1: Philip Rivers
"You have to try to laugh to keep yourself from crying."
Wise words, Philip. So on Sunday, when the Chargers managed to fumble away their chance of winning the game, I sat in my room and took heed of his advice. I tried to laugh. Actually, I laughed a lot. If anyone looked into my window, they'd have seen the signs of someone going crazy. Because I was laughing alone. Trying to put a brave face on it, but knowing deep down that - once again - I'd been let down by my team. In that sense, I've never felt closer to Philip Rivers.
This is a Hall of Fame calibre Quarterback being dragged down by everyone around him. It's extremely unlikely that Rivers will retire with a ring, which means that his HoF bid will ultimately prove unsuccessful. As has been the case for most of his career, Rivers will fall short because those around him couldn't give him the support he needed.
Week after week, Rivers gives his all for a team that doesn't deserve it. He takes huge hits behind an OL that are yet to work out what a block actually is, let alone how to do one. He gets zero help from his running game, who average a spectacular 0.043 yards per carry. By week four or five, he's usually throwing to WRs so under-qualified that he literally has to grab them and move them into position. None of this matters to Rivers, who still finds a way to end every season as a top 5 QB. His reward will be to be the forgotten quarterback of his generation.
After the loss to the Raiders, the Chargers season is all but done after five games. As a rough estimate, Philip Rivers has three seasons left (not counting this one). Forget about trade talk. He's a Charger for life, a punishment so bleak you start to wonder who he wronged in a past life. The Chargers are not a bad team - in fact, they've actually got a lot of talent - but talent isn't the only factor in winning a title. The Packers are consistently one of the best teams in the league, but it's been five years since their last ring. It's been ten since the Steelers last tasted gold. The Chargers are not as good as either of those teams - and Philip Rivers doesn't have that long left, anyway.
Could Rivers retire with a ring? As I mentioned, there's talent on this team. I'd argue that they're only one or two pieces away from having enough talent to make a serious run. I'd also argue that they lack every single other component needed to have a serious shot at the Superbowl.
Coaching? Pathetic. That might - hopefully, will - change after Thursday, but for now, the Chargers are one of the worst coached teams in the league, and it's only the Titans keeping them off the bottom. Health? The Chargers have been snake-bit for multiple seasons in a row now. That could just be bad luck, and something that evens itself out over the next few years. It could also be symbiotic, a result of mixing injury prone players and bad training practices.
Lastly, there's luck itself. Over the regular season, luck tends to even out - most of the time, anyway. In a one off playoff game, however, the team who gets 'luckier' are often also the team who comes out on top. Lady luck hasn't exactly smiled on the Chargers lately. That could change, sure. But somehow, you never feel like it will. When Alex Spanos bought the Chargers, he made a Faustian Pact with the devil. The on the field product can be as bad as the devil wants, but Alex got a shiny new sports team for his sons to play with.
Unfortunately, the devil has become bored. He wants the ship to sink. Philip Rivers will fight against the choppy waters. He always does. But he won't get enough help from those around him. He never does. Rivers will scratch, claw, and bite, but the ship will eventually sink. It may take two years, it may take five. But it will sink. The only remnants of Philip Rivers will be THE sound of a faint 'golly!' you can hear whistle through the ocean air. Because he will be gone. He will be ringless. He will be forgotten.
2: Drew Kaser
Wait, I have to write more? Oh. Alright, then. Drew Kaser was obviously going to end up somewhere on this list. He's not lost as much as Rivers, but if he can't start playing up to his ability, he'll ultimately lose his job. It's a harsh reality, but there's a reason that the NFL is known as the 'Not For Long' league. If you don't perform, you get replaced. If you're a punter who doesn't perform, you definitely get replaced. To hold a job as a punter in the NFL, you need to be in the top 32 people in the entire world at punting a football. Right now, Kaser isn't even close.
This isn't an issue of talent. Kaser was a fantastic punter at Texas A&M, and was well deserving of being drafted in the sixth round. In preseason, he was looking like one of the best punters in the entire league. He had a huge leg, fantastic hangtime and a great touch on the ball, able to lay just enough backspin on the ball to cause it to rest inside the opposing ten yard line.
