It’s sunny down here on the waterfront today. People are skipping work and heading for the surf, and those who do show up at theirjobs are spending their lunches and breaks enjoying an unseasonable warmth and perfect weather. That’s one thing about Sandy Eggo; the weather is as perfect as a bear could want. The trench coat and fedora make for second looks by the local constabulary, but there’s no a law against being a bear, and no reason not to be here looking at the SunnySide. But there’s a stink coming off the waterfront that isn’t fish and it isn’t rotting seaweed. It’s the smell of a season that was cracked open too early and is starting to fester.
The Patriots are coming to town, and the Chargers aren’t looking at them like I look at a salmon taco. No, the Bolts are looking skittish, highly uncertain, like the pickpocket who reached for a wallet and found a gun. Like a john who just noticed that his lady of the evening has an Adam’s apple to go with that throaty voice, and maybe things aren’t just what he was thinking. The Chargers are doing too much thinking right now and their coaches might not be thinking enough.
New England is pushing the Broncos for the top rivalry in this part of SoCal, and pushing them harder than the tugs ramming those steel ships that inhabit our port, hard as a stiff whack with a leather sap, hard as the cheap tequila in the waterfront dives. In a recent San Diego Union-Tribune poll the two highest are:
New England Patriots
But even that isn’t as hard as the challenge that the Chargers are up for. They’re in for a tough, tough game, and the look in their eyes knows it. It’s getting hot down here, hotter than the rellenos at Maria’s, hotter than the salsa dancing at the local gin mill. The Chargers now are at 2-3, but they’re sweating at the approach of the Patriots for a matchup of two AFC powers that simply do not like each other. They’re sweating because they know the numbers.
Like the number 12: Consecutive road games won by the Patriots.
Or, 11: Consecutive games won by the Patriots in October.
How about 7: Consecutive seasons, an NFL high, in which the Patriots have won at least nine games.
The Bolts Boyz are tossing at night and 40.5 is the woman dancing in their dreams: it’s the percentage of times that New England has forced its opponent into three-and-outs on offense. They’re not too happy around 3, either. It’s the Pats kickoff returns of 50 yards or more. No the numbers aren’t looking too good. There are other numbers, ugly numbers. There’s 31, the rank of the Chargers in plays per game (55). And there’s 10, the number of 3-and-outs they’ve forced in 55 opponent’s possessions. Their average time of possession is 27:52, 26th in the league.
They’re hurting right now, hurting like when a cheap dame grabs you at the local bar, flashes you some ruby lip and heaving thigh, spins your head around in circles before snatching your heart out of your chest and leaving it bleeding in the sawdust coating the floor. Yes, they’re hurting, hurting bad. But the Pats are hurting too, and they’re going to hammer each other until one is left in the beachfront sand and the other totters on back home to heal and fight again.
If you’re rooting for the Pats, you know their injuries: The most visibly absent player is Brady, and he isn't coming back this season. Both teams have hamstring problems; linebacker Eric Alexander and cornerback Lewis Sanders are listed as doubtful and wide receiver Kelley Washington is doubtful with a bum ankle. Running back LaMont Jordan took a leg injury in last week's game at San Francisco and missed the second half; he’s listed as day-to-day.
For the Chargers, it’s not so much list as litany: Guard Kynan Forney has yet to play since being signed the week before the season, but he is active today as insurance for Mike Goff, who will start but do so with a strained left knee. Forney was also active against Carolina. As expected, outside linebacker Jyles Tucker (strained hamstring) is also inactive. Marques Harris will start in his place. Receiver Malcom Floyd is inactive for the first time this season. Floyd was the odd man out with Brandon McKinney being released Saturday. McKinney had been inactive every game. Paul Oliver is inactive a second straight week. Rookie tackle Corey Clark is inactive a third straight week. Linebacker Anthony Waters and tight end Kris Wilson are inactive for the fifth time in five weeks. Defensive tackle Ian Scott, signed Sept. 23, is also inactive for a second week, and Charlie Whitehurst is the third QB.
Tim Sullivan, San Diego Union-Tribune wondered if knowing that you’re injured is the same as blaming it. "…though Henry V's "happy few" speech is still stirring after 400 years, playing short-handed is generally a good way to get beat. By the time Chargers Coach Norv Turner had run through his injury report yesterday, adding Rivers (ribs), receiver Chris Chambers (ankle), guard Kris Dielman (thigh) and safety Clinton Hart (shoulder) to the list of usual suspects, Sunday's game against the New England Patriots seemed less like a grudge match than a last stand.
