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Tragedy, Comedy, and Many Shanked Kicks: A Complete History of the Chargers’ Failures

Marked by boneheaded plays and historic futility in one-score games, the Philip Rivers era has revolutionized the art of losing in the NFL

Scott Laven/Getty Images

If great art makes you think and feel, then the Los Angeles Chargers have turned losing into an art form. In 15 years under quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers have had a head-scratching, heart-stopping, stomach-churning series of losses that defy the odds and define their franchise. It’s not just that the Chargers lose so many close contests, it’s also how they do it. Any team can lose a game. The Chargers challenge the genre of defeat.

On Sunday the Chargers unveiled their newest masterpiece. Down 20-17 with just over two minutes to go against the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 34-yard line. Head coach Anthony Lynn wanted to go for it so bad that he kept his offense on the field even when two false start penalties turned the fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-11. Rivers uncorked an absurd deep pass down the left sideline for receiver Mike Williams (who was extremely not open and almost fell to the ground on his route) who caught the ball with one arm for a 38-yard gain.

The Chargers turned Williams’s deep catch into a field goal to tie the game at 20. With just nine seconds to go, Denver’s offensive coordinator reportedly wanted to take a knee and head to overtime, but Broncos head coach Vic Fangio disagreed. “Let’s go down the sideline and see what happens,” Fangio reportedly said.

What happened was Denver’s Courtland Sutton drew a pass interference penalty on L.A.’s Casey Hayward to advance the ball 37 yards. The Broncos kicked a 53-yard field goal as time expired to win 23-20.

“It’s frustrating to fight back and have a game end like that,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn told reporters after the game. “It’s very frustrating. But like I told the team, we didn’t have to be in that situation.”

All of that sounds alien yet deeply familiar. Since 2006 the Chargers have lost 65 games by seven points or fewer, tied with the Browns for the most in football. Considering the Chargers have the 10th-best record in football in that span while the Browns have the worst, that’s astonishing. A team’s record in one-score games typically evens out over time, but the Chargers’ has not. They have the largest differential in the league between their winning percentage and their winning percentage in one-score games. The team returns to the same themes over and over—mental errors, special teams gaffes, and fourth-quarter disasters to pull defeat from the jaws of victory—but combines them in different ways to create something new each time. It’s a masterpiece. They take the tragedy of Caravaggio, the improvisation of Miles Davis, and the ubiquity of Drake. Let’s take a tour through the gallery of the Chargers’ finest losses in the Rivers era.

Divisional Round 2006-07 Playoffs: The Marlon McCree Game

Opponent: New England Patriots
Score: Chargers 21, Patriots 13
Time: 6:25 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Patriots
Down and distance: Fourth-and-5

Tom Brady was intercepted by Chargers safety Marlon McCree, seemingly sealing a Chargers victory and ending a half-decade of dominance from the three-time Super Bowl champions. But Troy Brown punched the ball out from McCree’s hands, and it was recovered by Pats receiver Reche Caldwell.

Brady threw a touchdown pass to Caldwell five plays later to make the game 21-19. Then New England made the two-point conversion to tie it at 21. On their next drive, the Patriots kicked a field goal to take a 24-21 lead. The Chargers set up Nate Kaeding for a 54-yarder to tie the game, but he missed. The 14-2 Chargers, who had captured the no. 1 seed in the AFC behind a record 28-touchdown season from LaDainian Tomlinson, were one-and-done in the postseason. Worst of all, this might have been their best chance at a Super Bowl. The following season, the Chargers faced the undefeated Patriots in the AFC championship game with a litany of injured players, including Rivers playing on a torn ACL and Tomlinson trying to play through a knee injury, but lost 21-12.

Sad Marty Schottenheimer quote: “Anytime you’re in the playoffs and lose, and certainly I have plenty of experience at it, there’s a disappointment.”

A month later Chargers owner Dean Spanos fired Schottenheimer and gave us …

The Norv Turner Era (2007-2012)

Week 2, 2008: Ed Hochuli Is the Whistleblower

Opponent: Denver Broncos
Score: Chargers 38, Broncos 31
Time: 1:17 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Broncos
Down and distance: Second-and-goal at the Chargers’ 1-yard line

Denver had three plays to go 1 yard and tie the game, but quarterback Jay Cutler rolled out of the pocket and fumbled as he tried to throw. The Chargers recovered to seal the victory, but referee Ed Hochuli thought it was an incomplete pass and whistled the play dead. The whistle nullified the Chargers’ recovery.