People are saying that he's mentally not up to the task, that he buckles under pressure. I disagree. In 2014, Texas A&M played against Ole Miss in front of 110,633 people, the SEC record for an audience in a single game. If Kaser was mentally weak, there's no way he'd have been capable of playing at his best with so many pairs of eyes watching him. Except he averaged 50.7 yards per punt that day.
If you want to argue that the Ole Miss game had relatively low stakes attached to it, it's fair enough. It was a regular season NCAA game - sure, it was important, but it doesn't compare to an NFL game. So let's look at the 2014 Liberty Bowl. Bowl Games are extremely meaningful to players, and Texas A&M came into this one 3 point underdogs to West Virginia. Everyone would need to be on top form to go home with the W.
Kaser's first punt is from their own 40-yard line - if he's nervous, he doesn't show it. He hits a beautiful coffin corner punt 53 yards, and it goes out of bounds at the WVU 7 yard line. WVU end up going three and out, and A&M start at WVU's 44-yard line - all because of the distance Kaser's punt went. A&M score a TD.
Kaser's next punt goes 42 yards, down to the WVU 30. Not bad. His next one only goes 30 yards - but that's because he's punting from opposition territory. Kaser forces the fair catch at the 17-yard line. Ideally, you'd like to pin them back a few more yards, but anything better than a touchback in that situation is a job well done.
He absolutely muffs the fourth punt. He tries to coffin corner it but gets it completely wrong, and it goes just 15 yards to the WVU 43 yard line. He didn't muff this one because of pressure, though. In fact, it's the easiest situation he's been in all day. A&M are up 15 points. If he was making mistakes because of pressure, we'd have seen it earlier in the day, when his team desperately needed him to flip the field - which he did every time.
His fifth punt goes 55 yards for a touchback, and his sixth goes 50 yards downfield all the way to the WVU 9 yard line. Kaser didn't lose confidence in himself after one bad punt - in fact, he came back stronger. He also didn't choke when his team needed him most. I think it's unfair and far too simplistic to blame Kaser's early struggles on mental weakness - a mental weakness that never manifested itself in college.
If I'm Tom Telesco, I keep Kaser for this season. He's started terribly, but what's the point in cutting a sixth round pick and replacing him with a below average veteran five games into a lost season? Kaser has all the talent in the world - while he might never be able to put that talent to use, there's also a very strong chance that he will. The Chargers need to show faith in Kaser. It may take time, but it will be rewarded.
3: Melvin Gordon
You're killing me, Melvin. Last week, I tenuously added Gordon into the losers column, because I worried that fumble could send him back to old ways. And while he didn't show any of the negative traits behind the line of scrimmage that plagued him during his rookie season against the Raiders, he did - once again - fumble the ball when it got to crunch time.
This was a bad, bad fumble. He's not holding the ball anywhere near tight enough, and it just slips out of his grasp at the slightest contact. It's inexcusable. He spent all summer working on ball security. Who was his coach, Ryan Mathews? These are basic mistakes that can't happen. But they do. They do every week, at every position, by every player.
I don't know how much work Mike McCoy puts into working on the fundamentals, but it's not enough (and it's actually a big part of the reason that I want him gone). You don't become great at something by doing it once or twice. You become great by doing it every single day, multiple times, no matter whether you're an undrafted rookie or a 12-year veteran. Case in point - Antonio Gates also fumbled on Sunday because he never locked the ball in. These are fundamentals that get taught from Pop Warner. If the Chargers were better with their fundamentals, they could easily be 4-1 or 5-0 right now. But they're not. Failing to do the basics correctly will kill you in the NFL. Twice in a row, Melvin Gordon's failed to do the basics correctly. He can't afford to complete the hat-trick on Thursday Night.