"Tomlinson called it a "must-win," which is not quite the same thing as a "will-win."
Eric Weddle weighed in, "One guy goes down, the next guy's got to play, regardless of who's injured," safety Eric Weddle said yesterday afternoon. "That's always been a mind-set of mine, the way I've been coached.
"We've got talented guys on the team. ... We're not very far off. We've just got to execute the little things, execute down the stretch."
Eric, you’re a great player, but we all know that it’s a lot more than the little things. I had a look at some of them. Let’s start by look at the play calling; I clawed this out of my keyboard from the internet:
Question: During the commercial before that fateful 4th down play, I was telling the guys I was watching the game with that the Chargers had to kick the field goal to make it a 17-13 game. They needed to be certain to get some points out of that turnover, and if they tried to make the touchdown and failed, it would be giving momentum and confidence back to a team that was already leading by 7 points and was playing at home. When the game resumed, I could not believe we were actually going for it! L.T. got stuffed, and we wound up losing by those same 7 points. If we'd kicked the FG, we'd have kept the momentum and the pressure would have been on the Dolphins not to fold. What did you think of this call that, I think, cost us the game? Even if we'd made the TD, I would have still thought it was the wrong call!
Answer: I agree with going for it. I think the play call stunk, given the way the game was going.
He wasn’t alone. Perhaps it is the play calling. The Broncos found out with Larry Coyer, who I liked and respect, that any scheme can be countered and that you have to constantly innovate. That hasn’t happened in SD. Miami was up front about this, and took advantage of it. On offense and defense they were in the Chargers back pocket all day long, waiting, driving them wherever they wanted. You can’t ignore that.
Miami d-lineman Vonnie Holliday told it all when he said "They lined up as we expected, and they ran where we expected." I think that says a lot about what Chargers fans already knew: it was ‘stale, boring, and hugely predictable play calling on offense’. They were once strong and deep enough to do what you knew they would and pull it off, but they aren’t anymore.
When they have done well, it has been on execution, but now they need help from the scheme and it’s not there. When asked if the Chargers' expectations should be adjusted to reflect their injuries, Norv Turner replied, "Absolutely not." Really? You lose Merriman and Tucker, Marques Harris isn’t getting the job done, Miami knows what you’re going to do before you do and you’re NOT going to change anything? Ok, perhaps this is misdirection by the Coach, but it seems in line with what has happened so far and that’s hurting the team. Turner threw this one out and left it rotting on the floor;
"We're not going to change our expectations," he said. "I said a week ago, after the Raider game, I thought we made great strides and I thought we were getting better and we had individuals getting better . . ."
"We have some guys who aren't 100 percent. We have some guys who aren't capable of doing what we're accustomed to seeing. But I think they're getting closer and closer to doing it."
That’s swell, Norv, really swell but while you’re waiting, teams have your ticket stamped and validated so you might want to look at where they’re going to send you if you don’t turn this around.
It’s a fine line between keeping your chin up and leaving it unprotected. It’s OK to say that you’ll get better – but you need to think about how. I’m not hearing that. Maybe it’s the noise of the surf pounding on the sand. Maybe it’s about sand castles: they’re good at those here.
From Rivers: "We didn't make it any easier on ourselves, but by no means have we lost the season," Philip Rivers said. "But certainly urgency is at its highest level." Which is funny, because he didn’t sound urgent.
"It allows us to know what it's going to take," Rivers said. "We've been through it. Now that we did it we know what's ahead." Rivers also acknowledged that kind of thinking could be a trap. He didn’t acknowledge that this trap has already caught them three times this year.
And partly because it has been a sort of safety net they’re tossing around their leaking ship, and perhaps because he senses his team is waiting for the magical turnaround, Norv Turner said yesterday he planned to issue a warning to his players this week.
"Everyone has to be very careful," Turner said. "I'm going to have our guys be careful about assuming because we did it last year it's just going to happen. If we're going to get back where we're capable of going, we've got to make it happen."
That’s great, Norv. Careful is good, but can you tell us how?
