PART I: MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES
Okay, I have to be honest that I never thought I’d be writing this piece on the 2017 Los Angeles Chargers (and their formidable schedule this season) in the wake of their tumultuous exit from America’s Finest City, jersey burnings en masse, and myriad broken hearts of die-hard Bolts fans who rightfully felt jilted and betrayed by a Spanos ownership that frankly hasn’t fielded much of a product in recent years and almost seemed intent upon tanking the 2016 season to pave the way for a preordained pilgrimage to Los Angeles, but I digress. Did the Spanos conspire with NFL laughing stock commissioner, Roger Goodell, to bring a nationally saleable brand to the L.A. market with little to no regard for the city of San Diego, its fans, or their years of ebullient and unyielding support, despite the fact that the Chargers have largely underachieved for most of their recent tenure in San Diego, CA.? Well, we’ll have to wait to weigh in on this million-dollar question and expose the white elephant in the room in Carson, CA. long enough to turn a critical eye to the bolts 2017 schedule and break down the uphill battle ahead of the Chargers this season if they are to live up to the newfound hype and praise being heaped upon the organization by national sports media. Judging by the tenor of a recent litany of pro-Bolts articles online, one would think the L.A. Chargers are guaranteed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. Oh, how the public loves a Cinderella story!
To what do we owe this sudden deluge of positive press swirling around a team that has long been the red-headed stepchild of the NFL? To what insidious forces can we attribute the Bolts sudden, meteoric rise to the status of NFL media darlings? Is it the dearth of talent on this 2017 Bolts roster? Or is it rather an iniquitous NFL conspiracy to seize the L.A. market by storm by having the Bolts rocket out to their first strong start in a decade, maybe win the AFC west, and go deep into the playoffs for the first time since their lone Super Bowl appearance back in 1994 (spare me the pain of reflecting on the result of that game)? Perhaps it’s the fact that the NFL wants to nepotistically ensure that, Phillip Rivers, like Peyton Manning in his final years in the league, finally wins a Lombardi, gets his ring, and is at last anointed an “elite quarterback,” (a title which many so-called NFL pundits have already bequeathed upon him despite his tendency to choke royally in big games, throw picks, and commit sack fumbles, all when it hurts most)? After all, if we are to follow their pretzel logic, notwithstanding a woeful offensive line, abysmal coaching, and inept ownership in San Diego, Phillip Rivers would already have more rings than Tom Brady! But I digress yet again. We’ll have to wait to deal with the Phillip Rivers conundrum and delve into the murky depths of his NFL legacy later. Let us just assume that for the purposes of this schedule breakdown, he will be the starting quarterback for the bolts in 2017, stay healthy, and play to the best of his ability (for the time being anyway). These questions and more come to the forefront as possible reasons for the recent Los Angeles Chargers hype. Is this pundit’s propaganda mill of positivity football reality or mere smoke and mirrors to get a new fan base to jump on the bandwagon and join the rather clichéd “Fight for L.A.?” Well, the beauty of the NFL is that we’ll have our answers to these and many more lingering questions before Christmas.
One thing’s for certain, it isn’t the Chargers 2017 regular season schedule that ostensibly inspired this tsunami of confidence and ridiculous expectations for overnight NFL success. After all, any objective analyst (who took off the rose-colored glasses and scrutinized the bolts 2017 opponents realistically) would be hard-pressed to predict a quantum leap from a losing record of 5-11 in 2016 to 11-5 and a minimum of a wild card berth in the 2017 playoffs. However, this time of the year it’s almost standard operating procedure to predict super success for the Super Chargers and this analyst will bet that, intoxicated by scintillating (but meaningless) plays made in OTA’s and preliminary team activities, every team in the league has itself cast in the role of Super Bowl contender. With that said, let’s examine some of the main factors, other than the 2017 schedule, that could and might affect the success of the Bolts 2017 campaign:
- Tumultuous Transfer to L.A.- Many experts have legitimately pointed to the drama and emotional baggage of the bolts move to Los Angeles as a possible factor in their on-field success for the 2017 campaign. I mean, can a team that has gone 4-12 and 5-11 in the last two seasons reasonably be expected to be anything more than a .500 team in 2017 with the added distractions of a major move to a new city, market, demographic, etc.? Or is this, like so many of the other stories buzzing about the NFL recently, just another predetermined storyline that’s all part of the self-fulfilling Goodellian prophecy of a winning team in Los Angeles? The discerning fan will have to make up his or her own mind on this one. Myself, tend to downplay storylines like this one as proof that NFL pundits really don’t have anything better to write about.
