In their first season in Carson, the Los Angeles Chargers opened the year with four consecutive losses that were highlighted by late game heartbreak in the form of kicking game failures. By November they found themselves in a situation where they could not only make the playoffs but win the division if only they were able to win their remaining games. They were unable to do so thanks to a road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in which Philip Rivers threw multiple interceptions and the Chargers generally appeared outclassed by their division rival.
So, same old Chargers, right? There is certainly an argument to be made for that position. The facts can be laid out in such a way that this season appears largely indistinguishable from the Mike McCoy years or the other decades-plus of soul-crushing disappointment that we have all come to know, expect, and no doubt in some sick way depend upon.
I don’t believe that the argument in question holds water. I don’t believe that the facts when laid out in an honest fashion support the idea that Anthony Lynn’s Chargers are the same ones we knew in San Diego.
The first month of the season certainly fit the bill of the classic San Diego Chargers. Their rookie head coach seemed overmatched. His time management was frankly awful. His 4th down decisionmaking was objectively poor. Ken Whisenhunt’s offensive scheme completely ignored one of his best playmakers in Hunter Henry.
Philip Rivers looked like the game had passed him by and that he was maybe a year late in retiring. Melvin Gordon was hesitating behind the line and missing holes again. Antonio Gates appeared to have nothing left in the tank and yet the team seemed intent on forcing him the ball.
On defense, the absence of Denzel Perryman had the run defense looking nonexistent. They were gashed up the middle consistently and constantly. Jason Verrett was lost for the year and the team was being forced to rely on a second-year undrafted free agent.
The team’s first two draft picks, wide receiver Mike Williams and offensive lineman Forrest Lamp were lost for an undetermined length of time and for the season respectively. And Tom Telesco and the coaching staff had decided to replace veteran kicker Josh Lambo with rookie Younghoe Koo, a decision that directly led to multiple losses.
Then, the Chargers went into week 5 against the New York Giants who were also 0-4 knowing that the loser of the game would effectively be eliminated from playoff contention. The game was sloppy as you’d expect between two winless teams in October, but the Chargers managed to protect a lead late and win their first game of the season. The rest of the season would still contain ups and downs including one of the franchise’s worst losses ever in Jacksonville, but the Giants game was a turning point.
Lynn clearly learned from his early season missteps. He grew more aggressive on 4th downs relying less on the team’s terrible kicking game. His clock management improved immensely. He took the reins off Whisenhunt and allowed him to open up the offense. Whisenhunt learned 86’s name and decided to occasionally let him run routes. Rivers bounced back from his terrible start to finish with the 4th-best statistical season of his Hall-of-Fame caliber career. Gates was relegated to role player where his diminished ability was less glaring. By the end of the season, Gordon was looking like a player you could build an offense around.
Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams formed one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL to pair with the pass rushing duo of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Perryman returned from injury and transformed the run defense.
Players like Derek Watt, Austin Ekeler, and Michael Davis earned playing time by shining on special teams. The culture of the team truly seemed to be changing. In the last weekend of the season, the Chargers needed to win to have a chance to get in. They also needed at least two other results to go their way. Luck was not with them, but they faced down the challenge in front of them.
The final game of the season really encapsulated the change: needing a win at home in front of a majority Raiders-supporting crowd, the Chargers hosted their most hated rivals who had nothing left to lose. Initially, it looked like the game might stay close, but the Chargers showed they were not going to allow this game to be decided by chance and they absolutely demolished the visiting Raiders sending their many fans home unhappy.
This was a game the Chargers of old would lose. Perhaps the Chargers would have gotten lucky and had the Titans, Bills, or Bengals lose, but they would have botched the only part of the puzzle they had control over. Anthony Lynn’s Chargers did not do that. With their season on the line, they showed up and they handled their business.
9-7 may not have been good enough to make the playoffs this year, but this was a successful campaign for the Chargers rookie head coach because he appears for now to have truly altered the culture in the Chargers’ locker room.