Attitudes can wear on you. I’ve grown weary of the constant harping about blown calls, banging on that tired excuse like a pelican bangs a crab against a rock. At least the pelican gets dinner out of it. Yes, an inadvertent whistle based on a bad angle changed a play against Denver. Sure, and so did a lack of a whistle on the Sproles TD runback and on a bunch of other plays, just like any week. If you complain about one, you have to accept that your complaint, uncomfortably, is also about the other. And, SD did have two chances to solve the problem after the inadvertent whistle; they blew them both, so buck it up, boys.
But 'bad refs' seems to have become a litany sung in Greek chorus by players and fans alike, and I never seem to hear it from teams that are winning. Perhaps there’s a connection there – if your head is in what happened it’s not in what’s happening now. This week it was Quentin Jammer, who was clouted out of Ronnie Brown’s way like you’d claw a salmon from a stream, during the Miami TD run off the Wildcat formation.
Said the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Jammer is no fan of officials and their propensity to call plays that help the offense. "After Sunday's game, Jammer stuck up for safety Clinton Hart on the third-down play in which Hart was called for pass interference on a ball thrown five yards out of bounds. The call resulted in a 28-yard gain from the 2-yard line to the 30. While the Dolphins ended up punting later in the series, that play got them out of the shadow of the end zone and put the field position in their favor.""Jammer was talking big picture, though.""That's just ridiculous," Jammer said of the call. "The ball was way overthrown. Honestly, something has got to be done. I may be fined. I don't care. Something has got to change -- the calls being made. If a ball is overthrown, I don't care, you've got to pick up the flag. That's not an excuse why we lost. We lost because we got out-physicaled and flat-out beat, but that call was wrong." "The Chargers have been called six times for either pass interference or illegal contact and four times for defensive holding. The total of 10 is tied with Green Bay for most in the league."
It’s interesting to note that SD is tied with GB for the top honors on D holding this year. Maybe that’s from something other than a bias on the part of the officials. If you got "…out-physicaled and flat out beat", why are you hung up on arguing about a call that might or might not have been blown? Why aren’t you taking responsibility for getting out performed and vowing to change that fast? Attitude can be a cancer, as anyone in sports knows. You have to be careful, right? Maybe Norv needs to crack down on that kind of silly time-wasting attitude. Perhaps he’s currently busy not changing formations.
When the Broncos D was down earlier this year, they were upfront about it. They didn’t like it, and said so, but they didn’t argue it and they told us why and what had to improve. They knew that they needed better communication (we didn’t understand that they were installing a new D, which made that harder) and they improved that. They talked about being out of position and guys learning their roles. They did those things, it fixed the problem and they got better, at least this week. The Chargers are talking about getting better, but you don’t hear them saying how. Guys might be jumping lanes, but why? Overaggressive, like Castillo said? They look the opposite. No rush from the DL. Why? Jamal Williams is playing hurt, and his knees have gone south. But Castillo? Olshansky? What’s up there?
It’s not like the signs weren’t there before. We just didn’t dwell on them. This is the same squad that gave up a league record 296 yards to the Vikings and Adrian Peterson last November. There were cracks here before, and in the warm glow of expectations they just didn’t seem all that large. But the line between winning and losing can be as thin as a politician’s promise, and sometimes those ‘little things’ just get bigger.
This is maybe a small thing – it probably is. Let’s also consider recent drafting. AJ Smith has built an excellent squad, but we all make mistakes, and maybe this is one thing to consider. Perhaps it’s not that important in what’s happening – sure, you can’t go back in time to know what you know today, but consider this: Cason was a good pick who will mature and contribute on a weekly basis. But in round three, if they had drafted a stud LB instead of Jacob Hester this situation might not have been as big an issue. Please understand – I like Tucker a lot, and no one could anticipate the rash of injuries they are experiencing. But Hester was always a Swiss army knife kind of guy and the pick was immediately debated (by me, but as well as a lot of others). There is a theory about drafting to your strengths that I like: you prepare to keep them strong. The Chargers live and die by their linebackers. Why bring this up? This is why:
It’s because there have been rumors about Merriman swirling about, and it’s interested me. Yes, he’ll be expensive, and no, the Chargers don’t want to pay that much for him. I’ve noted this before, but they have 5 major players coming up for new contracts after 2009 and are reported to want to keep no more than 3 of them. So, if you’re going to consider losing Merriman (this season could change their minds on this) you need to draft his replacement and season him. If they had, they might be better prepared to weather this storm. Perhaps it’s bilge water under a creaking bridge, but there may be a lesson to be learned here.
