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The Chargers Are an AFC Competitor Hiding in Plain Sight

The stadium is usually empty and the team has a history of messing up even the most promising of seasons. But the 2018 squad may have enough talent to overcome all of that.

Getty Images/Elias Stein

Who do we believe in? Who believes in themselves? Who’s going to take the leap? And are we seriously going to talk ourselves into the Chargers again? Welcome to Place Your Bets Week!

The Chargers have not been the worst football team this century, but they’ve definitely been the most disappointing. For the last 15 years the question hasn’t been whether the Chargers will screw it up, but how.

Just look at the Philip Rivers era: In the Chargers’ legendary 2006 season—when LaDainian Tomlinson scored 31 touchdowns and the team went 14-2—they met the Patriots in the playoffs. With an eight-point lead and about six minutes to play, Chargers safety Marlon McCree picked off Tom Brady to seemingly seal the victory … until he fumbled the ball. The Chargers lost.

The next season, the Chargers met the Patriots again, this time in the AFC championship, but many of their key pieces were injured, including Rivers, who was playing on a torn ACL; Antonio Gates, who was playing on a dislocated toe; and Tomlinson, who amassed just three total touches before exiting with a sprained MCL. They lost again.

In 2009, they lost to the Jets by three points in the playoffs, a result determined in part by Nate Kaeding missing a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter—the second time in six years they lost when Kaeding missed a 40-yarder against the Jets in the postseason. In 2010, the Chargers had the no. 1 offense and no. 1 defense by yardage—and missed the playoffs. In 2012, they became just the eighth team in NFL history to score exactly as many points as they allowed—the season-long equivalent of a tie. Two years later, they did it again. In 2016, the team went 1-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer. You may recall that the Browns are 1-31 in the past two seasons. That “1” came against the Chargers in 2016. And last year, after a season that featured crushing missed field goals, improbably close losses, and almost no home fans, the Chargers lost a Week 17 playoff tiebreaker to both Tennessee and Buffalo, the latter of whom broke the longest postseason drought in professional football. The Bills (!), Jets (!!), and Browns (?!?!) now have bragging rights over the Chargers. And entering 2018, they’ve already lost tight end Hunter Henry and safety Jaylen Watkins to ACL tears and cornerback Jason Verrett to an Achilles injury, offering even more evidence that time is a flat circle.

But this year could be different. The Chargers have an elite passing attack, perhaps the best starting defensive ends in football, and the deepest secondary in the NFL. They’ve shored up their weaknesses (except the goddamn kickers) and have two of the most dynamic young breakout candidates in the league in defensive back Derwin James and receiver Mike Williams. They have one of the easiest schedules in football and are favored to win their division in a weaker AFC, and their defense is constructed to thrive in the playoffs. One of the best teams in football is hiding in plain sight—really, nobody is at these games—and this could be the year they prove everybody wrong.

Most people probably stopped paying attention to the Chargers last season before Columbus Day (if they were paying attention to the Chargers at all). Yet the Chargers went 6-1 down the stretch and quietly blossomed into one of the best teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball. They had the second-best pass offense last year by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which measures efficiency on a per-play-basis. Rivers threw the lowest interception rate (1.7 percent) of his career and finished second in passing yards, and running back Melvin Gordon set a career high in rushing yards with 1,105. Wide receiver Keenan Allen finally played in 16 games for the first time in his career after missing half of 2016 with a lacerated kidney and nearly all of 2017 with an ACL tear (there’s a lot of torn ACLs with the Chargers). He finished with the third-most receiving yards in football after Antonio Brown and Julio Jones.

The offense was exciting—the defense was even better. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram combined for the most quarterback pressures (151, or almost 9.5 per game) and the second-most sacks (23) of any pass-rushing duo in the league despite defensive coordinator Gus Bradley rushing six or more defenders just 2.1 percent of the time last season (31st in the league).

Behind a predominantly four-man rush (73.6 percent of plays), Bradley played six or more defensive backs (dime personnel) 46 percent of the time—the most in the NFL last season. The secondary was led by Casey Hayward, perhaps the most underrated cornerback in football.

The result was one of the best pass defenses in football. They allowed the third-fewest passing yards per game (197.3), the third-fewest touchdowns per drive (15.8 percent), tied for the third-fewest yards per pass attempt (6.5), and the fourth-lowest opposer passer rating (78.1). Overall, the Chargers had the league’s best red zone defense and forced the sixth-most turnovers (27).

