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The Mike McCoy Era, Defined (Part 3)

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

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

This four-part series takes a look back at the rollercoaster ride Mike McCoy’s tenure as head coach of the Chargers proved to be. You can read Part 1 and 2 here and here.

It’s been over two months since I last penned my thoughts on The Mike McCoy Era.

You can attribute the delay to a whole mess of things. Like everyone else, I got caught up in the excitement of the draft. For those counting at home, yes, I do feel as if Tom Telesco knocked it out of the park.

Also, I’ve been working pretty hard on developing my own personal blog about sports, entertainment, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Sorry to plug UNPLUGGED, but if you’re a fan of editorial-style writing, be sure to check out some of the content!

Anyway, on to McCoy. We last left off with the definition of disappointment, blowing 5-1 and 8-4 marks at various points in the season in finishing 9-7 and missing out on the playoffs in 2014. The last game in Kansas City saw Justin Houston and the Chiefs defense having a field day, sacking Philip Rivers eight times and leaving him on the brink of retirement.

But hope springs eternal. McCoy posted two winning records in his first two years on the job, and many a media outlet published “The Chargers are a sleeper team” articles. Sports Illustrated even ran a “bold predictions” article stating that the Chargers would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Looking back on That’s just straight-up embarrassing on SI’s part.

In conclusion, though, heading into 2015, the Chargers were a wild-card team in every sense of the term.

NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Pretty much everything remained consistent in the 2015 offseason. One tiny little inconvenience refused to go away, however, sticking around in the back of the sporting world’s collective heads.

Would the Bolts beat the Raiders and the Rams in dashing up the coast to Los Angeles? That was the multi-billion dollar question, and it stunk for the Chargers and their faithful unlike to be shrouded in the cloud of uncertainty.

Of course, crafting a roster sure doesn’t stop and go when controversy strikes, and Telesco finally had some room to work with. The big-ticket free agent of the offseason was stellar offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, a former member of the Broncos.

Most saw this as a fantastic pickup by Telesco. Franklin was a budding star at the prime age of 27, and he had been maddeningly consistent throughout his first four years in the league. By re-upping King Dunlap, along with signing Joe Barksdale, the Chargers were finally starting to show that they were cognizant of their horrific line play.

Brandon Flowers also earned a well-deserved contract after a stellar comeback season in 2014. A tandem of Flowers and Verrett was oh-so-tantalizing; by adding Patrick Robinson to a secondary already bolstered by the best safety in football, the unit that was once the Achilles heel of the team was on the rise. Also, with the addition of Stevie Johnson, Rivers would have plenty of targets to throw to.

The draft proved to be an interesting one. The Bolts infamously traded up to select Melvin Gordon with the fifteenth pick, giving up not only Telesco’s signature fourth-rounder, but also a fifth-rounder the following year. If—in the mind of TT—Gordon was such a dynamic playmaker coming out of Wisconsin that he warranted a premium pick, I get it. But strapping a talent-needy team just to move up two spots, especially when supposed competition for Melvin consisted of draft-day whispers? Even two years later, this move seems questionable, at the very least.

After two years, the jury is still out on this draft class. Thus far, Denzel Perryman has proven to be a capable starter in the middle of the defense, but third-rounder Craig Mager seems to be anything but. Even if Telesco had minimal picks to work with (by his own doing), the GM did round out the group with solid depth in Kyle Emanuel and Darius Philon.

Again, the talent level on the team was almost certainly increasing. The hype surrounding Keenan Allen and Jason Verrett during the offseason had many thinking the duo could become the next Chargers stars; with the excruciatingly painful end to the prior season, playoffs were the expectation among the Bolts’ faithful.

Oh, how wrong we were.

Detroit Lions v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

After two straight years of choking away a surefire victory, Mike McCoy finally saw the role reversed in a Week 1 tilt against the Lions. The first home contest meant the Bolts were rocking their White Hot Sunday kits, and the moniker fit, especially in a second half where the team overcame an eleven-point deficit to win it, 33-28.

These were not your average McCoy-led Chargers—or so we enthusiastically proclaimed. Conquering a solid team like the Lions was a convincing win, and key cogs such as Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, Ladarius Green, and Eric Weddle all pitched in. Rookies Melvin Gordon and Kyle Emanuel shined in their first time stepping on an NFL field, and everything was pointing up for the Bolts.

