They’ve been here before.
A year ago, this same Chargers team was 2-3. They found a way to get fired up that time; they won their final 8 and they became the talk of the league. A Super Bowl was next on their horizon. Their lineup was too deep, too powerful to stand against. No one could challenge them in the division; certainly not the ‘rebuilding’ Broncos. Their place in the playoffs was marked and reserved. This would be their year. And everyone knew it. Everyone said so. The town rang with it like an echoing gong.
I walked around the town today and listened to the people, and there was a new note in their voices. The tone of resignation, of a sadness that spoke to me of years past; promises unfulfilled and power unmanifested. The people aren’t talking about Super Bowls anymore. They’re talking about failure.
A treasured few still clung to their hopes; frail lifelines, loosely bound. They talked about turning it around, and I nodded and agreed. But there was no passion in their voices, no conviction behind the sheltering words. Most showed no more strength than the Chargers did this Sunday. That was the time that promises fell before reality and the shield of a turnaround fell to college plays and fiery players as Miami broke the Chargers like so much sugarcane at harvest. I listened, as Frost said, to, “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” I listened to voices uncertain.
I watched the film of the Miami/San Diego game again, and I listened to the players in the Chargers locker room after the game. There was a different note in their voices too, a theme of confusion, a litany of wondering where it was, and who had taken it from them. Wasn’t it promised to them? Wasn’t it their due?
Shaun Phillips said, “We’re like, go with the flow, go with the flow, you know, and we can do that. I definitely notice our lack of passion.” And he said it as if he was talking about someone else.
Luis Castillo had been tossed aside like an unwanted toy throughout the game. He seemed stunned as he added “In this league, with the amount of talent we’ll face, we can’t play this way.” But they did play this way; they have done so, and they seem unable to play any other way. They start the games slowly as if they have the luxury of time, as if the other team will pause and give the momentum back to them. They play as if the first two games were flukes, never to be repeated. As if they expected to win, and that this expectation should have been enough.
Rivers seemed strangely uncertain most of the game. After a decent first drive that netted only a field goal, Rivers lost his concentration, his skill and perhaps, his nerve. He missed open receivers, flinched from contact, and seemed to be looking not for receivers but for the next hit – which was never far away.
“It’s not that we didn’t think the Dolphins were capable,” he mumbled later, “but this is one we expected to win. And it was obvious that theyexpected to win. And they came out and whipped us.” Yes, they did. He held the ball far too long and gave good rushers all they needed. His voice drifted off at the end, as if his thoughts were as yet far away, or as if he wasn’t able to understand what was in front of him.
Castillo tried to focus on remedying the bleeding. “It’s guys being overaggressive and jumping out of their gaps and it’s something that we need to correct.” It was that, but it was much more than that. There was no penetration by the Bolts DL. Miami had schemed for the Chargers rush, seemed to know what they would do and took them like Grant took Richmond. It was not so much contest as conquest.
Early in the second half, Ronnie Brown, he of the wildcat formation that David Lee brought fresh from the arms of Darren McFadden, had 88 years rushing. The Chargers had 91 years of total offense at that moment. The Chargers expected Miami to falter, to soften and to fail. They kept waiting, looking for the moment when the pendulum would swing. The lack of clarity on the part of the Chargers was typified when Matt Wilhelm stuffed a 2nd down run for a paltry single yard loss and celebrated as if he had won the playoffs. He gave a Joey Porter kick and jumped in the air. The crowd booed, and Porter came out a series later and angrily stuffed River into the turf, demonstrated the right way to do the kick and gestured at the adoring home crowd. Wilhelm just didn’t get it – and the rest of the Chargers followed suit.
Antwan Applewhite disappeared against Jake Long like mist off the Bay. I heard people talk about the heat in Miami, the lack of players in the rotation due to injury, about tiring late in the game. It’s all true, but they weren’t tired in the 1st half. Greg Camarillo schooled Antoine Cason, whipping him to the merry tune of 6 catches. No one could check Matt Roth as he hounded Rivers all the afternoon long. It was an old fashioned butt whipping, and it wasn’t as close as the score.
There were bright spots for the Chargers. Jacob Hester showed fast hands and great awareness in snatching a fumbled kickoff that should have tied the game. But a short San Diego drive faltered at 4th and goal at the one, as the O line seemed to decide en mass not to interfere in a hammering of Tomlinson near the line. Mike Scifres was tremendous, punting for an average of 55.9 yards, and burying 3 inside the 20 without a single touchback. But when the skill of your punter is the high point of your game, the outcome isn’t in question.
Where do they go from here? It’s early, of course. The mutterings about firing Turner have started, but they’re a brief whisper in the background stillness. They are 2-3 for the second season in a row, but this time they are disappearing every game: at times reappearing but playing phantom football week after week, awakening hours later with a skull mark firmly pounded into their chins. The injury entity has come to visit and it brought luggage: it may stay the entire season. LDT needs to be rested, Nick Hardwick isn’t himself, Williams and Castillo have nearly vanished and Ted Cottrell seemed as confounded as his players. Rivers seems more puzzled than petulant. Marques Harris and Applewhite appear to be unable to shoulder their burdens and hold this team together. Tucker is fighting injury and Merriman seems irreplaceable.
Next week they get to welcome the New England Patriots to San Diego. This has become a serious rivalry, as angry as the Broncos. New England has defeated them twice in two years, has ended their season and put their Super Bowl Dreams on hold. But New England, without Brady, put up 30 points on the road against SF this past week.
If the Chargers are to turn this around this year, it may have to be as a wildcard. The Broncos are winning and time may be running out on a footrace for the division title. Someone in that locker room is going to have to look in a mirror and say to that image, “Enough. It ends here. I will it and it will be.” And they will have to go out and prove it. It isn’t going to be easy. Super Bowls aren’t given – They’re earned. Time is running out. Platitudes are as meaningless as a hooker’s kiss. Between the Bolts, the Padres and the Aztecs, it’s a tough time to be a San Diego fan.
And me, I’ll be haunting the waterfront, listening to the marks and the grifters, the bells and the horns of the barges, looking for the SunnySide of things. And this year, I’m wondering if it’s going to find San Diego.