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How the San Diego Chargers lost in 2015

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A 4-12 season is now a few months in the rear view. The sting of a crappy season, the worst one since 2003, has been soothed with the off season infusion of some talent. But will the 2016 team be able to avoid being as bad as the 2015 squad? And how did last season's team manage to lose 12 games anyway?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Post Mortem Process

The 2015 season was killed in a variety of ways.  As with any questionable or unnatural demise, an autopsy is called for.  Without getting too lengthy or clinical, this article's purpose is to examine the root causes of each of the Bolts 12 losses last year.  The purpose will be to determine if those issues can be expected to re-occur in 2016 or if we can find a reasonable basis for optimism going into 2016.

In broad terms, the causes for the 4-12 season have been widely commented on here.  The consensus established in January was:

  1. Defensive issues, particularly in stopping the run.  This was attributed to a defensive line that was not talented enough to control the line of scrimmage or hold up at the point of attack, plus uneven play in the linebacker unit.
  2. Offensive issues, particularly in running the ball.  Further attributed to underperformance in the offensive line due to injury, playing below expectations, and adjustments to new positions.
  3. Special teams that were statistically the worst in the league last year in terms of field position given up to the other team or secured for the Chargers.
  4. Coaching on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball that lacked creativity, aggressiveness, and unpredictability.  There were also game management decisions that led to several observers, both amateur and professional questioning the overall ability of the team's coordinators and head coach.

With that baseline, I thought it might be useful to look at what happened in EACH of the 12 losses.  What exactly happened to turn a season many of us (myself included) felt optimistic about in August into an exercise in masochism by the time November rolled up on the calendar?  I reviewed the game logs for each of the 12 losses and presented what I believe were the root causes for the defeats, with the link to logs so that you can form your opinion.

A summary of the team stats from last year can be found here.

Week 2:  Bengals 24 -€” Bolts 19

The Bolts first loss came on the road against a team that been among the NFL's best over the last four seasons.  This game was winnable until the very end.  Snap counts and the game log tell an interesting story.

Melvin Gordon had his best game of the season, rushing for 88 yards on 16 carries (at 5.5 YPC, a pretty good day).  He also caught one pass for 10 yards.  He was on the field for 46% of the offensive snaps, a somewhat inexplicable lack of use for a first round back having a decent game that was not an out of hand blowout.   Then there was the coaching decision not to use time outs when the Bengals were on their side of the field with 1:20 left in the half and they ran the ball.

Finally, there was the bizarre use of timeouts early in the 4th quarter that left the Bolts with only one late in the game.  PR got the ball back with 1:10 left to go in the game, 80 yards to a win, and no time outs.  Two plays into the last chance for a win; he forced a deep throw resulting in an INT.

Root causes of the loss:  Primarily coaching issues related to game management (uses of time outs) and play calling.  The Bengals defense played well in this game, which made going away from Gordon (who had been effective) even more questionable.

Week 3: Vikings 31-Bolts 14

In another road game against a quality team, the Chargers came out of it decimated by injuries in a one-sided war of attrition that blew the game open in the 3rd quarter.  The Bolts began the game with their projected starting five offensive linemen, which included RG DJ Fluker coming back probably too early from an ankle sprain.  By the time it was over, only Joe Barksdale had played the entire game.

The first half ended with the Vikings up 10-7, which certainly looked like a manageable situation on paper, but by that time the Bolts O-line had then become a patchwork of men playing out of position and in one case (Kenny Wiggins), the last guy on the depth chart being asked to take on Anthony Barr and Everson Griffen.  It didn't work.

In the 3rd quarter, the Vikings went up 24-7 on a one-play drive (43 yard TD run by Peterson) and a grinding 7+ minute drive that ate up most of the 3rd quarter.  The capper was PR, under severe pressure, throwing a Pick 6 to Chad Greenway for a 91-yard coast to coast romp in the first minute of the 4th quarter.

Root causes of the loss:  Injuries to the offensive line and the defense's inability to stop the run.

Week 5: Steelers 24-Bolts 20

This game, at home on Monday night against a team that was playing its back-up QB began a string of frustrating losses that doomed the Bolts' season to failure.  The team led or was tied with the Steelers for most of the game. Both squads were dealing with a significant injury; many of the starting linemen were still out for the Chargers.

With 3:30 left in the 3rd quarter, PR threw a pick 6 to give the Steelers their first lead of the game.   The team responded with a tying FG, a defensive 3 and out, and then a TD scoring drive to regain the lead at 17-10.  The lead lasted one play as Brandon Flowers blew his assignment on Marcus Wheaton, which resulted in a 76 yard TD catch and run.  The Bolts regained the lead on a pressure 54 yard FG by Josh Lambo.  The Steelers then had their best drive of the night as the Bolts played prevent defense.  They scored the winning TD on a 1 yard run off of left tackle as time expired.

Root causes of the loss:  Errors by Philip Rivers and Brandon Flowers.  It is worth noting that PR had a (mostly) spectacular night, throwing for 354 yards.  Inability to run the ball was certainly a contributing factor.

Next Installment:  Losses 4 through 9.