Look at the Chargers/raiders game. This was a close game – if the Bolts are still so good, why was it close? Answer – they probably aren’t that good anymore. The raiders played together and got better, despite Al’s weirdness and byzantine ways (love that chain mail thing, Al), but the Chargers seem to be falling apart and are getting worse. Why are they worse?
Perhaps it’s ‘creeping Norvism’, that deterioratory disease that so many have feared (or looked forward to) in which the very Touch of Turner leads inevitably to a wasting paroxysm infecting the best of players and the most fierce of franchises. Ok, I’m being facetious here, but there may be a kernel of truth. The loss of Marty Schottenheimer could have had deeper repercussions than AJ Smith anticipated. He believed that after a truly great season you could cut lose a coach that the players had loved, rallied around and identified with and it wouldn’t matter – in fact, that this action, replacing Marty with a coach with his own matching set of individually monogrammed personal baggage would lead inevitably to the SB. I will always wonder at that one. Rivals or not, I liked the Chargers under Marty – and they are losing their unity, their season and perhaps their ‘program’ right before our eyes.
If the Pats walk away with this one in the Chargers own home, it might be too late to salvage the season. Say what you will about it being early – it’s 5 games into a 17 week season, the Pats make it the 6th, which is over a third of the year, and that matters.
Playing two on the road, one in London, is a tough row to hoe. They get the Chiefs at home and then go on the road against the Steelers. And so, finally, let’s look a little at the issue of being on the road when you’re coming from the West Coast.
Pat Kirwan from nfl.com dug up this tidbit: "Since 2003, when the Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers,Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks travel to the Eastern time zone for a 1 p.m. game, they have a combined record of 19-59 -- a winning percentage of .243. When you look at games played at 4 p.m. or at night, the West Coast teams are 3-5 (.375 percentage). When you look at the whole picture since 2003, West Coast teams win 25.5 percent of their East Coast games.
Some of these West Coast teams have struggled in recent years, so let's take a specific look at the Seahawks, who have been in the playoffs every year since 2003. Seattle's west-to-east record is 6-12 in that time. The Raiders have been on hard times lately, but back in 2000-02 -- when they went 33-15 and made the playoffs all three years -- their west-to-east record was 2-3.
Coaches I spoke to that have coached in this situation all felt it is a real issue, even though it's hard to put a finger on why it happens. They all mentioned a "sluggish" feeling, especially early in games. Anyone can dig up a game like Seattle's 42-0 win at Philadelphia in 2005 and say it's all hogwash, but the numbers over time suggest something different. Maybe it's time to figure out how to at least schedule these games in the later time slot"
Mark Twain once proved that in a few years the Mississippi would be 1.5 (or so) miles long. Stats are only as good as their premises and this is a great case of stats being occasionally wrong. When you average the results of four teams, and three of them have been lousy for a long while, you wind up with lousy stats, and Kirwan did. However, there is a kernel of wisdom here – I’ve traveled a lot, and when you change time zones, especially going east, there is a lot of travel fatigue to deal with. Does it play in? I don’t know, it may not matter, but I can tell you this.
The Chargers don’t need anything else going wrong. It’s not too early to have a must win. If they want a legitimate shot at either the division or even a wildcard slot, it’s time to wake up and smell the pass rush.
So I’ll slip under a pier and disappear, hide out from the day’s hot sun and listen to the quietude of pounding surf. I’ll leave pontificating for a different day, and let the Chargers listen to the beat of their hearts and the smell of fear rising up like cheap perfume in a juke joint on a sultry, crowded night. The sand is as soft as their pass rush and the fish slippery as fame. Pretty soon the Patriots are coming like the British at Concord, and the outcome is just as uncertain. If the Bolts want to salvage a season, this is the time to do it and the revolution needs to start now. Every team should win at home and SD can’t afford to give up that advantage, but the Pats will be tough. As it stands now, I think I know what sounds will be coming across the sand Sunday night. They’re the sounds of a broken team, breaking hearts, and a season slipping through outstretched fingers like an errant pass.
They haven’t caught many of those here lately, either.