“The play should have been ruled a fumble,” Hochuli said. “By rule, the ball is dead when it hits the ground when the whistle is blown.”

Denver kept the ball, and Cutler threw a touchdown to receiver Eddie Royal two plays later to make the game Chargers 38, Denver 37. Then Denver went for two. Cutler tossed the ball to Royal again and converted to give Denver the 39-38 win in regulation. It wasn’t even the only referee mistake of the day. Earlier in the game there was another awful technical issue with replay that upheld a bogus fumble ruling against the Chargers.

Sad Norv Turner quote: “[Discussing] the rules or any of the calls isn’t going to change the outcome of that game. That game is going to be 39-38 forever.”

Divisional Round, January 2010: The Nate Kaeding Game Against the Jets

Opponent: New York Jets
Score: Jets 17, Chargers 7
Time: 4:42 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Fourth-and-2 from the Jets’ 22-yard line

Nate Kaeding made 32 field goals in 2009, the most of any kicker. He had just three misses all season, which made it more devastating when he missed three kicks against the Jets in the playoffs. The final miss came from 40 yards out with under five minutes to go and would have been enough to tie considering the Chargers scored a touchdown on their final drive. This was the second time the Chargers lost to the Jets in the playoffs when Kaeding missed a 40-yard field goal with under five minutes in the game. Kaeding missed a 40-yarder in overtime against the Jets in January 2005.

Sad Nate Kaeding quote: “Professionally, it’s a tough thing to get through. I’m not gonna feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for my teammates, coaches and support staff here. I feel like I let everybody down.”

Sad quote from general manager A.J. Smith: “The résumé of the San Diego Chargers has been an outstanding regular-season team and in the postseason can’t get it done.”

Week 8, 2011: Philip Rivers Fumbles on a Kneel-down

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs
Score: Chargers 20, Chiefs 20
Time: 1:03 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: First-and-10 at the Kansas City 15-yard line

The Chargers were about to beat the division-rival Chiefs on Monday Night Football and take the sole lead in the AFC West. With the game tied, the Chargers intended to take a knee and let new kicker Nick Novak take the game-winning kick as time expired from 32 yards out. That distance is shorter than an extra point nowadays. But as Rivers went to take a knee, he fumbled the snap and the Chiefs recovered.

The two teams went to overtime and the Chargers won the toss, but Rivers was stripsacked on their second play. Rivers recovered but the Chargers punted to the Chiefs, who drove down and won the game. The game likely cost the Chargers the division title. At the end of the season, San Diego ended up in a three-way tie at 8-8 for the AFC West lead, but the Broncos won the division on tiebreakers.

“I’m baffled,” Chargers linebacker Takeo Spikes said after the game.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “We didn’t have an issue [with the snap] the whole game. Haven’t had an issue in years. This one’s rough.”

Week 6, 2012: Broncos Score 35 Points in the Second Half

Opponent: Denver Broncos
Score: Chargers 24, Broncos 0
Time: Halftime

New year, new collapse against a divisional foe on Monday Night Football. The Chargers jumped out on Peyton Manning’s Broncos for a 24-0 lead at halftime, but Denver scored 35 unanswered points in the final two quarters like a horror villain that wouldn’t die. Like in a horror movie, the main characters made some inexplicable mistakes. The comeback was possible because the Chargers turned the ball over on five of their six possessions in the second half. In the fourth quarter alone, Rivers threw three interceptions and lost a fumble. Denver’s comeback was the fourth-biggest in regular-season history at the time.

Sad Norv Turner quote: “We’ve got to go play a complete game. We’ve shown through three quarters of a game what we can do.”

Week 12, 2012: The Fourth-and-29 Game

Opponent: Baltimore Ravens
Score: Chargers 13, Ravens 10
Time: 1:59 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Ravens
Down and distance: Fourth-and-29 on Baltimore’s 37-yard line

Failures of a certain scale are studied. The Titanic sinking, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the Ravens’ converting a fourth-and-29 to beat the Chargers all qualify. Ironically, the Chargers stopped the Ravens on fourth-and-inches earlier in the game. But on fourth-and-29 with the game on the line, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tossed a checkdown at the line of scrimmage to running back Ray Rice. Rice ran 15 yards straight upfield, pivoted 90 degrees and outran six Chargers defenders as he crossed the Chargers’ lightning bolt logo at midfield (metaphors), curved back upfield, and then lowered his shoulder into the final two Chargers defenders.

