Here we are. Halfway through the regular season. To say that it’s been a bumpy ride is putting it mildly. Bolts fans across the country are frustrated and many are downright angry- with good reason. While the Chargers sit at 4-4 in second place in the AFC West, the dreaded thought of what could’ve been continues to haunt players, coaches and fans.
After two nice wins to start the season, against the Raiders and Titans respectively, the Bolts had their first “real” test of the season playing the undefeated Falcons. Coming into that game, there was plenty of reason for Bolts fans to feel upbeat and confident. The offense had been clicking and the defense completely dominated Jake Locker and Chris Johnson the week prior. The Falcons too had been playing well, but coming off of a short week of practice and a cross-country flight, the dirty birds seemed to be in line for a let down. As it turned out, nothing went as planned. Matt Ryan and the Falcons carved up our defense with ease and our offense could only eek out a field goal, losing 27 – 3. It was a very harsh reality check. Former Charger Michael Turner added insult to injury by mocking LaDainian Tomlinson’s famous TD ball flip after he scored. Definitely classless, but a gesture that I believe was directed more at General Manager A.J. Smith more than the people of San Diego. If you recall, Smith let Turner sign with Atlanta choosing to stick with an aging Tomlinson at the time. I convinced myself that it was the kind of butt-kicking we needed to help our team grow. Surely a lesson would be learned from such a drubbing.
The next week posed a road game against division foe Kansas City. The Chiefs were having their own issues on both sides of the ball, but playing at home has historically given them a big boost. It is never easy to win in Kansas City. On this day, however, early Chief turnovers gave our Bolts the jump start they needed to cruise out to an early lead. Jamaal Charles made up for his early turnover by rushing for 92 yards with a TD and a late Cassel to Bowe touchdown closed the gap, but the outcome was never in doubt as the Chargers cruised to a 37 – 20 victory.
Three wins after four games. Optimism was high, though no one had forgotten the beat down the Falcons put on us. At this point in the season, the defense was the star. Leading the league in run defense, the Bolts’ front seven had been nothing more than dominating. There were signs of inconsistency in the secondary, but at this point, the scores and game situations had made it easy to defend the pass. When the other team is behind, you know that the chances of them passing go way up, therefore a defense can be mentally ready. Offensively, it had been a mixed bag. We were scoring points thanks in large part to short fields after opponent turnovers. Quarterback Philip Rivers had seemed to have settled down from last year’s interception-riddled season. He was checking down quite a bit more with the occasional heave downfield. In fact, a member of the Falcons called our passing game a “check down or touchdown” scheme. Many fans, including myself, felt like Ryan Mathews still wasn’t being utilized enough. With Mathews coming back from a preseason broken collarbone, Norv Turner was hesitant to lean on him. To make matters worse, Mathews fumbled in the red zone early against the Falcons, something that has plagued him throughout his short career. Turner then benched him against Kansas City in favor of former Chief Jackie Battle. The combination of Battle and Ronnie Brown played well in the win over the Chiefs, so the running back situation became muddied. Still, the Chargers were sitting pretty in first place in the AFC West, with games against the winless Saints, a struggling Broncos team and the hapless Browns on the horizon.
The nationally televised game against the Saints, as it now turns out, would be a momentum crushing defeat for the Bolts. Drew Brees needed a touchdown pass in order to pass the great Johnny Unitas for most consecutive games with at least one TD pass. Most people expected that to happen, but many felt like the Chargers should walk out of New Orleans with a win. The Saints were dead last in the league in stopping the run. On paper, this was the game that Ryan Mathews would get to redeem himself and prove to everyone, especially his coach, that he could be the factor back that the Chargers believed they were drafting when they moved up in the first round to get him a few years earlier. Early on it looked like that just may happen. Ryan was ripping off chunks of yardage in the running game and was contributing in the passing game with some really nice runs off screen plays. Rivers and Meachem were finally connecting and things were going well. Heading into halftime, the Bolts led the Saints 17 – 14. However, this is when the season took a nosedive.
