When San Diego lost on the season's opening Monday Night to Kansas City, it seemed like a fluky afterthought. Most of the media attention had centered the NY Jets-Baltimore game that same night in the opening MNF doubleheader and a loss in bad weather caused by some special teams gaffes didn't merit much attention. After all, the Chargers would eventually get it going and the Chiefs would eventually fade. That was the assumption a lot of places, including here. It proved to be the first step in the changing of the guard. Special teams gaffes cost San Diego a couple more close games and they dug a 2-5 hole. With the AFC West finally producing a real challenger, this one was too much to overcome.
Norv Turner's team was statistically solid in a lot of areas. Their strengths were led up by the passing game, as Philip Rivers indisputably thrust himself onto any short list of elite quarterbacks, as they churned out yardage regardless of who was playing receiver--a key reason why the protracted holdout of Vincent Jackson can't be blamed for the team's shortcomings--how much more was Jackson realistically going to bring? Defensively, the Bolts brought the pressure and were second in the AFC to only Pittsburgh in sacks. They had the AFC's top pass defense and its #2 rush defense. So here was a team that had a passing game to match New England or Indy and a defense to match Pittsburgh or Baltimore and they came up short. What gives?
The running game was a problem all year and ended up 10th in the conference. And the punt return and coverage teams were a weakness. They had the AFC's worst coverage team and a subpar return game. In close games, the inability to run the ball and control field position is a problem. Still, while that might explain a Super Bowl-caliber team becoming "only" a playoff-caliber team, it can't explain a freefall out of the postseason entirely.
Ultimately I think the answer is the one a lot of fans don't like to hear--it just didn't work out. If I can get philosophical, we live in a world that demands black-and-white answers to everything and while life affords a few such answers, assessment of a football team's success or failure isn't one of them. San Diego just didn't make some plays at some key times and that's why they lost.
It's for this reason that I think the Chargers are going to be making a mistake if they let Turner go. There's a school of thought that says its players who create a team's statistical profile and a coach who translates that into wins or losses. Based on this logic, Turner is a gross failure. But is that logic flawed? Yes. Why do we presume that the coaching staff has nothing to do with the system, game plan and tactics that produce all the yards that created that dazzling stat profile we saw above? Giving players responsibility for stats and the coach responsibility for close wins or close losses has a certain clarity that makes it appealing, but it's not reality.
San Diego already made one mistake when they let Marty Schottenheimer go following the 2006 season, after he'd turned a moribund franchise into one that had three straight winning seasons and won two AFC West titles. Turner's kept that success going--three division crowns in four years, two winning seasons (He went 8-8 and won the West in 2008), and possibly a third if they beat Denver on Sunday. Ask fans in places like Washington, Buffalo, Detroit, Houston or Cleveland if they'd take that record. And those five examples are more numerous than the opposite side of the spectrum that San Diego aspires too--there aren't many New Englands, who both win consistently and win Super Bowls. If San Diego keeps knocking on the door eventually they'll knock it down. Don't upend the applecart in frustration right now.
Image from chargersgab.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball. and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.