Rice gained 29 yards on fourth-and-29. Or was it 28? The referees moved the chains after Rice converted, but then the play was reviewed and the referees had to move the chains back. The new chain location and a lack of a definitive angle showing when Rice’s knee went down led the referees to stick with the call on the field: first down Baltimore. The Ravens’ Justin Tucker kicked a field goal to tie the game on the possession and then kicked the game-winner in overtime.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “[Rice] did not get the first down. They just did not have a view to overturn it. He did not get it. You can’t help it. When you don’t have a view to overturn it, you cannot overturn it. I do not think anyone thinks he got it. I do not think anyone in the stadium thinks he got it. I do not think Ray Rice thinks he got it. I do not think anyone on their team thinks he got it. But he got it. They just did not have a camera view to overturn it. That’s what the referee said. He felt bad that they could not because he did not have a view. He knew his knee was down on the 35-yard line.”

Sad Norv Turner quote: “Obviously, on 4th-and-29, we should have stopped them.”

Spanos fired Turner after the 2012 season and gave us …

The Mike McCoy Era (2013-2016)

Week 1, 2013: Blown 21-Point Lead to Houston

Opponent: Houston Texans
Score: Chargers 28, Texans 7
Time: 10:46 remaining in the third quarter

The Mike McCoy era began with the Chargers jumping out to a 28-7 lead over the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. All the Chargers had to do was bleed the clock, but from that point on the offense went three-and-out, three-and-out, pick-six, three-and-out, and three-and-out. Running just 14 plays over five drives gave the Texans enough time to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired for the 31-28 victory.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: ”We’re sick, I’m sick, that we’re not 1-0.”

Sad Mike McCoy quote: “This was a tough one, obviously. When you play a good team like the Houston Texans, you have an opportunity when you’re up 28-7. You have to put the game away.”

Week 16, 2015: Chargers vs. Raiders

Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Score: Chargers 17, Raiders 12
Time: 8:53 left in the fourth quarte
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Fourth-and-25 at the Oakland 36-yard line

Chargers kicker Josh Lambo drilled a 53-yard field goal with just under nine minutes left to give the team a 20-12 lead, but Oakland’s Khalil Mack was called for defensive holding on the play, giving the Chargers an automatic first down. Rivers threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ladarius Green on the next play, but the booth review overturned the catch and ruled it incomplete. The Chargers settled for a 48-yard kick, but Lambo missed this one. The game stayed at 17-12. The Chargers fumbled on their next possession, and the game would eventually go to overtime, when Los Angeles lost.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “It’s been the story of the year, just losing close games. Doesn’t make it any easier losing another one like that.”

Week 1, 2016: The Largest Comeback in Chiefs Franchise History

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs
Score: Chargers 27, Chiefs 20
Time: 1:59 remaining in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chiefs
Down and distance: Fourth-and-10 at the Chargers’ 25-yard line

The Chargers led 24-3 midway through the third quarter and 27-10 midway through the fourth, which gave them a 99.7 percent win probability and sent Chiefs fans leaving Arrowhead Stadium. Yet the Chargers were sweating it at the two-minute warning. Drew Kaser shanked a punt for just 17 yards. The Chiefs went 42 yards in four plays to tie the game at 27, won the coin toss, and then scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime without the Chargers getting the ball again. Kansas City overcame a 21-point deficit in roughly 18 minutes. Star receiver Keenan Allen also tore his ACL in this game, making him just one of the nearly 20 Chargers who landed on injured reserve by Week 4.

Sad quote from tackle Joe Barksdale: “Everybody with eyes who saw the game has got to know, we have to close it. It’s not acceptable to be up by 24-3 and lose the game. We know that.”

Week 4, 2016: Blew 34-21 Lead to Saints in Under Seven Minutes

Opponent: New Orleans Saints
Score: Chargers 34, Saints 21
Time: 8:39 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Kickoff post–field goal

When Lambo kicked a field goal to make the game 34-21, the Chargers’ win probability was 98.6 percent. But their final three drives were a lost fumble, lost fumble, and interception, while the Saints finished with a touchdown, touchdown, and kneel-down to win in regulation.

