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The Mike McCoy Era, Defined (Part 1)

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

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The body of work someone produces is not what we usually remember about that person. Rather, it’s the story-line created about them, and thus the societal acceptance in subscribing to said narrative.

Politicians, scientists, celebrities—we see it in our media coverage on a daily basis. But no one gets characterized by talking heads as much as professional athletes, along with the guys who work within the sport.

LeBron James gets elbowed in the back, goes down, and proceeds to gets humiliated by detractors and haters alike. They point to instances of LeBron flopping, calling him ‘LeFlop’, the ‘Queen’, and much, much worse.

In other words, if you were not aware due to living under a rock for the last 25 years, the Internet can be a cruel place.

I wonder how many people actively follow all of the good LeBron does. Like this. Or this. Even his most infamous decision, The Decision, originated out of a desire to donate money to the Boys and Girls Club.

Besides, I find it hard to belittle The King when you’ve read up on his path to the NBA. The dude came from the worst of circumstances and has shot a straight path ever since.

Pun intended, of course.

How often do we stop and really think about the nitty-gritty and review a guy’s career under a true microscope? Very rarely, I would argue. We’re much more comfortable sliding into the well-worn narrative because we’re...well, lazy. I do it. You do it. We all do it.

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

So, that brings us to Mr. McCoy. I’ve read, heard, and watched everything there is to read, hear, and watch about Mike. Some say he was the worst coach of all time; others point to injuries. Some say he was nothing more than a more conservative reincarnation of Norv Turner; others say Philip Rivers was the true root of the problem.

I do not think it’s fair to send McCoy off to Denver without properly reviewing his tenure with the team. In doing so, I will most likely create a storyline of my own. Nevertheless, I’ll try my hardest to give objective facts along with my own personal commentary as we wind through four years of Milquetoast Mike.

It’s your choice, as the reader, to accept what you want to accept. Take my word as gospel truth, or completely brush it off on the way to labeling me as nothing more than a nincompoop. Intelligent commentary is, as always, encouraged in the comment sections. However, if you log on just to hate—good for you! I’m just here because I find writing about football to be incredibly fun. I wouldn’t, of course, want to infringe on your own personal version of having ‘fun’.

With that being said, let’s get right into it!

The End of an Era and the Beginning of a New One (2013-2014)

San Diego Chargers Mini Camp Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

We all love to remember the crazy end to the AJ Smith regime, but it’s easy to forget the unparalleled genius of the former general manager for the Bolts. The teams Smith crafted in the mid-2000’s were among the best in the league, with the 2006 team shining as his brightest beacon.

Many will remember LT’s record-setting season on his way to winning the MVP award. Even more will talk about Marlon McCree’s interception and fumble, the final nail in the coffin for a team that finished as the best team in the league. However, the thing I always found astounding about the ‘06 roster is the impressive amount of sheer talent.

Jacksonville Jaguars v San Diego Chargers Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Eleven guys from that team made the Pro Bowl, including QB Philip Rivers (who did not play due to a foot injury), RB LaDainian Tomlinson, K Nate Kaeding, OLB Shawne Merriman, T Jamal Williams, OC Nick Hardwick, FB Lorenzo Neal, ST Kassim Osgood, TE Antonio Gates, LT Marcus McNeil, and LS David Binn.

Yup, even the Long Snapper made it. That’s how much AJ Smith was knocking it out of the park.

It’s easy to see why the Spanos family decided to side with Smith when he came to blows with coach Marty Schottenheimer. The GM was contributing directly to the success of the franchise, while ‘Martyball’ detractors had all of the ammo in the world once the final whistle blew in 2007.

The Chargers decided to go with offensive guru Norv Turner in a decision many saw as Smith getting a guy who would be nothing more than a yes-man. The rest is history—the Chargers wasted the primes of three future Hall-of-Famers in LT, Gates, and Rivers, and the talent on the roster vastly depleted due to a combination of bad drafting and terrible free agent negotiating.

With bust after bust and nothing more than a string of mediocre records to show for it, Smith saved neither his nor Norv’s job. They were both fired on December 31, 2012.

The Chargers decided to all but clean house, with defensive coordinator John Pagano among just two coaches not shown the door. The two guys the team picked to run the show would spend the next four years working together.

Establishing himself as a scout in the ‘90s and proceeding to work his way up through the Colts organization, Tom Telesco was a hot commodity. Bill Polian’s self-proclaimed understudy, Telesco took his first position as General Manager in the 2013 offseason when he was hired to run the Chargers.