1: Joey Bosa
Woooah boy. That was worth the wait. Despite playing just 27 snaps in his season debut, he managed to rack up 2 sacks, 2 more QB hurries (hurries are a bad stat, but they were both justified in this case) and 5 tackles, including 3 TFLs. To put it like this: Despite not having played any football since January, and having had very limited NFL practice time, Joey Bosa looked like one of the best players on the Chargers defense.
I'll hold my hands up - I didn't like the pick at the time, and I thought that the Chargers could do better than Bosa. I'll never be happier to be wrong - and it looks like I'm going to be very wrong indeed.
You never want to get ahead of yourself, and Bosa's just 27 snaps into his career. But some people instantly look like becoming 'players'. You can sense from just the way they move that there's something special about them. Bosa looked like a 'player' on Sunday. He showed off absolutely everything that made him such a dominant player in college. Explosiveness, strength, and technique are three of the most important attributes a DE/OLB can have. Joey Bosa has all three at the age of 21.
I'm not going to compare him to J.J. Watt because that's incredibly stupid. I'm going to compare Joey Bosa to Joey Bosa. The Chargers front seven is sorely lacking a Joey Bosa - someone who you just know is going to take the game by the scruff of the neck and dominate it. Melvin Ingram and Denzel Perryman are close, but they're not quite at that level. Joey Bosa could very well turn out to be. He's not there yet, and he may not get there for a while, but I'm confident that Joey Bosa will turn out to be a Joey Bosa for this defense.
2: Tyrell Williams
I freaking love Tyrell Williams. I joined his hype train early this offseason, and I refuse to ever leave. He's not the finished product. I'm not claiming that he is - but I will claim that there's not a team in the league who wouldn't want to have him on their roster right now.
Williams is just 24 years old, and he has very little experience at a high level, having joined the Chargers as a UDFA out of Western Oregon, an NCAA D2 school. He was billed as an exciting but raw prospect, who had a lot to learn. That was true. He did. But I don't think I've seen anyone learn as quickly as Tyrell Williams. The difference in his play from his rookie season to now is staggering. His routes are cleaner. His hands are better. He's more aggressive going for the ball.
Williams is 6'4, and Travis Benjamin would only just beat him in a footrace. I don't think there's a more perfect target for Philip Rivers. Not only does he have a guy he can't overthrow, but he has one that can go up and fight for jump balls, just like Malcom Floyd did. Sure, he won't be as good as M80 was - no-one is - but he'll win more than his fair share.
So, that combines to make a WR who's taller than DBs, faster than most DBs, has good (not great, but good) hands and is starting to get to grips with the more technical aspects of the position. How are you supposed to cover someone like that? Well, if you're the Oakland Raiders, you don't. Williams had 5 catches on 6 targets for 117 yards and a TD. Philip Rivers had a perfect passer rating when throwing his way.
Every time Tyrell Williams touches the ball, you just sense a big play is going to come. If he can keep learning, and add the five-or-six-yard plays to his game, he's going to be a top WR in this league. Add that to a healthy Keenan Allen? Maybe things aren't so bleak for Philip Rivers after all.
3: Travis Benjamin
Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams not enough for you? Fine, have some Travis Benjamin then. I might be one of Benjamin's biggest fans around here. His deep ball game is phenomenal. There's not a DB in the league who can go stride for stride with Benjamin and come out the victor, and woe betide anyone who tries. Case in point - Benjamin's 7 catches for 117 yards against the Raiders, and it would have been even better had Philip Rivers not drastically underthrown an open Benjamin deep early on.
If Benjamin only offered a deep ball, then I'd understand the dislike for him. But he doesn't. Benjamin isn't the most refined route runner around - he's not bad at it, but he's no Keenan Allen. His speed means he doesn't need to be. Even when Benjamin doesn't win with speed, he wins with speed.
What I mean by that is that when Travis Benjamin explodes off the line towards a DB, that DB is going to turn around and sprint backwards with him. Which means all Benjamin has to do is slow down, head to the flat, and the DB has been so focused on stopping Benjamin from speeding past him, he's now completely out of position to make a play on the quick out. The Chargers get an easy 8 or 9 yards every time. That quick out to Benjamin has been a staple of the Chargers offense this year, and I absolutely love it. It's close to indefensible.