Angry Mike McCoy quote: “That performance in the second half is flat-out unacceptable. From the very opening kickoff return all the way to the very end. You cannot turn the ball over at critical times when you are trying to put the game away. Two times in a row. We absolutely gave this one away.”

Week 5, 2016: A 1-in-30-Million Stretch

Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Score: Raiders 34, Chargers 31
Time: 3:05 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Third-and-2 at the Raiders’ 19-yard-line

The Chargers led by as much as eight midway through the third quarter but were losing by three with just three minutes left in the game. On third-and-2, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon was stuffed after gaining just 1 yard, so the Chargers lined up for a 36-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 to tie the game at 34. The holder was punter Drew Kaser, who earlier in the game had shanked a punt 16 yards at the end of the third quarter to set up a Raiders touchdown. On the field goal attempt, Kaser failed to catch the snap and the ball went flying behind him for his second major screw-up of the day.

After Oakland’s loss to the Raiders, The Wall Street Journal calculated the odds of the Chargers losing their games to the Chiefs, Saints, Colts, and Raiders in the first four weeks of the season were 1 in 30 million. FiveThirtyEight calculated that, from the beginning of 2015 through this Raiders loss, the Chargers lost more win probability per game in the fourth quarter and overtime than any other two-year window for any team in the Super Bowl era.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “You can’t make this stuff up. You think, ‘Is there any other way we can find a way to do this?’”

Sad Mike McCoy quote: “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something like that happens.”

Spanos fired McCoy after the season, giving us the …

The Anthony Lynn Era (2017-Present)

Week 1, 2017: Koo on Ice

Opponent: Denver Broncos
Score: Broncos 24, Chargers 21
Time: Five seconds left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Fourth-and-2 at the Denver 26-yard line

New city, new kicker, same Chargers. In their first game representing Los Angeles, the Chargers traveled to Denver and lined up rookie Younghoe Koo for a 44-yard kick, which doubled as his first career field goal attempt, to send the game to overtime. Koo nailed it. Unfortunately, Denver head coach Vance Joseph called a timeout to ice Koo. When he lined up for his second try, the Broncos blocked the kick.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “I think if we get to OT, we would have finished it off, but we didn’t get that chance.”

Week 2 2017: Koo Misses the Game-Winner (This Time It’s His Fault)

Opponent: Miami Dolphins
Score: Dolphins 19, Chargers 17
Time: Nine seconds left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Third-and-1 at the Miami 26-yard line

One week after Koo’s chance to be the hero was taken from him, he had another shot. The Chargers lined him up for a 44-yard field goal, this time to win the game rather than send it to overtime. He missed.

Adding insult to injury, the team’s celebratory cannons accidentally went off as if Koo had won the game (that’s what happens when the guy who operated your cannons for 37 years doesn’t move from San Diego to Los Angeles). After the cannons celebrated the Chargers’ loss at the Chargers’ first home game in Los Angeles, the fans in the stadium began … cheering. ESPN measured the crowd noise at the game and concluded Koo’s missed kick was the loudest cheer of the game from the crowd, made up predominantly of Dolphins fans. This was the first clue that every Chargers game would effectively be on the road. Steelers fans had turned Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego into a Pittsburgh home game before, but Dolphins fans doing it was new.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “I thought there was great energy in the stadium. Obviously the loudest roar came at the end after the missed field goal. That’s where you really got to see how many Dolphins fans there were. I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal. I wasn’t sure which roar it was.”

Divisional Round, January 2019: The Luck Runs Out

The Chargers’ luck turned in 2018. They played in seven one-possession games during the regular season and went 6-1 in them, en route to a 12-4 record—their best since 2009. The Chargers dominated the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round and held Lamar Jackson to the worst performance of his young career. Entering the divisional round, they had to like their chances against a New England team that had been slow and sluggish for the entire month of December. This was the Chargers’ best chance at a Super Bowl run in years.

That team was promptly disemboweled. New England turned the Chargers inside out in a 41-28 loss that was 41-14 midway through the fourth quarter. L.A.’s luck turned around for one season, but it did not carry into the playoffs.

