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The Mike McCoy Era, Defined (Part 4)

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

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 Parts 1, 2, and 3 here, here, and here, respectively.

Well, this is it: the piece where I give my concluding thoughts on Mr. McCoy, and our community can collectively move on from the sporadic coach.

Yeah, I know. Most of you want to forget Norv 2.0 ever rocked the lightning-bolt-clad visor. I’m the same way—after writing these, I feel like I deserve the opportunity to wash the sour taste out of my mouth with a whole bottle of Listerine.

Nevertheless, we press on. I’ll quote a comment I left in response to BanHatTrick on my last write-up referring to why I’m committed to finishing up the series:

This is the kind of thing where we love to stick to a pre-established storyline, even if it’s the easy way out in skipping what worked and what didn’t. As a writer, I figured I owed it to myself to give a decent review of McCoy’s tenure from the beginning so that I personally don’t lazily refer to the narrative of ‘McCoy is trash, on to the next one.’

I’ve been setting up each article as mostly objective observations from each season, followed by a concise conclusion filled with my own subjective thoughts. This form was intended to build a general argument about the Mike McCoy Era that would be summed up in the final piece. For this last piece, since the past season is relatively fresh in our minds, I will be focusing less on 2016 and more on the overarching storyline and what it prognosticates for the future of the franchise.

With that all being said, where were we?

Oh. Right. Four-and-twelve.

Oh boy.

NFL Draft Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As I hinted at in my last article, at least something good came out of the 2015 season, right?

But first, let’s review the Chargers’ free agent class. The Chargers picked up one of the top receivers, albeit among slim pickings. Travis Benjamin signed a fat, $24 million contract that has some Bolts pundits shaking their heads after an up-and-down 2016 season in which he played through a PCL sprain. The jury may still be out on the speedster, but I’m remaining positive and hoping to see more of the 2015 version of Benjamin.

Along with resigning Joe Barksdale, the team also inked veterans Brandon Mebane and Casey Hayward to shorter deals. While Barksdale stunk up the place and Brandon Mebane was a reliable run-stopper for ten games, Casey Hayward absolutely balled out, leading the league in interceptions as he ran toe-to-toe with some of the best receivers in the business. If he can repeat his performance, Hayward’s contract (3 years, $15.3 million) will look downright silly, another steal and another feather in the cap of The Coupon God.

So, if you’re the Chargers, there’s only one way to counter the constant distraction known as the stadium situation: win. And though the season may not have gone the way the franchise planned, Tom Telesco sure did a fine job strengthening the team through the draft and building towards life after Rivers.

Denver Broncos v San Diego Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

It may be too early to characterize the GM’s fourth draft as a home run, but between the stellar rookie campaigns of Joey Bosa, Hunter Henry, and Jatavis Brown, the sky sure seems to be the limit. I’m a little disappointed that Max Tuerk still hasn’t impressed in the way many of us expected him to; sixth-rounders Drew Kaser and Derek Watt haven’t exactly shown much, either.

But let’s skip the nitpicking and give credit where credit is due: even if those guys—along with Joshua Perry and Donovan Clark—don’t become much more than depth, any draft where you take three potential franchise cornerstones is one to be ecstatic about. Just look at how quickly the Raiders fortunes have turned around since selecting Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, and Gabe Jackson in 2014.

Again, the talent level on the team was clearly increasing as the 2016 season rapidly approached. Keenan Allen was back, Melvin Gordon looked like a changed back, and, oh yeah, there was a new-yet-familiar face running the offense in Ken Whisenhunt.

The narrative: the Chargers had hit rock bottom. Even Rivers couldn’t save the sinking ship in 2015. Things were bound to change for the better, regardless of the fact that Visor Man was still the head honcho.

Technically speaking...yes. Things got better.

That doesn’t mean 2016 was any more watchable.

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

I’m not claiming I predicted the whole outcome of the season, but I think my feelings in this write-up right after Week 1 ended up ringing pretty true:

I’m trying hard to believe the Bolts can make a run at the playoffs, but the fact of the matter is that this squad needed everything to go right to secure a berth in the tournament. And it was, for roughly one-and-a-half-quarters. The Chargers’ potential of being an offensive juggernaut was on display against one of the stingiest defenses in all of football. Allen looked more and more like the Top 5 talent we pegged him to be, consistently burning Marcus Peters to the point where Andy Reid put his star corner on time out for whining too much.

And then...boom. No post-Keenan adjustments showed us what to expect from McCoy and his staff this year. Nothing had changed since last season and the way things are going, the Chargers will be vying more for the first pick than the thirty-second.

Forget the game at Arrowhead already? Not a problem—just know that the Bolts lost, even after leading by eighteen at halftime and seventeen with a quarter to go.

Chalk that up as three Opening Day chokes in four years for Mr. McCoy.

Look, Tyrell did an admirable job taking over for Keenan when he went down with a torn ACL. Hunter Henry and Dontrelle Inman certainly helped pick up the slack, too.

