For much of the past decade, the San Diego Chargers have been among the most disappointing organizations in the NFL, boasting some of the league’s best talent and having no Super Bowl appearances to show for it. A 5-1 start to the 2014 NFL season under new leadership and inspired play from a veteran quarterback could mean times are changing in Southern California.
The shift in San Diego started last year when the team hired Mike McCoy as head coach. The former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator took over for Norv Turner, helping to change a losing culture that had existed after three consecutive playoff absences.
San Diego didn’t compete for a championship in 2013, but the team clinched the AFC’s final wild-card spot and won a postseason game, setting the stage for a 2014 campaign in which the expectations have grown. Entering Week 7, the Chargers are tied for the NFL’s best record and have become a Super Bowl favorite.
At just 42 years old and in his second year as a head coach, McCoy is one of the league’s top young coaches. He wasn’t talented enough to make it to the NFL as a player, but his former head from NFL Europe isn’t surprised at the success that his former quarterback has achieved.
“He understood that the game isn’t as difficult as everybody makes it,” Al Luginbill, McCoy’s head coach with the Amsterdam Admirals, told International Business Times in a phone interview. “It’s blocking and tackling and executing and getting good players to play hard, and I think that’s what he does the best ... He just has a football instinct that you can’t teach people. They either have it or they don’t have it, and Mike McCoy has it."
Perhaps the biggest difference between McCoy’s Chargers and the team that failed to reach the playoffs each year from 2010-2012 has been the play of Philip Rivers. Once thought to be among the best young quarterbacks in football, Rivers seemed to have declined over the years, with critics describing him as an average signal caller. Things looked bleak in 2012, when Rivers threw 15 interceptions and fumbled 15 times, the most fumbles for a player since 2007. There were even whispers that Rivers might be on his way out of San Diego.
Under McCoy and offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the 32-year-old has not only been revitalized but is now among the league's top quarterbacks. Since the start of last season, Rivers has thrown 47 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. Through six weeks, he’s an MVP frontrunner.
The progression of Rivers may have had something to do with the high bar that McCoy set for him. Soon after McCoy's arrival in Jan. 2013, McCoy told long-time NFL writer Peter King that he believed Rivers could complete 70 percent of his passes, a tall order for a quarterback who routinely finished under 66 percent. In 2013, Rivers completed 69.5 percent of his passes.
McCoy's influence appears to have carried over into 2014. No quarterback has been more accurate than Rivers, who leads the league this season with a 69.3 completion percentage and a 117.6 passer rating. Nine quarterbacks have attempted more passes than Rivers, but he’s made every throw count, leading the NFL in yards per attempt. While Rivers has fumbled four times, not one was for a turnover.
Rivers has put up these impressive numbers with good playmakers at his disposal, but he’s certainly not surrounded by an elite offense. His top two wide receivers have never recorded a 1,000-yard season, and though still effective, former Pro Bowl standout Antonio Gates is no longer the star tight end he once was. Rivers has also had to deal with injuries to his running backs, as the team's top two rushers from 2013 have missed seven combined games. Meanwhile, the offensive line doesn't boast one Pro Bowler.
Luginbill credits McCoy's relationship with Rivers, who has bought into the Chargers' system and developed a more prominent role in the offense.
“I think there’s been the ability to play at the level that Philip’s always had and somebody came in there and gave him the reins and said, ‘this is what we’re going to do and we’re going to put you in charge,’” Luginbill said. “I think that’s the secret to Mike McCoy’s success. He understands that. He doesn’t have an idea that he has to be the guy that has to be calling the shots. All he wants to do is win.”
The San Diego offense has been aided by a defense that has been one of the best in the NFL. McCoy is an offensive coach, but he leads a team that ranks third in yards allowed and second in scoring defense. In the last season under Turner, 15 teams allowed fewer points than San Diego.
Las Vegas oddsmakers have taken notice. The Chargers started the season as 40-to-1 favorites to win the Super Bowl. Now they are 9-to-1.
With 10 games remaining in the season, the Chargers still have a lot to prove, especially in a division that includes the AFC Champion Broncos. San Diego faced the easiest schedule through six weeks, beating two winless teams and the one-win New York Jets. The rest of the year will be considerably more demanding with two dates with the Broncos looming on the schedule, as well as a December slate that includes the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.