Reports differ on whether Telesco had any input on the McCoy hire. The betting man would have pegged Bruce Arians as the front-runner due to his Colts ties with Telesco. However, McCoy reportedly wowed Dean Spanos in a meeting with his strong vision for the future of the franchise.

What was it about Mike that made him a household name that offseason? Well, the man had lived and breathed football for quite some time. McCoy bounced around both the NFL and CFL until he turned to coaching. The Panthers hired him, and McCoy maintained various offensive coaching positions with the club for eight years.

In 2009, the Denver Broncos signed McCoy away to be their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Kyle Orton, then the QB for Denver, enjoyed a career year under McCoy, posting his best stats in pretty much every passing category. The following year, the Broncos passing attack ranked seventh in the NFL, and Orton ranked fourth in the league in passing yards per game.

The main calling card for McCoy’s legitimacy as a coaching candidate stems from the 2011 Denver team. Mike was credited with revamping the Broncos offense in 2011 to accommodate Tim Tebow's skill-set, and the Broncos led the NFL in rushing. The former Florida Gator even led the team to an AFC Divisional Round match-up with the hated New England Patriots, all thanks to McCoy—according to some, that is. With a year of Peyton Manning to pad his resume, Mike McCoy was able to land interviews with the Bears, Eagles, Cardinals, Bills, and Chargers. We all know what happened next.

K.C. Alfred

It’s important to remember the dynamic between Telesco and McCoy, as they both came in the same year. I’ll come back to that when I discuss this past offseason.

So, the pair come in and instantly ‘invigorated’ Dean Spanos and the Chargers, according to the article—written by Acee—linked above. McCoy and Telesco were two of the youngest to ever hold their respective positions; the new leadership promptly promised a youth movement, focusing on the draft to cut down on veterans. If one looks at the roster now compared to the roster then, the number has gone down from the 26’s to the 25’s, placing the squad as one of the ten youngest teams in the league.

At least the Telesco-McCoy era amounted to something.

Regardless, Telesco was working with the #11 pick due to a 7-9 finish the year prior. He selected Keenan Allen, along with a bunch of guys no longer on the roster, most notably D.J. Fluker and Manti Te’o.

Did McCoy really have that much to work with going into the season? I would go so far as to say no. Not at all.

The big names on the defensive side of the ball not named Weddle were two linebackers way past their prime: Dwight Freeney and Jarrett Johnson. The offense still had Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers running the show, but the line was running on fumes, Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd were the starting receivers, and Ryan Mathews had performed like he was some china in a bull shop.

Danny Woodhead would serve to be an incredibly underrated free agent acquisition, but you won’t hear me beat around the bush. This team flat-out stunk. Smith had left nothing more than bread crumbs in his final push to ensure Rivers and Gates never saw the Big Game.

Don’t forget, too, that Philip Rivers was coming off the worst season of his entire career, leading the league in turnovers and looking like a shell of his former self. McCoy had a big job to do, swinging around the trajectory of a quarterback many thought to be all but finished.

Enter Ken Whisenhunt. The former coach of the Cardinals signed on to be the offensive coordinator for the Chargers, and together with McCoy, they inserted a fast-paced, no-huddle scheme that featured more quick runs and screens than previously seen under Norv Turner’s vertical passing system. The staff decided that Rivers needed to release the ball quicker, as well as focus on taking what opposing defenses conceded more often. With a new flavor of offense flowing through Chargers Park, the team was poised to put a pretty decent amount of points on the board.

What followed was nothing short of a season to remember.

Houston Texans v San Diego Chargers

In my opinion, the first game of Mike McCoy’s head coaching career really defined his whole run with the Chargers. Flashes of know-how, but altogether lots and lots of struggles when it came to in-game management.

Before we start off, though, I would just like to say that 2013 is the most nostalgic season of my Chargers fandom. I’ve associated myself with the team ever since I was an eight-year-old living in Ventura County in 2006, the year I got my navy blue #17 jersey.

However, I never watched football consistently until 2013, when I consciously decided to keep up with the team on a daily basis. Therefore, the miracle playoff run and one particular play (which I’ll come back to later) will always stand out in my mind as defining moments of my fandom.

Not to say the season started off on a good note. As they hosted Houston, the Bolts scampered out to a three-touchdown lead on Monday Night Football, and they held strong for most of the game, up 28-7 with just over a quarter left to play. San Diego’s fans got a glimpse of McCoy’s inventive new offense, with Mathews, Eddie Royal, and Vincent Brown pooling together to catch all four of Rivers’ touchdown tosses.