(Author’s Aside: please, national media outlets and NFL announcers, this upcoming season, stop saying and writing Dontrelle Inman’s name like you’re on the verge of puking. We get it, he’s not exactly a household name, but with Rivers’ help, the former Cavalier has turned into quite the reliable slot receiver. Rant over.)

Yet it was both an unfortunate and foreboding sign for Rivers and Co. when three of the most essential cogs on the team (Allen, Woody, and Verrett) went down within the first four games of the young season.

The Chargers collected their annual win over That Team That Always Feels Like They’re Five Seasons Away From Being Somewhat Respectable, also referred to in some NFL circles as the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, the team would disappoint in Indy, as T.Y. Hilton would burn a hobbled Verrett for the game-winner.

As I’m sure you remember, following two straight losses at the hands of the Saints and Raiders, the Wall Street Journal would run an article dubbed “If There’s a Way to Lose, the San Diego Chargers Will Find It”. The sports guys over at WSJ determined that when combining the Bolts’ respective positions in each of their losses during various points in the game, the odds of losing all four of those games were one-in-thirty-million. That stat would go on to be referenced about, well, give or take a hundred thousand times. When talking Chargers football, everyone from your mail carrier to your grandma would bring up that unfortunate number.

San Diego Chargers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

At least in that Oakland game, we got to witness Joey Bosa’s coming-out party. Even more impressive was that it came against one of the best lines in the league, a feat he would follow in a surprise victory over the Falcons.

Oh yeah—remember when the Chargers beat the defending Super Bowl Champions and eventual Super Bowl Unforgettable Meme(s?) two weeks in a row? Surprisingly, people outside of San Diego took notice, some even thinking playoffs. They would drop one to the Donkey in Week 8; nevertheless, a convincing win over a solid Titans squad made the postulation less inconceivable, especially as the team moved to 4-5.

Those pesky Dolphins would have none of it, as Philip Rivers put up a horrendous four fourth-quarter picks, most notably a crucial pick-six with a minute remaining. And though McCoy’s squad would dub a playoff team in the Texans, it would prove to be the last win by the San Diego Chargers, ever.

Yup. Five straight losses to end the season, three of which were one-score games, and Mr. Mike McCoy’s job security looked anything but stable.

He was fired on January 1st, thirty minutes after the final Chargers game at Qualcomm Stadium wrapped up.

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

I’ve been saving this infamous picture the whole way because I feel like it encapsulates the Mike McCoy Era more than any number of words I can pen.

In other words, I’m pushing 10,000 words, and if you don’t feel like reading the whole series, just gaze upon said image and you’ll be all set.

We’ll get to my point regarding the picture in a second. Seriously speaking, though, I didn’t go out of my way to berate McCoy in writing out The Mike McCoy Era, Defined. Far from it. If you followed along, you’ll appreciate that while Visor Man stunk up the place quite often, I feel that there were a lot of good head-coaching qualities he showcased throughout his tenure.

One specific tag stuck to McCoy early on that I always thought carried some truth. He was a great coach “six days of the week,” a characterization that holds both positive and negative connotations. First, the positive: McCoy always struck me as a prudent guy who always took the extra mile in preparing for each and every tilt. He’s a great offensive mind, an X’s and O’s type who excels in drawing out a crafty game plan. That was the reason his Chargers teams always felt like they could contend with anyone in the whole league—if everything played out like he thought it would, his pre-determined worked brilliantly and his genius would be appreciated. Good examples of this were the 2013 win in Denver and the 2014 win against the Seahawks.

The inherent problem with this line of coaching is that football games quite rarely play out the way we expect them to. That’s why the phrase “Any Given Sunday” is a thing. Well, as long as that Sunday isn’t in New England, especially a cold one in December.

This is why guys like Ken Whisenhunt and Josh McDaniels often struggle as head coaches as well. All that time spent before each and every game means just as much as what happens on game day, sometimes even less.

I don’t have a specific number, but let me ask you this: how many times did McCoy burn timeouts at idiotic moments in games? How many times did he not seem to be on the same page as Rivers and the rest of the offense, leading to #17 making way too many adjustments and ultimately hiking it dangerously close to the clock running down? How many times did we see McCoy squirming, looking uncomfortable when he had to make a big-time decision such as going for it on fourth or challenging a play?

Even when he had nothing to lose this past season, the man still stuck to his guns instead of trying his hand at a Riverboat Ron-type reversal. That’s where the picture comes in: Week 6, against the Broncos on Thursday Night Football. The Chargers had been leading for pretty much all the game, only for Denver to creep back and stage a near-upset. Cameras caught McCoy looking like he wanted to be anywhere else besides an NFL sideline; Melvin Ingram even came over at one point, giving him some sort of pat on the back.

If you’re a Chargers player and you see your coach in the fetal position on national television, are you truly supposed to believe in that guy as a supposed leader of men? That’s the guy who’s gonna lead you into battle come Sunday afternoon!?!?

