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The Mike McCoy Era, Defined (Part 2)

The dust has more than settled. Read what this writer has to say about the Charger’s last coach.

Kansas City Chiefs v San Diego Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

How does the saying go? In with a bang, and out with a whimper?

Guess I could just skip this whole series and leave you with those 15 words. It’s hard to believe that anything defines the Mike McCoy Era better.

Except for, well, the 2014 season. Because that sure as hell began with a bang, and left us all with nothing more than a whole lot of whimpers.

2014 NFL Draft Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Optimism was brewing in San Diego after a miraculous playoff run in Mike McCoy’s first year on the job. General Manager Tom Telesco had another offseason to reload and build on what seemed to be an improving squad.

Sure, a lot of luck went into the Bolts’ surprise appearance in the Divisional Round—most fans would have agreed at the time. Nevertheless, everything was in place, with no moving pieces whatsoever.

Except for one: the offensive coordinating position.

See, Frank Reich had been both a quarterback and quarterbacks coach in the league. But it was a tough ask to replace Ken Whisenhunt, who was shipping off to Tennessee after regaining his reputation as a quarterback whisperer by “fixing” Philip Rivers. Whiz helped McCoy morph the Chargers offense into the quick-hitting, hyper-efficient juggernaut that swept the league in 2013. Reich, on the other hand, had never progressed past being an offensive assistant.

Would this move be that detrimental to the Chargers’ success in the end? At the time, it sure looked like it. I’ll get back to that what if? when we review the 2016 season and Whisenhunt’s return.

Looking over Telesco’s offseason acquisitions, the marquee addition Brown? Or maybe you could make an argument for Kellen Clemens as the big name?

The big news was Donald Butler’s huge seven-year contract extension. It’s crazy to think about it now—especially after Miami picked him up on a one-year, $800k contract this past offseason—but Butler was a budding star going into 2014. In the prior season, Butler proved to be a playmaker, continuously showing up and absolutely dominating at points. Just take the playoff win against the Bengals as evidence, in which he led the defense with twelve tackles and a crucial forced fumble.

Long story short, Dean Spanos did not really open up the man-purse for this one. At all, really. I mean, I have no idea who cornerback Brandon Ghee is/was, but I do know he was not playing football in January of 2015.

Not that the Chargers were, either. But that’s besides the point.

At the time, Telesco’s draft haul looked to be a great one. The first three rounds brought three guys sure to be instant contributors in Jason Verrett, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Chris Watt. Even if Marion Grice and Tevin Reese were nothing more than camp bodies, and a fourth-round selection was nonexistent due to a classic draft-day trade, Ryan Carrethers anchored out the draft as a solid flier on Day 3.

Oh how wrong we all were. More on that at the end of the article.

Telesco’s best move of the offseason happened to come after the draft. On June 24, he scooped up former Chiefs’ cornerback Brandon Flowers on a one-year prove-it deal. For most Chargers fans, it was a good sign to see the young GM prioritizing a clear area of need between drafting Verrett and picking up Flowers.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Side note: it always amazes me how the Chargers made the playoffs in 2013 with Richard Marshall, Derek Cox, Shareece Wright, and Steve Williams rounding out the cornerback group. How they kept those games against the Broncos’ dominant offense close, I have no idea.

With a decent influx of talent added onto the roster, the Chargers prepared for another prime-time season opener. However, this year would differ from 2013, as it was capped on both ends with disappointing showings.

San Diego Chargers v Arizona Cardinals

Utter collapse.

That’s all you need to know about Chargers at Cardinals, the late game on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. The first half featured mostly offensive stalls on both sides, and while the Chargers started to pick it up in the second, a botched snap in the fourth took Rivers and the offense out of field goal range. The Cards proceeded to storm down the field and score, taking the game right out of the Bolts’ hands, 18-17.

I could talk about the team suffering another choke job with McCoy at the helm. I could mention how Pagano’s defense collapsed down the stretch, even letting Carson Palmer—Carson Palmer!—scramble for a first down.

Or, I could just leave you with this GIF that pretty much summed up the whole game.

Another day in the life of Philip Rivers.

Even worse, his longtime center and trusted friend Nick Hardwick left the game with a neck injury. Not only would this start a trend for the entire season, it would also prove to be the last time Rivers would ever take a snap from #61.

Nothing was going the Chargers’ way heading into their Week 2 tilt against what some were proclaiming the next Super Team. Fresh off of their dominant Super Bowl triumph, the Seattle Seahawks opened the 2014 season with a 36-16 drubbing of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Even with the game in San Diego, no one thought the Chargers could pull this one off.

Of course, the Bolts would go on to win, 30-21. Because, ya know, what’s more Chargers than that?