Yet the Chargers didn’t translate those numbers into wins for nearly a month. On Monday Night Football in Week 1 of last year, pseudo-sensation rookie kicker Younghoe Koo was successfully iced (classic Chargers), and the game-winning kick was blocked on the ensuing attempt. The next week, he missed a 44-yard would-be game-winner against Miami. Those two losses stretched their record in games decided by seven points or fewer—virtually a coin flip—to a mind-boggling 1-10 since 2016, prompting The Ringer’s Danny Kelly to write a piece titled “The Chargers Can’t Lose Close Games Forever … or Can They?

L.A. finished 9-7. For the fifth time in the last eight years, the Chargers placed second in the AFC West and missed the playoffs.

“It’s not good enough for the expectation of this city, and it’s not good enough for our expectations either,” Gordon says at training camp. “We haven’t been doing enough to get that respect we want, but we gon’ get that.”

Respect comes up often with the Chargers. This team believes it can be great, but unlike many teams that feel they don’t get the respect they deserve (or pretend they don’t listen to outside noise), the Chargers know they haven’t earned any accolades.

“We want to win these games, and if we win these games, people will start respecting us,” Hayward says. “On paper we’re good, but we’ve gotta show up on game days.”

Why will things be different this year? For one, the Chargers’ bad luck won’t continue. It can’t … probably. One-score games are 50-50 propositions in the NFL, and the Chargers have the second-worst record in them for the past decade (ahead of only the Browns), including their absurd 1-11 stretch from 2016 through Week 4 of last year. If the Chargers’ record in one-score games returns to around the 50 percent mark in 2018, they should be in line for double-digit wins. Adding to that optimism is that the Chargers have what looks to be a weak schedule. It’s the fifth-easiest by Pythagorean expectation and third-easiest strength of schedule per Warren Sharp, with just two games against top-10 opponents (the Steelers and a battle for L.A. with the Rams).

Yet the biggest reason the Chargers will be better this season isn’t about luck. Between the players they’ve added and those returning, the team figures to improve across the board. While they’ve already lost Henry to injury and Gates to (probable) retirement, the Chargers have one of the deepest pass-catching groups in the league with the always-open Allen, the speedy Travis Benjamin, and the underrated Tyrell Williams. And 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver Mike Williams, who was the seventh overall pick in 2017, is poised to become a star.

The team also could improve on the ground. After ranking 27th by DVOA in rushing last year, the Chargers bolstered their offensive line, signing center Mike Pouncey away from Miami this offseason. They also should finally get playing time from Forrest Lamp, the first interior lineman drafted in 2017, who missed last year with a torn ACL (seriously, there’s a lot of these) and is now slotted in at right guard. Together, they’ll give Gordon plenty of room to improve on his average of 3.9 yards per carry.

L.A.’s defense could see similar improvements on the ground. Their run defense was ranked 25th in DVOA largely because of allowing the second-most broken tackles in the league (147), a byproduct of leading the league in dime-package personnel. On defense, GM Tom Telesco retained the core players aside from safety Tre Boston but spent L.A.’s first four draft picks on defenders, including Florida State hybrid safety Derwin James, USC outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, NC State run-stuffing defensive tackle Justin Jones, and another hybrid safety defender in West Virginia’s Kyzir White. All of them should bolster the run defense, but their additions to the pass defense will also be valuable. Nwosu should be able to add pass-rushing help alongside Ingram and Bosa (he certainly won’t be seeing any double teams), and James has the chance to be special if he combines his startling athleticism with NFL instincts.

The Chargers may be vulnerable if they fall behind in the fourth quarter and are forced to defend the run against dominant offensive lines, but the NFL is a passing-oriented league. Pass defense is, therefore, much more significant, and the Chargers have elite pass rushers and a deep, skilled secondary—it’s the kind of defense that will be elite at holding leads and is perfect for the playoffs.

Still, there are some things the Chargers haven’t improved, beginning with the kicking game. L.A. used five different kickers last year, all of whom combined for the worst field goal percentage in football (67 percent), the 30th best average kick coverage (26.4 yards), and the 31st ranked special teams unit by DVOA. After L.A.’s hyped rookie kicker flamed out for the Chargers in 2017, they may turn to … Roberto Aguayo, the hyped rookie kicker who spectacularly flamed out in 2016. If Aguayo doesn’t win the job, they’ll turn to Caleb Sturgis, who lost his job to Eagles kicker Jake Elliott last season. The Chargers once again enter the season unproven at kicker, but if they finally find even a league-average contributor, it could push them over the top.

An even bigger area where the Chargers are lacking is in the use of analytics. As Warren Sharp pointed out in his 2018 NFL preview, in its first eight games, Los Angeles was third worst at rushing on first down but ran on first down at the fourth-highest rate, often leaving the offense behind schedule on second down. If fortune favors the prepared, you’d think the Chargers would be all over these numbers, but head coach Anthony Lynn told me at Chargers training camp he wasn’t convinced analytics should drive coaches’ decision-making.