The 2nd half of the Saints matchup was a Drew Brees spectacular. Our pass rush disappeared and Drew had all the time he needed to slice and dice our secondary. Brees finished the game with 370 yards and 4 touchdowns, scoring the final 17 points of the game. What made the 31 – 24 loss all the more painful was that there were two big calls by the officials on the Chargers last ditch drive that may have allowed the Bolts a shot at overtime. One of the incidences in question involved an apparent holding on the Saints defense as they attempted to cover Antonio Gates. There was no flag thrown, though it was clear on replay that the infraction had occured. The other was an offensive pass interference penalty called on Gates that had the game announcers befuddled. The Bolts certainly could not put everything on the referees though, as they shot themselves in the foot earlier in the game when a Chargers pick-6 was nullified by a personal foul penalty called on rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram for a helmet to chin shot placed on Brees. Needless to say, this was a painful loss- to a previously winless team- suffered on national television. Surely, this time a lesson would be learned… right?
Next up, Peyton Manning and our division rival Denver Broncos. A win at home would give the Bolts a solid two game lead over the Broncos in the division. Spirits were high and the crowd was pumped! Historically, Manning has had his problems against the Chargers and everyone was looking forward to more of the same. The Chargers came out and literally dominated the Broncos in the first half. The defense was all over the Broncos as they struggled to get anything going, and the offense seemed to be scoring at will. Quentin Jammer had his own pick-6 of Manning that sent Chargers fans into a frenzy. The halftime score was 24 – 0. A raucous fan base cheered wildly as the hometown Chargers galloped to the locker room in complete control of the game- and the division. There was no way that we’d have another second half collapse like we did in New Orleans…right? Wrong. What transpired next has left shock waves in Southern California that continue to reverberate the “Fire Norv” and “Fire AJ” sentiment to this day. From the start of the second half, the Broncos took off. In particular, Peyton Manning. Just like Brees had done the week prior, Manning carved up the Charger secondary like a Thanksgiving turkey, thanks in no small measure to a lack of defensive pass rush. What made this collapse so mindboggling was the fact that as Manning heated up, Norv went away from the running game- choosing instead to engage in a passing shootout. At the very moment that the Bolts should’ve been chewing up the clock and keeping the ball away from Manning, Turner felt the best option was to keep throwing. The problem with that was that Rivers was not sharp that evening. His decision making was poor, forcing the ball into obviously covered receivers. Additionally, the offensive line was getting eaten alive by the Bronco pass rush. Rivers was often forced to throw off his back foot or on the run, resulting in slow, fluttering passes downfield. By the end of the game, Rivers accounted for six turnovers, two lost fumbles and four interceptions. I’ve always heard about a “shift in momentum” but this was unreal. The last of Rivers’ interceptions was the game-sealer as it was returned for a touchdown, making the final score 35 – 24. The fan rage after this debacle was palpable. This was more than a loss to a division foe, this was an apparent display of coaching ineptitude by Norv Turner and his staff. These were the kind of back to back losses that cost coaches their jobs. Yet, the Chargers PR representative boldly told fans to take a “chill pill” because after the bye week the Bolts would bounce back in a big way against the shaky Cleveland Browns and finish the season strong. Telling an already infuriated fan base to take a chill pill was probably not the wisest thing to say. Now insulted, on top of being frustrated, Charger fans took to social media in force calling for the firing of the entire front office. Things were bad.