- Legacy of Choking in the Clutch- It’s no accident that the Chargers have been called “Super Chokers,” laughed at by most other teams in the league, and generally maligned for their lack of on-field success. The bolts have been “loaded” with talent over the past ten years and yet a Super Bowl or even success in the playoffs have eluded them. Doug Peterson, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, one of many “loaded” teams the Bolts will play this regular season, recently exposed the myth of talent and success in the NFL. Truth is that it doesn’t matter how “loaded” with talent a team is on paper, execution out on the football field is still not guaranteed. Just ask Mike McCoy about that one…The fact is that the Chargers are chokers, have always been chokers, and have their work cut out for them to remove this dubious moniker! As Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby!” Until that happens in droves, there’s no reason to believe the Chargers will do anything but choke in the clutch (usually in the fourth quarter inside the two-minute warning!)
- Charger Curse (See: Superstition) – Okay, this one’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but you have to throw this kind of cannon fodder in there for the conspiracy theorists and superstitious types. Plus, so much has been said recently in sports media about this phenomenon, whether real or imagined. Having been a season ticket holder myself in San Diego and having witnessed agonizing choke after last minute meltdown in serial succession over the years, seemingly no one is more qualified to address the so-called “Charger Curse” and its chronic strangle hold on the bolts chances to succeed on the NFL’s big stage. From the “Wide Right” Wade Ritchie’s missed field goal in a home playoff game against the New York Football Jets to the infamous home playoff loss by a 14-2 Bolts super squad coached by Marty Schottenheimer that utterly choked against the New England Patriots in San Diego (ultimately losing on a Tom Brady touchdown pass to former Chargers WR Reche Caldwell or a muffed fumble recovery by Marlon Mcree depending on your perspective), these heartbreaking games would lead even reasonable fans to believe there was some sort of “Curse” or otherworldly force acting against the Chargers. And that’s just to name a few of the more egregious playoff choke jobs in San Diego over the last decade. Is it really that the football gods have “hated on” the Bolts all these years, ensuring that a wide array of little mistakes would align perfectly to spell complete disaster, or have the Chargers simply shot themselves in the foot time after time? (See point #2 above: “Legacy of Choking in the Clutch) As Shakespeare would say, “Therein lies the rub.” Not being given to wild flights of fancy or superstitious slants, think that the “Charger Curse” is actually attributable to poor coaching, zero individual or team accountability, and even worse on-field execution. To me, these things are all on the head coach. Enough said.
- Recent Rash of Serious Injuries to Starters– New head coach, Anthony Lynn, is apparently taking this one seriously by revamping the bolts conditioning program to “minimize damage to soft tissue,” and otherwise endow the Bolt’s starters with the ability to make it through the long and grueling NFL regular season without a rash of injuries that essentially end the team’s playoff hopes altogether. The past two campaigns, in particular, have been halted by a rash of blown ACL’s, broken ankles, and other season-ending injuries to key starters. Chargers players have in the past pointed to the antiquated conditioning facilities in San Diego and soft workout routines under the Norv Turner and Mike McCoy regimes for their lack of readiness to endure the onslaught of an NFL regular season. Let’s hope the change of scenery to Carson, CA. brings with it major upgrades in sports nutrition, conditioning, and physical preparation for the season! The bottom line is that the Bolts aren’t going to beat teams like the Patriots, Cowboys, Eagles, or Raiders with most if not all of their key starters on IR or the PUP list. We’ve already got our first round pick, WR Mike Williams, suffering from some sort of lower back injury/condition! No Bueno. Can CB Jason Verett and WR Keenan Allen stay healthy and play a full slate of games in 2017? Think at this point the ominous injury bugaboo has got most Chargers fans saying, “Give me a break here!” NO PUN INTENDED.
- Horrendous Special Teams Play– In recent years the Bolt’s special teams play has been somewhere between anemic and abysmal, leaving Chargers fans to wonder, “How come McCoy and the coaching staff couldn’t fix this problem?” I mean muffed punt returns, kicking/punting the ball out of bounds and giving it to the opponents’ offense on the 40 yard line, giving up big returns for a score, bad snaps that turn into turnovers in key situations, missed field goals, you name it, the Bolts have had it happen regularly on the field as part of their weekly special teams meltdowns! You just can’t win games, regardless of the schedule, if you’re giving up 14+ points a game on special teams. Teams like the Patriots (Oh yeah, almost forgot. We play them in week 8 as well!) play the field position game extremely well and if the Bolts are going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of rolling into Gillette Stadium, overcoming the local radio broadcasts being fed into their headsets, trick plays, and other rule-bending manipulations of Bill Bellichick’s “Gold Standard” squad, and coming out with a win, the special teams debacle has to come to an end.
