO's, often the new head honcho makes some noise about "changing the culture of the organization." This is often empty talk, but sometimes it is a real objective with real concrete steps taken to change the thinking, actions, habits, character, and yes, destiny of the organization. McCoy may have revealed part of his objective when he insisted that the practice field turf be updated and improved right after he was hired. I have not found any information on the food served during training camp, but it would not surprise me if that has improved also. Hopefully, a series of small changes ends in a big change for this perennially championship-starved city.