The simple answer is yes.
After the start to the 2017 season, they must have some sort of hex placed on them. At this point, it feels as if Ebeneezer Scrooge Spanos will forever be haunted by the Ghost of San Diego’s past. But in all seriousness, what else could explain the team going 2-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less since the 2016 season? Could it be Philip Rivers’ battle against father time, or possibly the team's bad stroke of roster depleting injuries? While Philip led the NFL in interceptions last season and may be off to a worse start, it is clear he produces more positive plays than negative for a Chargers team that would struggle for a first down without an above average quarterback. And while injuries have forced practice squad players like Griff Whalen into starting roles before, a quick dive into analytics shows a Charger’s squad that has been at worst average in efficiency grades for the offense and defense.
Football Outsiders, a well-known football analytics company, created an efficiency metric for evaluating teams and individual players. Defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) considers not just yardage but the situation, home field advantage, down and distance and many other factors to give each play a grade. An eight-yard run, for example, is generally a very positive play. However, an eight-yard run on 3rd and fifteen would be graded significantly worse than the same run on 3rd and five, due to the resulting first down gained. A final value of 3.2%, for example, implies that the player performed 3.2% better than an NFL average player would have in the same situation. A more detailed explanation can be read here.
When looking at the DVOA for the Los Angeles Chargers over the past two seasons, it tells a completely different story than their overall record. In 2016, the Chargers offense-even after a barrage of injuries- ranked 18th in DVOA. While slightly below average, their ranking at least displays competency and the ability to move the football, (13th in the league with 356.8 yards per game) as well as the ability to put up points (8th in the league with 25.6 points per game). The defense fared even better, placing 7th in efficiency despite experiencing season-ending injuries of its own to Jason Verrett and Brandon Mebane, as well as countless significant injuries to others. Through five games in 2017, albeit it is a small sample size, the Chargers ranked 16th on offense and 15th on defense, while losing three games already by three points or less.
When football games are close, it is often the little things that count. The yards that don’t affect your fantasy football matchup, or appear very significant at all. That is where we look the not-so-supernatural curse right in the eye:
Tom Telesco Special Teams.
In the Special Teams DVOA chart below, each Special Teams category is broken down into its own grade:
Currently, in 2017, the Chargers sit in 30th place, with a whopping -10.4%.
While the field goal team is starting 2017 where Roberto Aguayo left off, missing three of the team’s first four kicks and both potential game tying/winning attempts in the final seconds, it doesn’t tell the entire story. The Chargers have had three different starting kickers since preseason and looking back at the 2016 season, we get a clearer picture of the continued incompetence from the Special Teams Unit.
In 2016, the Chargers ranked 29th in the league with a Special Team’s DVOA of -4.8%.
Through the past two seasons, only one team (Arizona) has had a worse combined Special Teams DVOA than the Chargers, while they too have produced an underwhelming record since 2016. No other NFL teams are even particularly close. While making 81.3% of their field goals in 2016 (22nd in the NFL), the Chargers performed just slightly below the league average of 84.2%. Overall, the Chargers ranked 27th in Average Punt return yards, 30th in Average Kickoff Return yards, and 24th in Extra Point percentage. The only area of Special Teams where the Chargers performed above average is in punting, where they ranked 9th in Average yards per punt. According to DVOA, however, the Chargers performed significantly below average in all four areas.
The Chargers consistently gave up yards and points due to poor Special Teams play throughout 2016 and into 2017. While it is arguable that it directly caused the Chargers to lose, what it does prove is that the Special Teams Unit didn’t help the Chargers win. Curse or no curse, the Chargers could probably change their fortunes significantly by improving in all areas of Special Teams.