Wins needed to avoid coaching changes – Press Enterprise
The Chargers found what every NFL team dreams of during their first eight games of the season: A franchise quarterback with a skyscraper ceiling.
Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert should be the Chargers’ top story for the first half of the 2020 season, but in Chargers fashion, one-score losses continue to dominate their team headlines.
Some teams go decades without finding their franchise quarterback. The Chargers went from future Hall-of-Famer Philip Rivers to Herbert in one offseason – with Tyrod Taylor awkwardly sandwiched between the two quarterbacks.
But, like much like Rivers’ experience, the Chargers’ decades-long struggle has been closing out games.
The Chargers suffered six one-score losses – five on the final play of the game – during the first eight games of the season.
The Chargers (2-6) also continue coming up short against AFC West opponents. They’re 0-3 in the division this season and extended their AFC West losing streak to nine games.
They’ve lost 15 of their past 17 one-possession games.
Instead of Chargers coach Anthony Lynn receiving praise for Herbert’s rapid development, he’s fielding questions about his job security and staffing changes.
Worth noting, injuries to key players haven’t stopped. Running back Austin Ekeler, safety Derwin James, defensive back Chris Harris Jr., center Mike Pouncey and linebacker Drue Tranquill are on injured reserve. Edge rusher Melvin Ingram, defensive tackle Justin Jones and offensive linemen Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga have missed multiple games.
It’s been the same old story – but with a different quarterback – for the Chargers’ first half of 2020.
Analysis: The Chargers’ patient plan of having Herbert learn behind Taylor quickly changed a minute after the coin toss in Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Taylor experienced chest pains – after a team-administered painkiller injection punctured his lung – and the rest was history. Herbert hasn’t looked back since his last-minute debut versus the defending Super Bowl champions. Herbert combined his physical tools with a veteran-like composure during his seven starts. He turned his weaknesses in college into strengths in the NFL. He torched opponents against the blitz and on third downs. He distributed the ball to his star playmakers, undrafted players, backups and practice-squad players.
The Chargers quickly found their star quarterback. Now, they need to close out games with Herbert.
Relevant numbers: Herbert’s passing yards: 2,146 (10th in NFL). Herbert’s passing touchdowns: 17 (8th). Herbert’s completion percentage: 67.3 (15th). Herbert’s passing yards per game: 306.6 (3rd). Herbert’s interceptions: 5.
Analysis: Ekeler picked up where he left off in his breakout 2019 season, but he hasn’t played since Week 4 after injuring his hamstring against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelley failed to take the reins during Ekeler’s absence. The Chargers, however, have had success with a committee approach, with contributions from Troymaine Pope and Kalen Ballage.
Relevant numbers: Rushing yards per game: 135.6 (8th). Yards per attempt: 4.1 (19th). Rushing touchdowns: 5 (29th). Kelley’s rushing yards: 292. Ekeler’s rushing yards: 248. Jackson’s rushing yards: 185.
Analysis: Keenan Allen is on pace for another Pro Bowl season and Mike Williams continued to make acrobatic catches in key moments. The dynamic duo finally had help in the first half of the season. No. 3 wideout Jalen Guyton provided speed and became Herbert’s go-to deep target. Tyron Johnson made his two receptions count and is averaging 51.5 yards per catch. But rookies Joe Reed and K.J. Hill struggled to make an impact in the first eight games.
Relevant numbers: Allen’s receiving yards: 651 (11th). Allen’s receptions: 62 (2nd). Allen’s targets: 86 (2nd). Williams’ yards per reception: 17.1 (7th). Guyton’s touchdowns: 3.
Analysis: The Chargers implemented more two- and three-tight end sets to start this season. Hunter Henry, the team’s all-around tight end, didn’t have his usual receiving numbers, but stepped up with his blocking. Henry hasn’t left the line of scrimmage often because the Chargers constantly shuffled their offensive line.
Virgil Green also helped as the team’s top blocking tight end, but he missed the past two games with a leg injury. Donald Parham Jr. has contributed in the red zone with two touchdowns, but he was unable to keep control of a potential game-winning grab against the Raiders.
Relevant numbers: Henry’s receiving yards: 357. Henry’s catches: 33. Parham’s touchdowns: 2. Combined touchdowns: 4.
Analysis: Sticking to the theme of the same old story, the Chargers were forced to shuffle their offensive line because of injuries. Pouncey was ruled out for before the season started because of a hip injury. Top offseason acquisitions Turner, a right guard, and Bulaga, a right tackle, have played only one drive together this season. Turner has played only one game and hasn’t played since Week 2 because of a groin injury. Bulaga missed three games because of a back injury, but aggravated it last week.
A bright spot for the Chargers has been the consistency of left tackle Sam Tevi, left guard Forrest Lamp and center Dan Feeney. The three 2017 draft picks are finally performing well together.