Whew! The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. Time for the fans to chill out and for the team to get their proverbial “stuff” together. Chargers fans settled in for a calm Sunday of NFL games without having the disappointment of another San Diego implosion. Suddenly, during pre game shows across the country, more bad news for Turner and the Chargers. A report broke by Jay Glazer indicating that the Chargers were being investigated for use of an illegal sticky substance on their gloves during the Broncos game. “StickumGate” became the latest embarrassment that fans would have to endure. There is no glory in winning (or in our case collapsing miserably) if you have to cheat to do it. This added more fuel to the fire as fans nationwide clambered for the Chargers to jettison Norv and AJ. The San Diego Chargers had become the punch line to thousands of jokes and it seemed that Alex Spanos was indifferent to the whole thing. Many fans began questioning out loud if this was how the Chargers saga in San Diego was going to fizzle out with the threat of relocation to Los Angeles ever present. Again, everyone was told to relax- we have a very winnable game in Cleveland coming up…
Gameday in Cleveland! The weather was bad, but after everything this team and its fans had been through over the last three weeks, nothing was going to stop the Bolts from winning today! The wind and rain shouldn’t play too big a role in the game because, with the Browns defense being bottom five in the league against the run, the Chargers assured everyone that there would be a heavy dose of Ryan Mathews for the Browns to deal with. Long story short, Norv stuck to the gameplan and Mathews did see the ball quite a bit- both running the ball and catching screen passes. Mathews did cough up the ball once, but the story was the Bolts’ inability to put the ball into the end zone to finish drives, settling for 2 field goals on the day. The Browns did just enough by letting their workhorse Trent Richardson carry the load, amassing 122 yards and the game winning touchdown. Bolts lose their third game in a row, 7 – 6. The Browns had only one win prior to the game. The fans’ burning desire to can Norv Turner had now mushroomed into an uncontrollable wildfire. There had not been a single thing happening with this team of late for the fans to feel good about. Surely, this organization could learn something from the numerous failures of the last month.
A short week of practice led into last Thursday night’s do or die match-up with arguably the league’s most ineffective team, the Kansas City Chiefs. Yet another nationally televised game for the Chargers to show what they’re made of. Many fans were planning to create signs to hold up during the game voicing their disapproval of the Chargers coaching staff and administration. The signs might help to show, at least to the rest of the nation, that Charger fans were not okay with the shady events hovering over the team of late. From the very start of the game, it was clear that the Bolts were the superior team. The defense began creating turnovers again, as they had done early in the season. The pass rush was back, forcing Matt Cassel into numerous mistakes- including a fumble in their own end zone resulting in a touchdown for Shaun Phillips and a pick-6 for linebacker Demarrio Williams (a former Chief). Philip Rivers was nearly flawless on the day, going 18 of 20 for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns. One of his incompletions was an interception in the end zone just before the half, and the hometown crowd let him hear it as they showered him with a chorus of boos as he jogged into the locker room. In the end, it was the convincing win that the Bolts should’ve gotten against this team, 31 – 13. Interestingly, a number of the fans who had made anti-Norv signs were ordered to remove them by security within Qualcomm Stadium. What does it say about an organization that goes above and beyond to censor its fan base to avoid bad publicity? Does it sound like they care about what the people buying the tickets think? I’ll let you be the judge.
So here we are. Four wins and four losses. We’ve looked great at times and we’ve looked completely inept at times. Therein lies the core problem… inconsistency. Is that a reflection of a head coach who constantly over thinks the game situations and ends up putting the team in a bad position? Is it that we’re just not that good- that we can only beat the weakest of teams? Is it that we’ve let too many of our impact players leave town over the years? Is it just poor game preparation? Is it weaknesses in the secondary and offensive line? Is it that our quarterback is getting older and is no longer “elite”? Or… is it all of the above? Looking at the schedule ahead, there aren’t many games where we’ll be favored to win. Yet, this team is more than capable of getting hot in the last half of the season- as we’ve done many times in the recent past- and rolling back into the playoff picture. One thing I am certain of… Charger fans will be there either way. Twitter has shown me that Bolt fans are some of the most loyal, passionate and realistic fans in the world. There is no sugar-coating anything when it comes to Charger fans. They tell it like it is. If there was ever a fan base that deserves better from the team they support than the Bolt Nation… I don’t know who it is.