It all fell apart, though, as Brian Cushing returned an interception 18 yards for the tying touchdown with 9:30 left to play in the game. Both teams stalled, but in the end, Randy Bullock knocked in a 41-yard field goal as time expired to conclude a furious comeback by the Texans.

The game left a bitter taste in the collective mouths of most Chargers fans, reminiscent of the 24-point collapse against the Broncos the year prior. In with the old, out with the new was the general sentiment regarding McCoy’s team.

But the season does not end in Week 1—unless you’re the Browns, of course. The Chargers traveled to The City of Brotherly Love in Week 2 to take on the Eagles and new head coach Chip Kelly. It’s hard to remember his talent after seeing the aged shell presented the last several years, but Michael Vick was just as electric as he’d ever been when the Chargers came to town. What followed was a high-scoring affair in which Rivers and Vick combined for 847 yards, and the Bolts came out on top, 33-30.

Chargers fans had gotten back something they had forgotten existed since LT skipped town: excitement. Philip Rivers looked like he was back to being the elite quarterback he’d always been, and the team gave off an overall air of confidence.

Better yet, the Bolts had an obscure stat on their side. Since 2009, the team that the Eagles had faced in their home opener went on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Believe me, I cited that statistic quite a few times. Whenever someone questioned my guarantee that the Chargers would win it all, I knew what to turn to.

San Diego Chargers  v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

But the Chargers would stall as their road trip continued to Nashville. A game that was all but won with less than a minute to play ended with a 34-yard touchdown pass to rookie Justin Hunter, sealing another choke job by the Bolts. More surprising than that being Hunter’s first NFL reception was the guy out-dueling Rivers: Jake Locker. The former first-round pick exposed a very suspect defense on his way to a career day, tossing for 299 yards and a touchdown as well as adding 68 and a score on the ground. This game was neither a good look for McCoy or his defensive coordinator, John Pagano, and certainly did not build off of the positive showing in Philly.

Nevertheless, the next several games would start a maddening trend of inconsistency that became a staple of the Mike McCoy era. Rivers went 35/42 for 401 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 4 win over the ‘Boys, only to travel to Oakland the next week and fall 27-17. Danny Woodhead led the team with 17 yards rushing—17!—and Ryan Mathews was nowhere to be found.

One positive, though, was the appearance of a new receiver, #13, trucking his way into the end zone. And nothing would establish Keenan Allen as a legitimate NFL receiver more than a Week 6 tilt against the Colts on Monday Night Football.

Indianapolis Colts v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Not that it was a high-scoring affair. But Allen made several highlight-reel plays on national television, including a diving touchdown snag to put the Chargers up early. Mathews finally started to get going, too, rushing for 102 yards on 22 carries.

The Chargers led the whole way, winning handily by a score of 19-9. To many tuning in, this was all the proof they needed to pronounce the Chargers as a franchise in the right direction, as the Colts were seen as a legitimate playoff contender.

What followed was the Chargers’ annual beatdown of the Jaguars. With a good deal of confidence—and rest, coming off a Week 8 bye week—the team traveled on to Washington to face a sub-par Redskins club. And here lies the game many point to when assessing the work of McCoy and his two main coordinators.

The game went back and forth the whole way, but with 6:59 left, the Bolts found themselves down 24-14. A heavy dose of Keenan Allen—including a beautiful stutter-step that shook cornerback David Amerson out of his boots—lowered the deficit to just three points. With a gritty stop and some gun-slinging by Phil, the Chargers were in the red zone with under a minute to play, a game-winning touchdown certainly in the realm of possibility.

But Ken Whisenhunt would gain his reputation as a master between the 20’s and a dud near pay-dirt on this infamous sequence. On the one-yard line, first down featured an HB dive by...Danny Woodhead. Second down was a fade to a 33-year-old Antonio Gates, and third down saw Rivers roll to the right and throw it nowhere near Keenan Allen’s outstretched hands.

The rest is history. Nick Novak hit the game-tying field goal, and the Redskins marched down the field in overtime to score a touchdown and take the dub.

The Chargers would go on to host the hottest team in the league, the Manning-led Denver Broncos. And they played them close, holding the best statistical offense of all time to a mere 28 points in what amounted to a one-score defeat. But a visit to South Beach and a disappointing loss to a mediocre Dolphins team, led by rookie Ryan Tannehill, saw the Chargers skid to a record of 4-6.

The roster was not talented, sure, but the promise of a new, winning culture was oh-so-tantalizing for a fanbase looking to return to the playoffs after three long years. And what would happen next would result in some of the fondest memories for Bolts fans of all ages.

Well, for me at least. As I said, 2013 is the most nostalgic season of my Chargers fandom.

