Only 15 NFL franchises have been fortunate enough to be called Super Bowl champions. My team, the San Diego Chargers, is not one of those franchises, although their 16 playoff berths and 1963 AFL Championship are worth mentioning. Therefore, my favorite team ever is one that failed to reach the summit of professional football.
Ask most Chargers fans about their favorite team and you'll get a few different answers. Is it the 1981-82 team that won the epic in Miami? Or is it the scrappy 1994-95 team that reached the franchise's only Super Bowl? While I remember Dennis Gibson's pass deflection in Pittsburgh like it was yesterday, I was still only seven years old when it happened, a bit too young to fully embrace being in the Super Bowl.
The 2004 Chargers season was a complete shock to me, from the 12-4 regular season to the tragic way it ended. But 2006 was different. The Chargers had been criticized for letting Drew Brees leave via free agency and putting their trust into talented but untested Philip Rivers.
Sure, the team was stacked. But there was still an air of uncertainty leading right up to the season opener in Oakland.
Before the season even started, the Chargers found their rallying cry. Outside linebacker Steve Foley's career ended when he was shot by an off-duty police officer about 25 miles outside of his jurisdiction. Just like that, one of the team's inspirational leaders was done. Typical San Diego luck, right?
It took a while to realize if this team was for real or not. Two dominating wins over Oakland and Tennessee were quickly forgotten when Marty Ball reared its ugly head in a last-second loss at Baltimore. But the following a week, a star was born under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football.
Facing the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers, LaDainian Tomlinson was (for once) shut down. He had nowhere to run and for the first time, the Chargers needed Philip Rivers to go out and win a game for them. He obliged, throwing for 242 yards and a pair of scores. From there on out, everybody was a little more comfortable with No. 17, and not No. 9, under center.
While Rivers was solid for most of the year, he rarely had to be much more than the cliche "game manager." That's because LaDainian Tomlinson was in the midst of a truly ridiculous season. Running behind Lorenzo Neal and the best LT, LG and center trio in football, Cam Cameron only needed one play all year: A counter, left.
Opponents knew it was coming, and they still couldn't stop it. LT have three games of four touchdowns and three others of three scores each. Quite simply, he was unstoppable. Shaun Alexander's one-year touchdown record fell in Week 14 and the following week, Tomlinson rattled off two more scores, including an 85 yard run against the Chiefs. The Chargers looked...super?
Under Wade Phillips, the Chargers' pass rush never looked better. Even without Foley, the Bolts had the fiercest 3-4 defense in the league, totaling a whopping 61 sacks. Despite missing four games because of a steroid suspension, Shawne Merriman still led the league with 17 sacks. His opposite number, Shaun Phillips, added 11.5 of his own.
San Diego sports fans are used to heartbreakers. Whether it's running into juggernauts in championship games ('84 Tigers, '95 Niners, '98 Yankees) or failing in the clutch (Nate Kaeding in '04), fans have become used to gut-wrenching losses. But in the regular season, it was the Chargers delivering gut-wrenching defeats.
Road wins at Cincinnati and Denver without Shawne Merriman were impressive enough, but the way they won was the real story. The Chargers became the first team in NFL history to win consecutive games after trailing by 17-plus points. Who else could spur those comebacks but Tomlinson, who scored eight touchdowns in those two games?
Just two weeks before the start of the playoffs, the Chargers got an early Christmas gift. Trailing at Seattle with just 29 seconds left, Philip Rivers' 37-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson won the game and all but assured the Bolts of homefield advantage through the playoffs. Instead of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Chargers were doing the opposite...until when it counted.
It ranks right up there for the three worst hours of my entire life. The Chargers, Super Bowl favorites with home field advantage, suffered the most mind-numbing loss in franchise history to the Patriots.
All of Marty Schottenheimer's demons were evident on this day. First, he decided to go for it on 4th-and-11, which led to a turnover on downs. Then Eric Parker dropped a couple passes and muffed a punt. Then Drayton Florence headbutted Daniel Graham. And then, the most inconceivable of all, Marlon McCree fumbling away his game-clinching interception. In three nightmarish hours, the Chargers' season was over.
The biggest blunders of the day went to—who else?—Marty and his coaching staff. The 4th-and-11 was bad enough. But he wasn't alone. After 28 minutes of suffocating defense, Wade Phillips called off the dogs, allowing the Patriots to get themselves back into the game before halftime. And then offensive coordinator Cam Cameron joined the fun, giving Tomlinson just nine touches in the second half.
It's hard to look back and say that the '06 Chargers are my favorite team, given the way the season ended. But saying otherwise would be disservice to LT. There weren't many dry eyes at Qualcomm Stadium when LT was lifted on the shoulders of his offensive linemen. For fans, it was a just reward for a player who had made Chargers football relevant again. LT's season is why I hold this team in such high regard.
It's just a damn shame it didn't culminate with another MVP award in Miami.