They lead the NFL in offense and defense. They also are in the basement of what is arguably the league’s worst division.
Welcome to San Diego — where a dysfunctional 2010 is just getting worse.
The Chargers’ 2-5 record is largely the result of special-teams gaffes, injuries and ugly contract holdouts that sidelined two of the league’s best players. But even with these problems, San Diego could easily be undefeated. None of the losses have come by more than eight points.
A 23-20 home loss to New England last Sunday was a microcosm of San Diego’s woes. The Chargers committed turnovers on four consecutive series against one of the NFL’s top teams. Yet they still had the chance to send the game into overtime until Kris Brown’s 50-yard field goal attempt clanged off the right upright with 27 seconds remaining.
Brown kicked because starter Nate Kaeding was out — the latest in a string of injuries that has forced San Diego to already field 63 different players (the Chargers used 62 for all of 2009). Continuity issues from the shuffling have trickled down to special teams. San Diego has surrendered three returns for touchdowns and three blocked punts. There are other mistakes, too, like the inexcusable false start that pushed Brown’s game-tying effort back by five yards.
Maybe the Chargers could have overcome such errors with even more offensive firepower. But left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson weren’t around from the get-go. Both refused to sign their restricted free-agent tenders in showdowns with bullheaded general manager A.J. Smith — a recurring contractual theme that does nothing to inspire player loyalty or make head coach Norv Turner’s job any easier.
McNeill didn’t return until Week 6. Jackson — who would have missed the first three games anyway because of an NFL suspension — still isn’t on board. He is expected to sign next week but won’t be eligible to play until after San Diego’s 10th game.
Jackson and McNeill weren’t the only familiar faces missing at the start of the regular season. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson (New York Jets), cornerback Antonio Cromartie (ditto) and nose tackle Jamal Williams (Denver) were either traded or released in the offseason. Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman landed on injured reserve two weeks ago.
While all were once considered franchise cornerstones, the Chargers statistically haven’t skipped a beat. San Diego enters Sunday’s home game against Tennessee tied with the Titans for the NFL sack lead with 25. The Philip Rivers-led offense is averaging a league-best 422.7 yards and 25.6 points per game.
But the Chargers also have committed 18 turnovers, which is a higher total than all of last season.
“It’s not a matter of the number of errors we’re having,” Turner said in his Monday news conference. “It’s the type of errors we’re having and how significant they are because they have to do with possession of the ball.”
To recap: The Chargers are beat up. They’ve messed up. But things could very well be looking up if San Diego eliminates its mistakes and stages what has become a customary second-half surge.
Kansas City (4-2) leads the AFC West but doesn’t have a track record of sustained success. Oakland (3-4) is arguably the league’s most schizophrenic team. And Denver (2-5) may be in freefall mode after last Sunday’s 59-14 loss to the Raiders.
A 9-7 record could give San Diego its fifth consecutive division title (8-8 was good enough in 2008). That is a realistic goal for San Diego, provided the Chargers weather an upcoming four-game stretch that includes road matchups against Houston (4-2) and Indianapolis (4-2) after facing the Titans (5-2). In the final five weeks, San Diego will face all three of its division rivals as well as slumping San Francisco (1-6) and Cincinnati (2-4).
“A lot of people want to look at a lot of different things,” Turner said. “Our approach is going to be win one football game.”
That has proven far more challenging than what it should be in a maddening 2010 campaign.