A crazy game at Arrowhead ended in victory, as Seyi Ajiroutu caught the game-winning touchdown to top the Chiefs 41-38. Though the Chargers would depart Cincinnati with a loss in Week 13, something was clear. This team could play with anyone, and they were not done just yet.

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

The Bolts needed four wins in a row to give them any hope of playing football into January. Routs of the Giants and Raiders, along with close wins against the Broncos and Chiefs, found them in the thick of the playoff run, ultimately coming out on top to secure the sixth seed in the AFC.

What I’ll always remember, though, is that Week 15 upset in Denver. I think I’ve watched the highlights more times than I can count.

This game was the peak of Mike McCoy’s stint as the head coach of the San Diego Chargers. Expertly game-planned, from Eric Weddle shadowing Julius Thomas the whole night to the Chargers offense keeping Peyton Manning off of the field for more than 39 minutes, the Bolts finally discovered an identity under McCoy. They would make up for a clear lacking on the defensive side of the ball by milking the clock for an entire game. And when Ryan Mathews is rushing for 1,295 yards and Philip Rivers is tossing 32 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, you better believe that game-plan will work.

Oh year, remember that one play I was talking about? The one that still sticks out in my mind, four years later?

Sorry for the poor quality, but I’m sure you salivate just as much as me when watching this thing of beauty. The cherry on top of a Rookie of the Year candidacy, Allen absolutely toasted the Broncos in the three games they played each other that season.

Actually, he always seems to toast the Donkeys when the teams butt heads. In four full starts against Denver, he’s recorded 21 receptions for 285 yards and 5 touchdowns.

But yeah, enough about #13. If you want to read about how much I like to watch Allen, just read this or this.

The Chargers traveled to Cincinnati again. This time, though, one crucial factor was different: the time of year. Because, of course, we all know how Marvin Lewis loves to choke in the playoffs.

Poor guy. He does everything that you want from a coach, and yet he just cannot find success after New Year’s Day. Chalk him up with Andy Reid and Marty Schottenheimer as the coaches I sympathize with the most.

The win was impressive by Mike McCoy and his crew, no doubt about it. The next stop, however, would be a little tougher and a whole lot higher—a mile high, that is. The Chargers took on the future Super Bowl embarrassment Denver Broncos and fielded a valiant comeback effort that ended up falling short. Nonetheless, McCoy seemingly exceeded expectations in his debut season, looking to build on a divisional round appearance in the coming years.

For the first time in a long time, the Bolts had a glimmer of hope.

Divisional Playoffs - San Diego Chargers v Denver Broncos

I’m gonna try to wrap up each article in this series with my thoughts in hindsight regarding the specific season. For this one, in particular, I’ll try to keep it short, as 3,000+ words more or less got my sentiment across in regards to the 2013 season.

Looking back on it, that playoff loss was tough. The Chargers and Philip Rivers looked flat for the majority of the game, only to show their offensive firepower as the game drew to a close. As the saying goes, too little, too late.

Many people point to Ken Whisenhunt’s plethora of job interviews in the week leading up to the divisional round as a clear lacking in preparation. I contend this point, however, by arguing that the Chargers should have never been in this spot in the first place.

I mean, they defied all odds to make the playoffs, even getting the benefit of the doubt from Week 17’s referees to beat out the Steelers for the last spot. More importantly, the Dolphins and Ravens both choked on their way to missing out on the tournament, as both had the inside track to securing the Wild Card and blew it.

And yet, the Chargers were one Julius Thomas toe-tap catch away from getting a chance to tie it up and extend their season. This leads me to characterize the 2013 Chargers as a group of massive overachievers, as I believe the roster has amassed much more talent in recent years and still underperformed.

Where does McCoy stand in all of this? Well, I think an examination of this season reveals my over-arching thesis of the guy—he’s a great NFL coach for six days of the week, with the one that matters being the only exception. I’ll address this idea more in the coming weeks.

In conclusion, Mike McCoy brought a new system to town and ‘fixed’ Philip Rivers, guiding him to win the AP Comeback Player of the Year. McCoy also fostered a strong running game with an inconsistent back and a leaky O-Line, along with masking an absolutely horrendous defense for an entire season. He had the know-how to feature the clearly-talented Keenan Allen, and fortunately for him, luck always seemed to find its way into San Diego in 2013. Mike showed a lot of promise for a first-year guy, and if he ironed out some kinks in his approach, the sky seemed to be the limit for a promising Chargers roster.

Or, as Michael Jordan would put it, the ceiling was the roof.

You can expect Part 2 to be out sometime in the near future!