Relevant numbers: Sacks allowed: 16 (19th). Passing yards per game: 284.4 (5th). First downs: 190 (12th). Third-down conversions: 54 (5th).
Analysis: The defensive line’s production declined after a dominant first two weeks to the season. Bosa proved again why he’s one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, but was slowed by a lingering triceps injury. The defensive line lost its rhythm after Ingram and Jones were placed on injured reserve and missed three games.
Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery vastly improved from his sluggish rookie season, but he’s been at his best when coming off the bench for the second rotation. The Chargers will need a dominant eight-man defensive line rotation if they want to stack wins in the second half of the season.
Relevant numbers: Team sacks: 16 (22nd). Quarterback hurries: 39 (6th). Quarterback pressures: 78 (11th). Bosa’s sacks: 4.5. Bosa’s total tackles: 18.
Analysis: It’s been a rocky first half for rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray. He quickly grabbed a starting job, but perhaps the Chargers chose the wrong linebacker role. Murray was tasked with playing middle linebacker and calling the defense. He struggled with coverages and didn’t make impact plays. Last week, the Chargers pulled him briefly for communication issues. The Chargers remain high on their first-round rookie linebacker, but he might be better suited as an outside linebacker.
Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White played fast and made most of their tackles, but they also struggled to make impact plays.
Relevant numbers: Rushing yards allowed per game: 118.3 (15th). White’s total tackles: 62. Murray’s total tackles: 51. Team takeaways: 7 (26th).
Analysis: These weren’t the same “Jack Boyz” of years past. Casey Hayward’s play declined, Michael Davis allowed explosive plays, Harris Jr. injured his foot and Desmond King was traded to the Tennessee Titans.
With James sustaining a season-ending knee injury in training camp, Rayshawn Jenkins was moved from free safety to strong safety. That allowed 2019 second-round pick Nasir Adderley to start at free safety, but this safety combination hasn’t provided much results.
Relevant numbers: Team interceptions: 4 (26th). Passing yards allowed per game: 240.3 (16th). Completion percentage: 63.5 (9th).
Analysis: Kicker Michael Badgley missed five field goals, with the most costly being the potential game-winner in New Orleans. Badgley regained his confidence in the past two games, but missed another field goal last week against the Raiders.
The Chargers haven’t received much production from returners Reed and Hill, and had many special teams penalties in the first eight games.
Relevant numbers: Field goals made: 73.7% (24th). Extra points made: 90.5% (24th). Badgley’s field goals made and attempted: 14 of 19. Ty Long’s punting average: 46.5 (15th).
Analysis: Lynn and his coaching staff deserve plenty of credit for scheming game plans that built double-digit leads and for having Herbert ready to start. But the best coaches are the ones who can make in-game adjustments and close out games. Lynn and his staff haven’t done much of that for two seasons.
They might be down to their final eight games to prove they can return to their 2018 ways, when they won six one-possession games. But if Lynn gets another year to coach the Chargers, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley might not be so lucky. The Chargers’ defense has struggled in the past five games, allowing an average of 31.8 points per game.
Analysis: Close losses and injuries sum up the Chargers’ first half. At this point, it doesn’t seem the Chargers will be in the postseason even if the league expands to eight teams in each conference. Lynn will have his players motivated for the rest of the season, but it’s time for them to execute when it matters most in the fourth quarter.
Relevant numbers: Points per game: 25.6 (17th). Points allowed per game: 27 (21st). Yards per play: 5.8 (13th). Points combined in six losses: 24. Games with blown double-digit leads: 5.
Cumulative GPA: 2.18
Offensive MVP: Herbert. The 2020 No. 6 overall pick is the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year and is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He changed the Chargers’ offense from a conservative rushing attack to a high-scoring aerial assault. Herbert strikes fear into defenses with his downfield shots and surprises them with his mobility. It’s been a rough start for the Chargers, but their offense has the makings of being one of the best for years to come with Herbert.
Defensive MVP: Bosa. Not much debate here. Bosa is clearly the team’s best defensive player, despite playing with multiple injuries throughout the first half of the season. Bosa was awarded a five-year, $135 extension in training camp, but he’s still playing with the same intensity. The Chargers need their star pass rusher to stay healthy if they want to have better results in the second half of 2020.
Top newcomer: Herbert, again. In seven starts, Herbert managed to become the team’s best player. The Chargers had a great 2020 draft class because they drafted Herbert, but the other selections haven’t made a big impact. Veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph has provided leadership in his first season, but that’s not enough to overtake the rookie quarterback for this award.
X-factor: Harris Jr. The former All-Pro cornerback wasn’t on the field when the Chargers blew leads of 16 points or more in four consecutive games. Perhaps they would have won a few of those games if the savvy veteran was on the field. Harris returning from his foot injury to play slot cornerback won’t solve all the Chargers’ defensive issues, but he’ll certainly help an ailing secondary once viewed as one of the best in the NFL.