This game, for me, can be labelled the peak of the Mike McCoy era. He came up with a brilliant gameplan, controlling the time of possession 42:15 to 17:45 in a game with on-field temperatures reaching 115 °F. It also helped that Antonio Gates dialed it back, say ten years, attacking the Legion of Boom’s one weakness—the tight end position—to the tune of three touchdowns.

Fresh off the win, the Chargers traveled to Buffalo to take on a fast-starting Bills club. With Mathews shelved with an ankle injury sustained in Week 2, Danny Woodhead was set to receive the bulk of the carries. His season would end on his first run, just three-and-a-half minutes into the contest.

The Chargers would keep on chugging, though, outscoring the Bills 22-10. Two straight home games would result in two straight blowout wins, with the Chargers’ annual victory against the Jags coming in Week 4 and a 31-0 demolition against the Jets in Week 5. A close one in Oakland followed, concluding in fascinating fashion. Cornerback Jason Verrett intercepted then-rookie quarterback Derek Carr with just 1:13 left to play, sealing a 31-28 victory and establishing himself as a threat for years to come.

San Diego Chargers v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Heading into Week 7, the Chargers were flying high for the first time in a long time. At 5-1, pundits labeled the squad among the league’s best. Philip Rivers was having an MVP-caliber season in the eyes of many, riding a five-game streak of passer ratings above 120. The offense may have shifted from its quick-hitting, no-huddle perfection from 2013, but with Rivers tearing it up and the defense doing its job, why would McCoy ever look to change things up?

Nevertheless, to anyone looking closely, clear cracks were forming. A big part of the Chargers’ playoff run in ‘13 was how strong the running game performed down the stretch. With Mathews down and Woodhead out—along with ‘Dammit’ Donald Brown sidelined with a concussion—the number one back on the roster was Sproles-clone Branden Oliver. In his first start, Oliver ran 19 times for 114 yards and a touchdown in Week 5. He also caught 4 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown to cap off a dominant performance.

Sure, #43 looked good, especially after following up his big game against the Jets with 101 rushing yards in Oakland. But when your running backs are thinning, you better have a good offensive line to help get the job done, or else it’ll be a long season for the guy slinging the pigskin.

Philip Rivers would find that out all too well. By December, he’d be onto his fifth starting center in Trevor Robinson. And though he’d fill the role admirably, it was still too much to expect a guy from the Bengals practice squad to replace a Pro Bowler like Nick Hardwick in the Bolts’ attempt at a playoff push.

Besides, with guys like Johnnie Troutman, Chad Rinehart, and D.J. Fluker starting and stinking it up, something remained consistent: Tom Telesco had not put nearly enough emphasis on the offensive line in his two offseasons with the team. Two draft picks was not enough, especially when looking around the league and watching Demarco Murray lead the league in rushing yards behind the best line in football.

This was all too evident as the club came crashing back to Earth against a mediocre Kansas City team. Rivers was 17 of 31 for 205 yards and two touchdowns with a 83.4 rating, breaking his streak of games with 120 or higher; the Chargers' offense had season lows of 205 passing yards and 251 total yards. Rookie Cairo Santos knocked it through the uprights as time expired, and the Chiefs escaped Qualcomm with a 23-20 victory.

A visit to Mile High would not result in a glorious victory reminiscent of 2013’s Week 15 win. Pre-fall-off-a-cliff Peyton Manning connected with Emmanuel Sanders for three touchdowns, and the Donkeys ran away with a 35-21 win that never really felt close. Even worse, Jason Verrett, who to that point had had a very successful start to his young career, re-aggravated the shoulder injury that slid him down to the twenty-fifth pick in the first place. Several weeks later, he found himself sitting on IR. It did not look like things could get any worse as the Chargers prepped for a trip to South Beach.

37-0, Dolphins.

Otherwise known as the franchise’s most lopsided defeat since 1996.

San Diego Chargers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The Chargers all but limped into their bye week. Sitting at 5-4, they were right in the thick of the Wild Card race for the second year running. Regardless, with the way the team had fallen from grace so quickly, it would take another miracle to make the annual tournament.

Besides, at some point late in the season. Rivers suffered a bulging disc so bad he considered shutting down for the remainder of the year. With an ailing offensive line and a nonexistent running game, the Chargers depended on #17 to win them games even more. Only this time around, Rivers was actually physically unable to carry the team on his back.

But yet again, in typical Chargers fashion, the team started to make some noise in a final playoff push. A low-scoring outing against the Raiders in Week 11 and a too-close nail-biter against the Rams in Week 12 saw the Bolts at 7-4.

