The Chargers’ injury situation has officially gotten ridiculous. For the past three seasons, San Diego was among the most banged-up teams in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric, which weighs injuries to starters and takes into account whether guys are active but playing hurt, the Chargers have ranked 27th, 31st, and 28th, respectively, over the past three years.
That’s an awful run of luck, matched only by the Giants, who’ve finished dead last in that stat in each of the past two seasons. But this year San Diego’s health concerns have reached a new level. “Snakebit” is no longer an appropriate term to describe them. It’s time to start wondering whether head coach Mike McCoy denied a witch a mortgage, or whether Philip Rivers accidentally read from the Necronomicon.
Look at that. This graphic (from Pro Football Reference’s extremely useful injury report page) is scarier than any horror movie that will be released this month. Chargers are dropping so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep up. The carnage in that list doesn’t even include Pro Bowl cornerback Jason Verrett, who this week simply told reporters, “My season is done,” when asked about his prognosis after being diagnosed with a partially torn ACL in his left knee.
Verrett is the Chargers’ third big-name piece — along with wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Danny Woodhead — who has been lost for the season to an ACL injury. The same number of Chargers (linebacker Manti Te’o, running back Branden Oliver, and tight end Jeff Cumberland) has been lost to torn Achilles tendons.
This rash of lower-body injuries would seem to make for a trend, but what must be especially frustrating for the franchise is that an entirely different slew of injuries has plagued it in recent years. Allen missed the final eight games of last season with a lacerated kidney. Offensive lineman Chris Watt was lost for the second half of 2015 due to his shoulder. In 2014, center Nick Hardwick was sidelined by a neck injury, Woodhead broke his right fibula, and Verrett was done in by a shoulder problem.
For the past two seasons, the offensive line was the most decimated position group on the Chargers roster. In losing both Hardwick and tackle Jeromey Clary for nearly the entire 2014 campaign, San Diego tied the Falcons for the most adjusted games lost up front. Last season wasn’t much better. Only the Vikings and Broncos were less healthy on the offensive line.
The Chargers offensive line hasn’t escaped the injury bug altogether in 2016 (left tackle King Dunlap missed last week’s game against the Saints with migraines; left guard Orlando Franklin hurt his knee and is listed on the injury report for Sunday’s matchup with the Raiders), but it’s managed to avoid disaster. That’s the problem for a cursed team, though: If it catches a break in one area, it suffers in another.
Because it happened in the season opener, Allen’s injury seemed like the first major blow to San Diego’s receiving corps, but it was actually the second. Stevie Johnson, who made 45 catches for 497 yards in 2015, had already been lost for the year to a meniscus injury suffered in training camp. Before halftime of Week 1, Rivers was already without his top two wide receivers, including one (Allen) who is the treasurer of the Always Open Club and one of the most valuable receivers in all of football.
Taking into account Woodhead’s ACL tear in Week 2 and tight end Antonio Gates’s hamstring injury that has cost him the past two games, it’s fair to say that Rivers has played most of this fall without his four top targets. The Chargers have spent much of September finding incredible ways to blow leads — they were ahead entering the final two minutes in each of their three 2016 losses — but given the circumstances, it’s impressive that they were even in so many games in the first place.
As he has been in the past, Rivers is the central factor keeping San Diego afloat. It’s a cruel twist that a quarterback who’s never missed a game since becoming a starter in 2006 plays for a team that never seems to stay healthy. The Chargers rank eighth in offensive DVOA and 12th in passing DVOA this season despite Rivers throwing to receivers like Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams. Stability up front and a much-improved version of Melvin Gordon have contributed to those numbers, but what Rivers continues to do as the world around him crumbles has been remarkable.
With a 1–3 record, though, and the division-rival Broncos and Raiders out to hot starts, San Diego’s 2016 season may already be lost. Even though the Chargers have remained competitive, two of their first four opponents have been the Colts and Jaguars, both of whom showed last week that they belong in any conversations about the worst team in the AFC (non-Browns category). For the next 12 games, the Chargers face life without the possibility of playing like the team they wanted to be before the season began. The first half of Week 1’s contest against the Chiefs — with Allen shredding the Kansas City secondary, Gordon running amok, and Woodhead resuming life as the yards-after-catch king out of the backfield — was a sign of what this healthy team might have been. Any hope of realizing that potential promptly disappeared in the blink of an eye.
On defense, the strength of this roster was supposed to be a revamped pass defense built around a Verrett-led group of cornerbacks and first-round pick Joey Bosa. Well, a hamstring injury has kept Bosa from playing a single down (he is set to make his debut Sunday), and corner Brandon Flowers missed last week’s game with a concussion. With the offensive line staying healthy (so far) and Gordon looking like a wholly different back than he was in 2015, a few surprising strengths should have paired with the unsurprising ones to turn San Diego into a playoff contender. That plan has gone to hell with the predictable strengths devolving into weaknesses.
When considering the fallout from another lost season in San Diego, Rivers, who’s now 34 years old and 13 years into his career, comes to mind first. In 2013, the last season in which San Diego wasn’t completely decimated by injury, Rivers enjoyed perhaps the best campaign of his life, throwing for 4,478 yards with 32 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. The chance to replicate that has been stolen away these past three years, and with it, San Diego’s ability to reach anything resembling its offensive ceiling. The latest injury epidemic has been so bad that, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Chargers plan on launching an unprecedented study into what’s going wrong and why.
For now, though, all that’s certain is that turf monsters have snatched the hope from the Chargers’ season before Halloween for the third consecutive year. Once again, the questions about both Rivers and this version of the Chargers — in possibly their final season in San Diego — will focus on what could have been.