“You know I like analytics but ... sometimes analytics, the stats doesn’t tell the whole story,” Lynn says. “Because it doesn’t account for execution. So that first-down efficiency was poor, but it could have been because of poor execution, not scheme.”

Pouncey’s addition and Lamp’s return should bolster the execution, and whether it was analytically inspired or not, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt did make a shift in their first-down play calling in the final eight games last year. The Chargers don’t employ full-time analytics experts, so expecting them to plug any glaring play-calling inefficiencies may be too optimistic, and in a season that could be ruled by the teams empowering the nerds, it might be the biggest strike against betting on the Chargers this year.

But even with special teams a mystery and analytics treated as a lower priority, the Chargers have improved this offseason just as the rest of the division might be getting worse. Jon Gruden may begin his reign in Oakland by trading the team’s best player. Denver’s Vance Joseph has the third-highest odds to be the first head coach fired this season. The Chiefs swapped a 12-year starter for a player with one career start who last threw a touchdown pass in November 2016—against Baylor. From this perspective, it’s easy to see why the Chargers are favored to win the division this year, but Lynn gets uncomfortable hearing those odds.

“People are crowning us,” Lynn says. “We haven’t done anything.”

There was one other thing working against the Chargers last season that will change this year: moving. The Chargers don’t use their relocation from San Diego to Los Angeles as an excuse for last season’s slow start, but they now admit that the stability this year makes things easier. During last year’s training camp, Chargers players weren’t always sure where to meet the busses that took them to practice.

“No moving,” Lynn says. “Training camp is in the same place. Home is the same place. … Last year, everything was a first. For me, for the staff, everything was a first. This year it’s not.”

Not all of the Chargers feel at home yet. People on the street in Los Angeles get excited when they see Gordon—but it’s because they think he’s Todd Gurley or Derrick Henry.

“People just see a man with dreads and muscles and be like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s such and such,’” Gordon says. “I don’t even look close to Derrick Henry or Todd.”

Gordon, who says he has gotten into arguments with people in Los Angeles about whether or not he is Todd Gurley, says he tries not to take it personally considering he wears a face mask and that the team hasn’t been winning.

“You want the respect, but at the end of the day you gotta go out there and earn it,” Gordon says. “And we haven’t been winning as many games, and we haven’t been going to the playoffs, so you kind of gotta take it with a grain of salt. But we gon’ go out there and get that.”

The Chargers’ ill-fated decision to move to Los Angeles was worsened when Rams owner Stan Kroenke boxed the Chargers out for a year and forced them into an MLS stadium with a capacity of 27,000 people—half the size of the next smallest stadium. In their first season in Los Angeles, the Chargers sold so few tickets the team used tarps to cover entire sections of empty seats and resorted to giving out free U2 albums at their games. The fans who did show up last season were often rooting for the other team. As Allen told Bleacher Report’s Master Tesfatsion in December, “It’s an away game, man.”

I asked Allen about that comment earlier this month.

“I like away games,” Allen says. “I like the feeling there’s nobody with us. You get to shut everybody up. Hear silence when you score a touchdown. As far as the home games, the last game of the season [with a playoff spot on the line] was incredible, so I mean that game was amazing.”

Other players on the Chargers have played in front of home crowds three times the StubHub Center’s size, as Hayward did in Green Bay and James did at Florida State. Both insist they would play at the same level whether they were in front of 70 people or 70,000, but Allen says in his five seasons he has seen that new Chargers players go through an adjustment period.

“Especially for a guy like Casey, coming from Green Bay, coming from so much,” Allen says. “That fan base is probably the best in the league. So it’s coming from something like that and then coming here and it’s not the same, but it’s probably tough. But still gotta go play football.”

When asked about public perception, most teams say they don’t listen to the noise and focus on getting better. The Chargers are the opposite. Allen admits that it irks him he isn’t considered in the same class as Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr., and Hayward insists he should be considered the best cornerback in football. But the team understands that whether it’s filling seats or leaving a legacy in Los Angeles, there’s only one route to get there, and it’s not exactly groundbreaking.

The Chargers’ first six games are against the Chiefs, who won the past two division titles; the Bills, who beat the Chargers out for a playoff spot; the Rams, who beat the Chargers out for the L.A. Memorial Coliseum; the 49ers and division-rival Raiders, the latter of whom is breaking in a new coaching staff; and then the Browns, who, again, last won a game against the Chargers in 2016.

“We’ve got to win these games early in the season,” Hayward says. “People will jump on this bandwagon. But it starts with winning.”