Chargers Trying to Creep Back into Relevance

It was a game like so many others in recent Charger history.  Trailing Tennessee 23-20 in their Week Seven matchup, Los Angeles’ defense stopped the Titans on fourth-and-one at about midfield, giving Philip Rivers and the LA offense one more shot at a victory (or at worst, a game-tying field goal that would send the contest to overtime).  They had no timeouts left, but did have 2:35 left on the clock.

Two minutes and sixteen seconds of football time later, running back Melvin Gordon fumbled at the one yard line, and the Chargers had another frustrating loss to absorb.

The Chargers had been a playoff team last year, but at 2-5 a return trip in 2019 seemed remote.

But, in the week-to-week NFL, things can change quickly.

After surviving a trip to Chicago – thanks to a missed last-second field goal – the Chargers came back home to face one of the NFC’s most feared teams, the 7-1 Green Bay Packers.  It was not a contest Los Angeles was expected to win.

Late last Sunday afternoon, Rivers took a knee and watched the clock expire on a 26-11 Los Angeles victory (gamebook) (summary) that was both unexpected and gratifying.

Rivers – the long-time Charger quarterback – led an efficient passing attack with 294 yards on 21 of 28 passing, but the deciding factors in this one were the reborn running game and a remarkable performance from the defense.

For two games in 2019, the Chargers showed the kind of offensive balance that had brought them a playoff berth last year.  After they ran for 125 yards in the opener against Indianapolis, they tacked on 137 more in Week Two against the Lions.

But, thereafter, the running game fell into disarray.  For the next six weeks, they would fail to reach 80 yards rushing – registering fewer than 40 rushing yards in each of the last four games.  In their Week Eight win in Chicago, they had run the ball only 12 times for 36 yards.

With the running game now dropping to twenty-eighth in the league (69.5 yards per game), and their 3.5 yards per carry also fading to twenty-eighth in the league, the Chargers dismissed offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and gave the play calling duties to Shane Steichen.  One of his mandates was to revive the running game.

Mission accomplished.

By halftime last Sunday, the Chargers had more yards (49) than in any of their four previous games.  But that was only the warm-up.  Throughout the second half, Rivers threw the ball only 6 times.  The rest was a bludgeoning running game that clicked off 27 running plays for 110 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  That was just the second half.  LA finished the game with 159 rushing yards on 38 carries.

The exclamation point came with 10:39 left in the game and LA ahead 19-3.  Facing fourth-and-goal on the Packer 1, Michael Badgley booted an apparent 19-yard field goal that seemed to seal the game at 22-3.  But not so fast.  An offside penalty against Green Bay’s Tony Brown was – surprisingly – accepted by LA coach Anthony Lynn.  With the ball now at the half-yard line, Lynn took the points off the board and emphatically waived his offense back on the field.

Faced with that same yard (or, at least, half-yard) that he had been unable to negotiate against Tennessee, Gordon plowed through limited Packer resistance to produce the game-clinching score.

The victory owed as much to a tenacious defense that chased Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers all over his backfield.  Green Bay ran only 18 plays for 50 first-half yards.  They ended the day with only 184 yards – with Rodgers managing just 161 passing.  Factoring in the sacks, Green Bay averaged more yards per running play (4.1) than they did per pass play (3.7).

It kinda makes you think that the Packers might have been a little more interested in running the ball.  In recent weeks running back Aaron Jones has transformed into something of a superstar.  He entered the game with 11 touchdowns on the season already (8 rushing and 3 receiving).  The previous week he had landed on the Kansas City Chiefs to the tune of 226 scrimmage yards.

Last Sunday, Jones got 9 touches.  He ran the ball only 3 times in the second half.  Adding in a Rodgers’ scramble, Green Bay had 4 second half running plays (even though they trailed only 9-0 at the half).  They finished the game with 45 rushing yards on 11 carries.  Perhaps they could learn a little something from the reborn running team they faced last Sunday.

It’s easy to make too much of this one game.  Clearly, with their season on the line, the Chargers played with much greater urgency than Green Bay – who seemed mostly out of sorts.  Desperation is a great advantage, but one Los Angeles won’t always have.  Tonight, for example, in Oakland they will face a 4-4 Raider team that is just as desperate to salvage its season.

While their playoff odds are still pretty long, this game did remind you how talented the Chargers are – and what a handful they can be when they run a balanced offense.

Not Quite Elementary My Dear Watson

Fresh off of his heroic game-winning touchdown pass against the Raiders – after having been kicked in the eye – Deshaun Watson and the 5-3 Houston Texans invaded London to play their division rivals from Jacksonville – the 4-4 Jaguars.

The Texans and Jag-u-ars accommodated their English cousins with a smashing show of American footballery – better, to be sure, on the part of the Texans – who earned the 26-3 victory (gamebook) (summary).

While the spotlight rested firmly on Watson, Deshaun was quite outshone by his running game.  As Watson threw for just 201 yards, that running game, spearheaded by Carlos Hyde, rolled through the beleaguered Jag-u-ars to the tune of 216 yards and 6.4 yards per carry.  A jolly good show.

The game itself was rather crisply played.  The two teams combined for just 6 punts and 11 penalties – reasonable totals, both.  And no turnovers.

Well, for the first 53 and a half minutes.

And then the floodgates opened as the two teams combined to spit up the football 5 times over the last 19 plays of the contest.  Most of those turnovers came courtesy of Jacksonville’s rookie quarterback, Gardner Minshew II.  Gardner – a mostly unheralded sixth-round pick out of Washington State – had inherited the starting position when Nick Foles was hurt in Week One.  With the surprise opportunity, Minshew fashioned a 4-3 record and a 98.8 passer rating coming into the contest.  Before his encounter with the Texans, Gardner had tossed just two interceptions.  In the fourth quarter alone, Minshew tossed two and fumbled the ball over twice.

Bit of a sticky wicket, what?

Unfortunately, this rather messy start was his last before the expected return of Mr Foles, and the buzz is that Nicky will get the ball on the other side of Jacksonville’s bye this week.  Timing, as they say, is everything.

On Football In England

There has been some chat recently about giving a European city – possibly London – a permanent place in American football.  The Los Angeles Chargers have already denied rumors that they would be moving across the pond.  The thought of a regular NFL franchise in Europe (the London Corgis anyone?) does have some intriguing aspects.  It would mean more regular early Sunday morning football games (which may or may not be a good idea) and, perhaps, the eventual melding of cultures (steak and kidney pie sold at Yankee concession stands?), it would also present its own set of issues.

In the first place, the season would almost have to extend an extra week to 18 weeks, with each team getting two byes.  Whoever this European team would be, they would be making 8 trips across the Atlantic every year.  This could, perhaps, be fewer, if the schedule makers tried to group their road and home games and the team decided not to travel back if their next game were also on American soil.

Even so, this team would be back and forth frequently, and would face a competitive disadvantage if they were only allotted one bye.  Should they ever host a playoff game, the travelling team might feel unusually pressed to put together their best game.

It would also be interesting to see what division they would be placed in – it would have to be one of the Eastern Divisions.

Anyway, it is a topic that seems to be under discussion.  As always, it is anyone’s guess as to how that will turn out.

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