San Diego Chargers: When Will the Bolts Learn to Close out Games?

Ryan BothmannSenior Analyst IISeptember 24, 2013

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 9:  Head coach Mike McCoy of the San Diego Chargers looks at the scoreboard  during the game against the Houston Texans on September 9, 2013 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Not being able to close out games is nothing new for the San Diego Chargers. This epidemic, now running its course for a sixth straight year in San Diego, began in 2008. The Chargers had high expectations that season. They were coming off two of their best seasons in recent memory: a 14-2 campaign in 2006 and a trip to the AFC Championship Game in 2007. Both seasons ended in disappointment for San Diego with losses to the New England Patriots, but the team had reason to be proud. They were a great football team who had a great chance at winning a championship.

The 2008 season could not have started off in a more disappointing fashion for the Chargers though. Jake Delhomme connected with tight end Dante Rosario on a 14-yard strike on the final play of the first game of the season to give the Panthers a 26-24 victory over the Bolts.

The next week, the Chargers rallied to take a late lead over the Broncos in Denver. The team was ready to get a win that would certainly wash away the disappointment of the past week's loss to Carolina. Unfortunately, Jay Cutler found Eddie Royal for a touchdown pass with 24 seconds remaining. Denver could have tied the game and gone to overtime with an extra point, but instead Cutler found Royal again on a two point conversion play, and the Broncos won 39-38.

With four weeks to go in the regular season, the Chargers were four games back of the Broncos for the AFC West Division title. Somehow the Chargers ended up making the playoffs by winning their final four games, while Denver lost all of their final four. San Diego even went on to earn a dramatic playoff win against the Colts, before being upended by the Steelers in the divisional round. Still, there was disappointment over not just what the team could have been, but what fans believed they should have been.

The 2009 regular season was great for San Diego. The Chargers started off a disappointing 2-3, but rallied to win their final 11 games and were the NFL's hottest team coming into the playoffs. They were one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl coming into the playoffs, but that was all quickly forgotten when Mark Sanchez and the Jets scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to stun the Chargers and quickly put an end to their season.

The 2010 season was one of the strangest seasons ever. Marred by special teams blunders throughout, San Diego stumbled to a 9-7 season and missed out on the playoffs for the first time in four years. This season was so strange though, because of how good the Chargers were on offense and defense. The San Diego offense led the NFL in yards from scrimmage that year with 6,329 and were second in points per game with 27.6. The San Diego defense ranked as the best in the NFL in yards per game, only giving up 271.6 yards per game. One would assume that if you have the best offense and best defense in the NFL, you would be the best team, but San Diego was not even close to one of the best teams. They could not even manage a playoff appearance in 2010.

In 2011 things got really bad, the Chargers tried desperately to make one of their dramatic late playoff runs once again, but ultimately fell short and finished the season 8-8. The Chargers had multiple late game situations where they were in line to pick up huge victories, but ultimately choked them away. The two worst were against Kansas City and Denver. In Kansas City, the Bolts were running down the clock to send on their special teams unit to kick a game winning field goal, when Phillip Rivers fumbled the snap and gave the ball right back to the Chiefs who wound up winning in overtime. In Denver, San Diego was moving the ball very effectively down the field against the Broncos in overtime, but decided to get very conservative with their play calling. The end result was a missed 53 yard field goal which set Denver up with excellent field position to win the game.  

Chargers fans everywhere were fed up with the organization and wanted head coach Norv Turner gone at the end of the season. The team had too much talent on the roster to be going 8-8 and not making the playoffs. It seemed inevitable in the final days of the season that Turner would be fired, but somehow the Chargers forgot to fire him in the offseason and he was allowed to stay on for one more year along with general manager A.J. Smith.

Then came the disaster that was the 2012 season. San Diego got off to a good 3-1 start, and it seemed like things could possibly be turning around for this franchise. Then the Chargers turned the ball over two times in the fourth quarter and gave away a Sunday night game to the New Orleans Saints to put them at 3-2 on the season. Then came the Monday night collapse against Denver. Peyton Manning led the Broncos back from a 24-0 deficit to stun the Chargers 35-24.

The Chargers season had already slipped away from them, but it got worse when the Ravens converted a 4th-and-29 on a short pass to Ray Rice that allowed them to keep the game alive and and ultimately beat the Chargers in overtime.

Things were an absolute disaster in San Diego and it was time to clean house. Norv Turner was gone and the new man to turn things around was Mike McCoy.

That brings us to this season. The 2013 campaign which has not started out great for San Diego. The Chargers opened the season by blowing a 21 point second half lead to the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. San Diego then went on to pick up a huge road win over the Eagles in Week 2, before their problems closing games manifested themselves again this past Sunday. The Chargers allowed Tennessee to drive 94 yards in the final two minutes of the game to pull out the victory.

Can the Chargers get back on track this season?
Can the Chargers get back on track this season?Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The final play of the Titans game winning drive though, is what is most disturbing about San Diego's loss. The Chargers forced Tennessee into a 3rd and 10 with no timeouts and only 21 seconds left in the game. With the Titans at the San Diego 34 yard line, the only options were to throw something to the sideline or go to the end zone, since there may not have been enough time to get up to the line and stop the clock by throwing the ball over the middle. The Titans chose the latter of the two options and went to the end zone with the ball. San Diego played a prevent zone defense throughout the entirety of Tennessee's final drive of the game, but on the final play somehow the Titans got a one-on-one matchup in the end zone.

If you go back and watch the play, San Diego chose to bring their best safety and one of the best safeties in all of football, Eric Weddle, up into the box near the line of scrimmage. Weddle ended up dropping into coverage near the middle of the field, a place that the Titans would likely have never thrown the football. The Chargers other safety, Marcus Gilchrist, is assigned to guard deep down the middle of the field, which is not bad, but why only have one safety go deep?

All of this results in Justin Hunter, a 6'4'' receiver, getting a one-on-one, jump-ball matchup in the end zone with the 6'1'' cornerback Crezdon Butler, who the Chargers just signed a week ago. Hunter easily wins the jump ball and Tennessee winds up winning the game.

The Chargers are now 1-2 on the season, but the biggest question that faces the team is when the problems closing out games will finally go away. Now sure, every team in every league in every sport blows a game from time to time. It happens, that is one of the reasons why we generally don't turn games off after the first half. It is simply inexcusable though for one team to continue to blow game after game in the NFL.

The NFL is different from other sports. You don't play five or six games a week. You don't get a seven game series to show that you are better then the other team. You take the field one time and get one shot to get a victory each week.

The Chargers cannot continue to prepare each week and then play well for three quarters only to see their efforts completely washed away by a bad fourth-quarter performance. Blowing games in San Diego needs to stop. The Bolts have shown that there is enough talent on their roster to be competitive with the elite teams of the NFL. Now they need to show that they can beat those teams as well.

We can not blame Mike McCoy and this new regime for the blown games of the past, except for the Monday night blowout to Denver because he was the offensive coordinator for the Broncos last season. However, we can blame them for the two blown losses that the Chargers have already suffered this season. We can only hope that they can quickly turn things around, before blowing games once again becomes and epidemic in San Diego.