Week 7, 2019: The Melvin Gordon Game

Opponent: Tennessee Titans
Score: Titans 23, Chargers 20
Time: 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Second-and-1 at the Tennessee 1-yard line

Chargers running back Melvin Gordon returned from his holdout after backup Austin Ekeler thrived for a month in his absence. Gordon’s return promptly clogged the Chargers’ running game. Gordon had just 20 carries for 49 yards in his first two games back, and the Chargers went from one of the best rushing teams to one of the worst. Gordon’s solution for this was publicly asking for more carries.

“With the more carries you get, you run that play and you’re like, ‘OK, this is how they are playing it,’” Gordon told ESPN’s Eric D. Williams. “So when you run that play again, I know how I’m going to treat it. But when you get eight carries, you’ve seen the same play for the first time every time. There’s no feel to it, and you never get a feel for the game.”

Gordon went from eight carries against Pittsburgh to 16 against Tennessee, but the 16th and final of the day was an exercise in be careful what you wish for. The Chargers were down 23-20 in the fourth quarter and got to the 1-yard line on a 15-yard pass to Ekeler originally ruled a touchdown before being overturned on replay. A false start moved the Chargers back to first-and-goal from the 6, but then a pass interference penalty put the Chargers back at the 1-yard line for first-and-goal. Rivers handed the ball to Gordon who ran in for the touchdown from the shotgun formation, but replay review once again overturned the score and put the Chargers at the 1-yard line. On second-and-1 Gordon was stuffed at the goal line, but the play was once again reviewed. The referees ruled Gordon fumbled the ball before being tackled, and the Titans recovered. Three consecutive replays, three rulings against the Chargers, and Tennessee held on for the 23-20 win.

Sad Anthony Lynn quote: “I have been in the league for a long time, and I have never been in a game like this. The emotions of this game, going from winning the game to losing the game in a matter of seconds ...”

Week 10, 2019: Rivers Is the Zero Instead of the Hero

Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Score: Raiders 26, Chargers 24
Time: 1:02 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: First-and-10 at the L.A. 25-yard line

At the end of the fourth against Oakland, Rivers needed to move the Chargers from the 25-yard line into field goal range, but he completed zero of his seven pass attempts on the drive. Even when the Chargers were bailed out by a fourth-down penalty, they didn’t move an inch on the other seven plays. Rivers was the first player to go 0-for-7 on a drive in at least 40 seasons, according to Elias Sports.

Sad Anthony Lynn quote: “I don’t have that luxury right now to think beyond the season. Right now, it’s one week at a time for me. Philip is our starting quarterback. I’m trying to figure out how to win the next game with him.”

Week 11, 2019: The Nadir of Rivers’s Career

Opponent: Kansas City Chiefs
Score: Chiefs 24, Chargers 17
Time: 4:20 left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Chargers
Down and distance: Third-and-10 at the L.A. 17-yard line

One week after throwing three interceptions against the Raiders, Rivers threw four interceptions against Kansas City, including ones on the Chargers’ final two drives of the game when a touchdown would have tied the score at 24. In back-to-back weeks the Chargers lost to the division-rival Raiders and Chiefs in prime time, and the seven combined picks Rivers threw is the most for any two-game stretch of his career.

Sad Philip Rivers quote: “If you could just pick and choose and never throw [interceptions] ever, I’d choose to throw zero. So I certainly don’t want to throw them, but I know it’s hurting us right now. So obviously I need to cut them out.”

Week 13, 2019: The Aforementioned Broncos Game

Opponent: Denver Broncos
Score: Broncos 20, Chargers 20
Time: Nine seconds left in the fourth quarter
Possession: Denver
Down and distance: First-and-10 at the Denver 28-yard line

The one that prompted this exercise. Drew Lock threw a ball down the sideline to Courtland Sutton, drawing the first pass interference penalty of the season called with under 10 seconds remaining. The Broncos kicked the field goal to win as time expired. This capped a stretch that ended the Chargers’ hopes for a meaningful season. A month ago the Chargers were 4-5 and fresh off of beating the Green Bay Packers. After their past three games, they’ve fallen to 4-8 and lost to each team in their division by a combined 12 points.

Sad Anthony Lynn quote: “Hell, if there was something I could do to avoid being in a close game, I would have done it by now.”