The streak is over.
This is the spot in my annual column announcing my choice for the upcoming season's Cinderella team where I normally recount my string of past successes. The 2017 Jaguars reached the AFC title game. The 2018 Bears captured their first division title in eight years. The 2019 Bills won double-digit games for the first time since 1999.
And the 2020 Cardinals ... well, the 2020 Cardinals lost to two backup quarterbacks in the final two weeks of the season, falling out of the playoff race and finishing 8-8. For the first time in four years, my Cinderella team missed the postseason.
I'm still annoyed, even if this isn't technically supposed to be a playoff pick. Nevertheless, I remain undaunted in my search for a sleeper who can capture the hearts and minds of a nation. And unlike last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world, I can seek inspiration from what has arguably been the best NCAA men's basketball tournament ever.
Thinking about the way Pac-12 teams have repeatedly shocked the experts, with 11th-seeded UCLA's stunning win over top-seeded Michigan in the Elite Eight capping a record-setting run of upsets by the Bruins, 12th-seeded Oregon State, seventh-seeded Oregon and sixth-seeded USC, I found myself channeling the words of the great Coolio:
Ain't no party like a West Coast party, 'cause a West Coast party don't stop!
He's right. And the party baton is about to be carried into the NFL season by my 2021 Cinderella team: the Los Angeles Chargers.
The key in this exercise is identifying a team that did not make the playoffs last season and that is not on the radar of most people (which rules out teams like the Cowboys, who should be favorites in the NFC East with Dak Prescott returning). I know the Chargers seem to attract offseason buzz like it's their business, but they also have regularly failed to make good on it -- meaning they are, in a way, an ideal post-hype-ish choice.
Plus, like Cinderella's slipper, the Bolts just feel right.
It starts with the quarterback. Regular readers (and listeners and viewers) know I've been obsessed with Justin Herbert since long before Los Angeles' brilliant decision to draft him sixth overall last year. I was enamored with Herbert's arm, athleticism, accuracy, smarts, leadership and poise, and how it could translate into instant NFL stardom. It all came to fruition in a debut season for the ages, with the former Oregon Duck throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 TDs (against just 10 picks) before capturing the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He developed a tremendous rapport with underrated star receiver Keenan Allen while showing he's the kind of special player who elevates everyone around him. The kid has it.
And that's just what we saw last year, when he started off as a backup who had to adjust to the NFL during a COVID-limited offseason. Think of what Herbert will be able to do in 2021, entering as an entrenched starter.
Think of what he'll be able to do with a new coach.
I love ex-Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who earned my vote for Coach of the Year in 2018, when he helped the team to a 12-4 record and playoff berth. He's a great person. But the team was dropping too many close games, racking up more defeats by seven points or less (15) in the past two seasons than any other NFL team in that span, and Lynn's game-management was a significant problem. Losing was becoming too normal. A change was needed.
Brandon Staley is the right guy at the right time. While there is always an unknown surrounding first-year coaches, Staley represents a calculated upgrade. The well-respected defensive whiz, whose players seemed to loved playing for him in previous stops with the Rams, Broncos and Bears, will end the run of "you can't make 'em up" losses that has been dogging the Chargers.
Yes, what really gets me excited about this team is thinking about all the additions that were made to help Herbert, from Staley to Corey Linsley, who will be worth every single penny of his five-year, $62.5 million deal as the new leader of the offensive line. I raved about the fit and contract in this space last week -- he's the best center in football. Tight end Jared Cook, filling in for the departed Hunter Henry on a one-year deal, is a great replacement who will be able to groove with the QB.
And I cannot wait to see what general manager Tom Telesco does with the 13th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Telesco is a huge part of this. He's a brilliant talent evaluator, and he's loaded the roster with promising players who haven't even reached their peak yet. Think of their overlooked depth and ability at running back (2020 fourth-rounder Joshua Kelley) and receiver (former undrafted players Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson).
One year ago, a few months after Telesco picked linebacker Kenneth Murray with a second first-rounder, I made the case that the Chargers' defense was the best in the NFL. While Murray was terrific as a tackling machine, logging 107 total tackles (second-most among rookies last season), I had to back off that bold claim when safety Derwin James was lost for the 2020 season. James will be back, and he will thrive in Staley's dynamic and diverse scheme. Joey Bosa is a flat-out monster at defensive end, one of the best defensive players in the sport. He's a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks -- and I think Staley can make him even better. That's scary.
Obviously, it will be tough to win the AFC West, where Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs loom. But I love this Chargers group, which is just silly with upside. The right people are in place -- and they will get me back on track after the Cardinals let me down last year.
The slipper will go back on that foot. And somewhere, Coolio will be smiling. Because this West Coast party is going to roll long past midnight.