- Fair Weather Fan base and Lack of Home-Field Advantage– One of the X Factors that has really hamstrung the Bolts in recent years in San Diego is the fact that the Chargers have not enjoyed a home field advantage at Qualcomm Stadium at all. What about the all-important “12th Man” on the field? One need only attend a single Chargers home game against the Kansas City Chiefs to witness the sea of red jerseys or a matchup against the Green Bay Packers to see hordes of “Cheeseheads” in the stands rooting for the visiting team and wearing jerseys heralding their loyalty to the enemy! More than any other phenomenon in recent years with the Chargers, this one is disgusting and leaves the true Bolts fan with a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Was it really that Chargers season ticket holders were abdicating their seats to visiting fans for a profit since the Bolts “sucked so bad” they’d rather have the duckets than attend another loss? Or was it that sunny SoCal has so many recreational options for locals that football seemed an expensive afterthought, engendering an atmosphere of NFL apathy? Jeez, that last 2016 regular season home game against the visiting Oakland Raiders last year was a veritable home game for the Silver and Black, prompting many observers to call for the Raiders to come to San Diego instead of heading out of state to Las Vegas, NV. We should have just dubbed Qualcomm Stadium “Black Hole Al Sur” (- Black Hole to the South). Not that it would have mattered anyway since the Bolts exodus to Los Angeles was already in the works. Does the Chargers’ organization (or anyone with a brain for that matter) really think that a move to the diminutive Stub Hub Center, a glorified soccer stadium, will do anything to reverse this disturbing trend? What credible reason(s) do we have to believe that Los Angelinos will suddenly embrace the Bolts as their new team du jour, selling the Rams down the proverbial NFL River, allowing Phillip Rivers to lead them to the Promised Land? Ah, once again…vamos a ver…we shall see…Almost reminds me of all those misguided people who, upon hitting the doldrums in their daily lives, erroneously believe that a change of scenery or sudden move out of state will solve all of their problems! One thing’s for sure, San Diego Chargers fans have to be the most “fair weather” a fan base as has ever existed. Notwithstanding the handful of times the Bolts have had a true winning record over the past decade, Bolts fans have broken their ankles jumping off the bandwagon at the first sign of stormy weather, opting instead to trade in their Bolts Jerseys for the more alluring apparel of a winning team, say maybe The New England Patriots? Sacrilege I tell you.
- Coaching Question Marks– Aside from a rigorous regular season schedule, perhaps the biggest question mark related to the success of the Bolts’ 2017 campaign is their new head coach, Anthony Lynn. To be honest had never even heard of the guy when the Chargers announced him as their new head coach. With a little due diligence, however, I have discovered that he played running back with Terrell Davis on those highly-successful Broncos teams, was the running backs coach in Buffalo last season, and is widely touted as a “players coach extraordinaire.” At least his demeanor is serious and he appears to command respect from players, something that could not be said about any Chargers coach since Bobby “Boss” Ross. Still, the nagging fear or insecure thought that keeps rearing its ugly head in my mind is, do these attributes or characteristics really add up to success in guiding a beleaguered football team that simply does not know how to close out games to the playoffs much less a Super Bowl? We’re being told that Lynn is going to run the rock and lean heavily on bell-cow running back Melvin “Flash” Gordon, taking the pressure off Rivers to throw the ball 60% of the time and become more of a “game manager.” That’s all great, but doesn’t that also mean that Gordon has to have a 1,000+ yard season for the Bolts to be successful? And why then did GM Tom Telesco spend the first round pick on a wideout if the plan is to be run-heavy and “ground and pound.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a solid running game that chews clock and dominates time of possession as much as the next guy, but let’s hope it doesn’t become another vanilla offense that’s as predictable as the sun setting and rising. You know, run on first and second down only to throw the ball when you’re third and long…sound familiar? Punt! Let’s just hope Coach Lynn is a better game day general than either of his recent predecessors. You know, the little stuff like knowing when to throw the challenge flag or call a time out in key situations…things you’re average Madden player could do that Mike McCoy seemed utterly incapable of?
While there are undoubtedly many more possible contributing factors to the Bolts success or lack thereof this season, perhaps the most indomitable obstacle standing between Lynn’s squad and a division championship/playoff run is the 2017 regular season schedule itself. While I too am filled with the same effervescent optimism about the Bolts chances to “go all the way” I am every year at this time, blind “homerism” and Polyanna allegiance to my former team (I live in San Diego, CA) must at some point give way to stark objectivity and realism. Truckloads of talent or not, this team has a lot to prove before I am going to crown them champions or even be led down the primrose path to the playoffs. As Jim Mora said in his now infamous sound bite, “Playoffs? We talking about Playoffs?” Are you out of your frickin’ gourd? Now if you don’t agree or have bought the national hype or are just a downtrodden, disenfranchised Bolts fan like me who desperately wants his team to succeed at all costs, indulge me for a moment as we dive into the 2017 Chargers Regular Season Schedule and a playful game of prognostication in an honest attempt to answer one simple question: Do the Los Angeles Chargers have a remote chance of winning their “Fight for L.A.,” overcoming past obstacles and challenges, and ultimately reaching the playoffs and beyond this season? Let’s start with game one, the Monday night, September 11th marquee matchup with the division rival Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, Denver, Co. Should be a doozy… (PART II STILL TO COME WITH GAME BY GAME PREDICTIONS AND BREAKDOWNS).