John Pagano may be a little out of focus, but at least you can tell he’s a gamer, a guy completely invested in the outcome of the contest. Sure, I’m nitpicking, but this is the kind of image burned into my head whenever the name McCoy comes up.

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

Surprisingly, when McCoy was relieved of his job, some people were shocked the organization would blame the coach for the massive kerfuffle. Three lines of thinking emerged—one obvious, one ridiculous, and one unsettling.

The first, of course, was injuries. Injuries clearly played a hand in derailing the last three seasons of Mike McCoy’s tenure with the Chargers, a statement nary a person would deny.

However, no matter how unlucky McCoy was, good coaches work with what they got and rise above it. We love to get cute with it and proclaim, “Let’s see what Bill Belichick/Andy Reid/Pete Carroll could do with this roster!” but we’d be lying to ourselves if we truly thought said coaches would not have the capability to put a Rivers-led team over the top. Therefore, in judging McCoy’s performance as a whole, injuries most certainly have to be taken out of the equation.

The second thing I’ve seen and read is that Philip Rivers holds a clear responsibility for the team’s shortcomings in recent years. Yes, I’m biased and love the guy, but it’s truly clear as day when you take an objective look at the reasons, not excuses, for Rivers’ supposed drop-off in play as the past four seasons wound to a close:

  • In 2013, the team would go on its miracle run and win out. In running a clock-managing strategy, Rivers took a backseat and let Ryan Mathews shine to the tune of 534 yards in the month of December.
  • In 2014, the team somehow went through four centers before finishing the season off with Trevor Robinson snapping the ball, a guy fresh off the Bengals practice squad. Along with the clear deficiencies on the offensive line, Rivers was dealing with broken ribs and a herniated disk that almost required surgery and nearly forced him to retire.
  • In 2015, not only did the offensive line finish as PFF’s worst group in the league, the offense clearly relied on the Rivers-to-Allen connection way too much. Therefore, when Keenan went down in Week 8, the whole offense never could adjust. This, too, doesn’t even acknowledge the lack of a running game for the second year in a row, something a team with a horrid defense can succeed without.
  • In 2016, the offensive line improved—to second-worst. Injuries to Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Stevie Johnson did not help, either, along with Travis Benjamin’s PCL injury. While Melvin Gordon provided an awesome amount of burst out of the backfield for the first time since 2013, the offense went down with him when he suffered a hip injury in Week 13.

Yeah, Rivers’ twenty-one picks in 2016 was inexcusable. Some of them were the product of trying play too much hero ball; some were on his receivers; too many were him just making stupid decisions.

But I can’t see how people can connect the dots and say Philip Rivers is...what? Breaking down? No longer effective? Even while still passing for gaudy numbers and keeping the Chargers in games they have no business being in? I’m not saying he’s gonna play until he’s 40, but give him a year with the retooled team, and I have a feeling many opinions will sway.

The third thing I’ve seen: McCoy is just a product of a crappy franchise, a ship no one could ever possibly hope to turn around. Unfortunately, I’m on board with this theory, as all Chargers should be by now. With the way the Spanos’ conduct their business, you gotta hope for the best for Anthony Lynn.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers-Minicamp Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

So far, the Chargers look like they’ve hired the anti-McCoy in Anthony Lynn. He’s poised and calm in front of the media and just seems to exude the confidence and no-nonsense attitude you want from a team’s alpha.

Of course, nothing meaningful has happened on a football field. Lynn has a lot of time before he gets starting crapped on by us over here at BFTB. Still, just read this article that ran on not too long ago, and tell me the guy’s presence doesn’t get you hyped for the upcoming season.

At least, that’s what Joey Bosa seems to think. After just one year in the league, the budding star seemed to think he had the clout to make this fiery statement, per ESPN:

We needed strong head coach to come in & make players take accountability for what they do, which there wasn’t enough of last year. I feel like if we had a coach, nothing against Mike McCoy, I just don’t think he had the voice to really get s--t.

McCoy’s teams always had that underdog mentality, and if you asked players on the team, they would say the same thing: they fought to the end for their coach. When luck was on his side in 2013, an unforgettable run ensued. When luck wasn’t on his side for the next three years, he was bad. Like, 7-17-in-one-score-games-these-past-two-seasons bad. There were no such things as Mike’s Secret Stuff, and the era ended in forgettable fashion.

For the sake of the team and its fanbase, let’s hope Anthony Lynn becomes the next Schottenheimer, the next great Chargers head coach. Let’s hope the team can finally put a product on the field that does not include a side effect of constantly shooting itself in the foot. Let’s hope that the team can finally build another contender around Philip Rivers and get him that ring he so desperately needs.

Sorry, San Diego faithful, but there’s nothing more I would like to see than Rivers hoisting The Lombardi, even if it says “L.A.” on the front of his jersey. He’s currently playing on borrowed time—no thanks to four years wasted under Mike McCoy, of course.