Travis Benjamin being here makes life so much easier for the other WRs, as well. If the defense is playing press man coverage, they need to roll a safety over to help get Benjamin deep, or he's going to score. That frees up other WRs to make plays. You might not see it much this year, but Benjamin's true value will be seen next season when there's a healthy Keenan Allen. If you single cover Keenan Allen, you're going to lose. If you single cover Travis Benjamin, you're going to get burned deep. If you single cover Tyrell Williams, you also run that risk. If you single cover Antonio Gates (if he's still playing next season), you're going to get beat for a short gain. If you single cover Danny Woodhead (if he's back with San Diego and fully recovered), you're also going to get beat for a short gain.
My point is, the defense only has so many players. They won't be able to cover them all. Either Travis Benjamin gets to go up one on one against a DB, or he forces the double team. In the first scenario, there's a good chance he's going to win. In the second, he's going to create the space for someone else to win. Travis Benjamin will prove to be one of the smartest signings of Tom Telesco's reign as the Chargers GM. Considering Telesco bought in Casey Heyward, Matt Slauson and Brandon Mebane this year alone, that's saying something.
4: Josh Lambo
Lambo didn't actually have to do all that much during the Raiders game, but he's not on this list for his kicking performance. Instead, two things stood out to me about Josh Lambo on Sunday.
I know some Chargers fans are irate over the way Lambo ran off the field after the loss laughing and smiling. He was running after Sebastian Janikowski, one of the best kickers in the history in the NFL. I see no problem in networking with a guy like that. Any tips Lambo can pick up as a result of his friendship with Janikowski will be invaluable, and really help him take the next step as a kicker.
I saw a lot of people saying that it showed Lambo didn't care about the team, or about winning. If you think that, go back and watch the fumbled snap by Kaser. I know it's painful, but do it anyway. Don't worry, you don't have to watch Kaser. I want you to keep your eyes on Lambo.
As soon as Lambo realises he's not getting a chance to kick that ball, he doesn't give up on the play. Instead, Lambo turns around and attempts to block an oncoming Raiders defender. It's hard to make out, but I think it's Keith McGill that Lambo tries to block. McGill is 6'3 and weighs 219 LBs. He would destroy Lambo in a physical confrontation. Not to mention, the play - and the game - are all but finished, regardless. Even if Kaser gets enough time to pick the ball up, the only way the Chargers keep the game alive is if Kaser then finds someone to throw to for a first down.
Essentially, the Chargers chances of winning the game were barely above nil. But they were above nil, and that was enough for Lambo. As long as there was still a chance to win the game - no matter how small - he was willing to sacrifice his body to help the team. Don't tell me Lambo doesn't care about winning. That's one of the bravest plays I've ever seen a kicker make.
But that's not all. After the game, reporters were waiting to interview Kaser. Lambo got to him first and whispered advice in his ear. Kaser repeated the same thing to each question - "I need to go back and watch the film to find out what happened" - so it's pretty obvious what Lambo's advice was. And it was absolutely perfect advice.
Don't forget, Lambo is only in his second NFL season himself. But he knew that Kaser was about to be thrown to the wolves, and he wasn't going to let that happen. The rehearsed speech might not have been what fans wanted to hear, but it was the right thing for Kaser to say. Rather than incriminating himself, Kaser survived the questions unscathed and didn't have to give a proper answer until the emotion of the moment had been wiped away.
I'll be honest, and admit that I was one of the few people that wanted to keep Nick Novak over Josh Lambo. I didn't think that Lambo's rookie season was that great. He looks a lot better already this year, but I still wasn't completely sold on him. After the way he looked after his own on Sunday, and the way he was willing to leave it all out on the field for his team, he's changed my mind. I hope Lambo is the Chargers kicker for the next decade. Darrell Stuckey is potentially going to be gone after this season, and the Special Teams unit will need their new leader.
I think they've just found him.