A Week 2 trip to Cincinnati left the Chargers at 1-1. Nonetheless, this was the regular season (when the Bengals are actually good), and a close loss to a superior team was nothing to be ashamed of. Week 3 was a different story altogether. Playing at Minnesota, the Vikings defensive line—featuring studs Linval Joesph and Everson Griffen—absolutely dominated the Chargers offensive line. Adrian Peterson would rush for 126 yards on 20 attempts, including a 43-yard touchdown early in the third quarter on a play in which he trucked Eric Weddle, among others. The Chargers would never lead during the game, and a 91-yard interception return by Chad Greenway would seal the deal.

The best way to rebound from two tough losses is to, of course, host the Browns. And yet, McCoy’s Chargers escaped with a last-second victory, as then-rookie Josh Lambo missed a 39-yarder that got called back due to a Cleveland defender being offsides. Lambo would hit the subsequent try; still, for a team with playoff aspirations, playing the Browns that close was nothing short of sad.

Luck would be on the Bolts’ side, though, for their Monday Night showdown against the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger was banged up as per usual, and a washed-up Michael Vick would be starting in his place.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Diego Chargers Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The return of Antonio Gates saw the Chargers sprint out of the gate to an early lead, but the Steelers kept within striking distance the whole way. By the end of the game, that same Vick led the offense on a completely embarrassing two-minute drill, capped off by Le’Veon Bell taking a direct snap and dragging Donald Butler into the end zone as time expired.

This game against the Steelers marked the turning point of the Mike McCoy Era for a multitude of reasons. The Chargers wouldn’t sniff .500 for the rest of the season, mainly due to their inability to win close games. And though the growing trend of opposing fans taking over Qualcomm did not commence overnight, never had it been in the public eye to the same degree as it was after Week 5.

Everyone knew the Chargers were looking to bolt to L.A., but articles like this convinced the casual sports fan that San Diego was a crappy sports town undeserving to keep a football franchise. This would kick off two years of distractions, in which the primary focus revolving around the team was not how they were playing but where they were playing.

But football doesn’t just stop, and the Bolts moved on to play in a seemingly unwinnable game in Green Bay. Rivers would infamously become the first quarterback to throw for 500 yards and lose a football game, and the downward spiral had truly begun. Week 7 garnered an even uglier showing, with the Chargers trailing the Raiders 37-6 for most of the tilt before Oakland went into an extremely passive defense for the entire fourth quarter.

The slide would continue in Baltimore. A very winnable game against the 1-6 Ravens would not end in the same positive fashion as it had the year prior, as Justin Tucker nailed the game-winning field goal right at the end. Unfortunately for the Chargers, Keenan Allen’s seven-game stretch of brilliance would come to a close when the third-year receiver made a miraculous touchdown grab towards the end of the first half and lacerated his kidney.

Surprisingly, the Chargers would play another primetime game, hosting the Bears on Monday Night Football. Unsurprisingly, the team blew a lead they held for most of the contest, getting outscored 15-3 in the fourth quarter by a guy who’s no longer in the league. The throwback uniforms could not save the Bolts in Week 11, either, when the red-hot Chiefs came to town and trounced the Powder Blues 33-3. This game was the first time the Chargers failed to score a touchdown since 2012.

San Diego finally ended the streak when they got their annual win against the Jaguars, but the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos and their vaunted defense would stifle the Bolts, 17-3. A borderline unwatchable game in Kansas City would end with the ball bouncing off Danny Woodhead’s chest in the end zone. With a score of 10-3, this would mark the third time in four weeks that the Chargers were unable to hit paydirt.

A feel-good win against the Dolphins was much needed in Week 15, as many believed it to be the last time the club would lace up in San Diego. Still, the Chargers would stay at four wins for the remainder of the season, dropping a Christmas Eve overtime tilt in Oakland and staging a last-gasp upset bid against the top-seeded Broncos.

After two straight winning seasons, the Chargers had posted a dismal 4-12 record, tied for the third-worst mark in the entire NFL.

Denver Broncos v San Diego Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The team had been selling the notion of steady improvement over McCoy and Telesco’s first two seasons at the helm, but something was clearly wrong within the Chargers’ culture.

In other words, to this day, I still have a lot of problems with the 2015 San Diego Chargers.

As always, health was a reason and not an excuse. Though I feel like I both read and write the aforementioned phrase way too often as a Chargers fan, it’s tough to win when you trot out 24 different offensive line combinations—not that any of those groups really balled out, but you get the point. The team averaged 3.46 yards on the ground; when your QB considers retiring in the previous offseason due to rib and back injuries, it’s inexcusable for the running game to be so poor that he throws 63% of the time.

Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Melvin Gordon didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his rookie season. Along the way to recording just 641 yards on 184 carries—along with a touchdown-to-fumble ratio of 0:6—Gordon looked lost and, for the most part, out of sync. From time to time, he showed flashes reminiscent of his days as a Badger, but the first-year player’s campaign could not be characterized as anything other than disappointing.

So, an electric sophomore season from Gordon begs the question: who can be faulted for his lost rookie season? Did he improve as a runner tremendously this past offseason once he got his first glimpse of NFL action? Was it a product of a terrible offensive line? Or was it a deeper problem, one that ran to the coaches’ offices?

I think it’s a mix of all three, but in the end, the blame falls squarely on the coaching staff. I do think Melvin worked on his craft after getting his feet wet—that’s why he looked so good this season, even though the line did not get better in the slightest. And though I’ve expressed my thoughts on Frank Reich’s clear lacking in coordinating aptitude, I still believe the head coach was the one holding Gordon back. Even with Gordon putting the ball on the ground so often, in sitting him, McCoy essentially killed the rookie’s confidence. Eric D. Williams from ESPN put in best when he published a piece in December of 2015 titled “Mike McCoy mishandling development of RB Melvin Gordon”:

Who is McCoy kidding? The Chargers are 3-9 and going nowhere. Gordon has to get better. And the only way to do that is with more playing time, not less.

The Chargers drafted a workhorse running back but choose to use him as a role player in a pass-first scheme. Gordon was never allowed to get into a rhythm during the game because his carries are too sporadic, so we never get a chance to see what the rookie can do if the coach loosened the reins and let him carry the load for a full game.

San Diego Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Gordon’s bust of a year wasn’t the only well-publicized debacle, either. The stadium dilemma, mentioned earlier, was a clear cloud forming above the collective heads of both the Chargers and their fans alike, but it’s easy to forget the way in which the team said goodbye to a franchise stalwart.

I won’t go into too much detail about the Eric Weddle drama, as I think this blog covered the topic to death. And though I do think the team was correct in not matching what was rumored to be absurd demands from Weddle’s camp, they suffered a ton of bad press from it nonetheless. Articles like this one from B/R certainly do not portray Coach McCoy in the best of lights.

Two positives did come out of the 2015 season, however: Keenan Allen and Jason Verrett both balled out. Allen was on pace to record a season for the ages before the kidney injury in Week 8, racking up 67 receptions for 725 yards and four touchdowns in just seven full games (he missed the second halves of both the Packers and Ravens games). Verrett, on the other hand, gained many a fan in making a statement as the next true lockdown corner, garnering attention from the likes of analysts everywhere. PFF’s Nathan Jahnke had this to say about Verrett in an article he wrote prior to the 2016 season:

Verrett will be celebrating his 25th birthday in a few days, and has a decent chance to at least keep playing at the same level he’s been performing at. Elite cornerbacks like Josh Norman, Richard Sherman, and Darrelle Revis have all reached the age of 28. While there is a chance they could improve, the more likely option is that they will take a step back, which would widen the gap between Verrett and others.

In most years, the top outside cornerback finds his way into the top-10 players of the previous year. Come February, when we revisit the 2016 season, as long as Verrett can stay healthy, odds are that he will be the best of the outside cornerback group.

It sucked seeing them both go down with ACL tears this past season after showing off their unique skill sets. However, with Verrett, 26, and Allen, 25, entering the primes of their careers, us Chargers fans gotta hope that what we saw in 2015 was no fluke and that the duo is truly the exciting talents we believe them to be.

At the end of the day, Mike McCoy was dealt a crappy hand. Injuries, for the second year in a row, aided in derailing the season.

Still, the offensive line stunk...again. The special teams stunk...again. The defense was spotty...again. And the Bolts were losing more close games than they were winning...again, to the tune of 3-8 in one-score games.

What was the old adage among Chargers fans? No matter how much the Chargers stunk, franchise QB Philip Rivers was good for at least seven wins? Well, 2015 proved that #17 could throw for 4,792 yards on a 66% completion percentage, 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions, and still only get four W’s.

6th Annual NFL Honors - Show Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

I despised watching the 2015 season. Looking back on it, though, at least we netted one positive out of it, courtesy of tOSU.

I’ll be back with Part 4 soon!