Seriously, that game was way too close. I mean, Shaun Hill was starting at QB for St. Louis. It took this Marcus Gilchrist interception at the Chargers’ own endzone to save both the game and John Pagano’s job.

A classic win in Baltimore coupled with another strong showing from a previously non-existent Keenan Allen had San Diegans thinking playoffs. At 8-4, with Ryan Mathews back toting the rock and Brandon Flowers balling out, who was to fault ‘em?

Insert insanely tough end to the season here. Hosting the two AFC powerhouses in the Pats and Broncos, then travelling to Santa Clara and KC? All the Chargers (most likely) needed was to go 2-2 in order to qualify, but even for a team on a three-game winning streak, this seemed to tall a task.

But it was December—or rather, ‘Philcember’. Rivers had dominated the last four games of the season throughout his entire career, so we as Chargers fans had some shred of hope to hold on to.

The Chargers contained the New England Patriots offense for a 1-point lead through three quarters before losing 23–14. The game was closer than the score indicated, as Tom Brady connected with Julian Edelman for a 69-yard touchdown late in the contest. Nonetheless, this was the Pats, and the Chargers took the loss and moved on to the next one.

New England Patriots vs San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

On came the Broncos. Peyton Manning had slowed down immensely as the season progressed, but the Denver defense was starting to become the fearsome unit that would take over in 2015. Manning left the game during the second quarter—the injury that would effectively end his career—but a poor showing by the Chargers offense meant the Bolts never had a chance.

These were the two games the Chargers were supposed to lose. That was okay. What was unfortunate were season-ending injuries to Ryan Mathews in Week 14 and Keenan Allen in Week 15. As evidenced in both of those games, Rivers could try as hard as he could, but the offense would never run to its full potential without Allen and Mathews.

The Niners, however, were a trainwreck. Jim Harbaugh’s departure was imminent, and as the team’s play started to slouch, people began realizing how terrible of an owner Jed York is.

Naturally, it took a 21-point comeback and an overtime win for the Chargers to walk out of Santa Clara with a win.

Bulging disc be damned, Philip Rivers threw 54 passes and converted three fourth downs in a special showing. Credit Mike McCoy, too, for keeping spirits up even when the chips were down. The game ball, however, would have to go to Eric Weddle, as he showed up all game and forced an extremely clutch fumble when the Niners were driving in overtime.

At 9-6, all the Chargers had to do was win, and they were in. Now, I never actively root for injuries, but the prospect of playing a Chiefs team without Alex Smith or Jamaal Charles was tantalizing. Luckily, the pair came back healthy the following season. Unluckily, their absence did not matter in the end.

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Seven sacks and “Chase Daniel can be a starting QB in this league!” later, the Chargers were done. San Diego was never in it, losing to Daniel and letting Justin Houston come within half a sack of the single-season record.

In the end, the Chargers horrendous offensive line would do them in. Even if having Mathews and Allen healthy could have put them over the top for the one game, how the hell could this team have won in the playoffs if they could not protect the quarterback?

After dealing with the back injury and being sacked for the most times in his career, Rivers came out and said he almost retired after that fateful Chiefs game. Who could blame him? When your team chokes away a trip to the playoffs, it’s a tough ask to come back to work the next day.

In gauging the team’s success, it’s tough to analyze the impact of the head coach when taking into account injuries, sloppy play, and dumb luck. During the 2014 season, we saw a heck of a lot of all three.

Whether the running game’s terribleness fell on the shoulders of Tom Telesco or McCoy is up for debate. However, as Telesco moved away from AJ Smith’s depleted roster, I think the general talent on the team started to increase. But a strong running game was what, in the end, saved the 2013 team and killed the 2014 team.

One thing was clear, though: a massive increase in talent on the offensive line was needed. Rivers was never a Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers; he was always a pocket quarterback, and he needed a pocket in order to work his magic.

Miami Dolphins v San Diego Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It was nice to see Eric Weddle dominate and Brandon Flowers stage a comeback, but overall, the defense lacked talent. Luckily, Telesco has started to address this side of the ball, and the team may be one or two pieces away from having a top unit.

To conclude: the 2014 Chargers team, again, overachieved. Credit Mike McCoy for that.

However, he never did figure out the running game, something that should have been easy for an ‘offensive mind’ of his caliber. McCoy’s team won some key close games, like the Ravens and 49ers games, but lost too many important ones, such as the opener against the Cards and the horrendous game in Kansas City.

Yes, the team started five centers. Injuries abounded for a team that, year after year, needed everything to go right.

But the bottom line in the NFL is that as a head coach, you gotta win with whoever you put out on the field. And the 2014 season was just the first sign of how inadequate McCoy was at the job.

I’ll be back with Part 3 soon!