Where does every NFL franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Today in Los Angeles, there is a child on a field throwing a football, intent on becoming the next Philip Rivers. There is a kid using fancy footwork to dodge his classmates in the schoolyard in hopes of becoming the next Melvin Gordon. There is a young athlete putting a swim move on an opponent and getting up the field, dreaming to be the next Joey Bosa.
Today, football is strong in Los Angeles. Both on the practice field of the Bolts, and in the hearts and minds of football fans around the region.
How the Chargers got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
-- Rallying to beat the Steelers on "Sunday Night Football." They came all the way back from a 23-7 halftime deficitin Pittsburgh to win, 33-30, with a field goal in the final seconds. This had never happened before in the history of the Steelers -- they entered that Week 13 game 174-0-1 all-time when ahead by 16 points at home.
-- Comeback victory against the Chiefs in Week 15 on "Thursday Night Football." A couple weeks after stunning the Steelers, the Chargers got all magical again, rallying from a 28-14 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the host Chiefs, 29-28. L.A. clinched a playoff spot with this victory and snapped a nine-game losing streak against Kansas City.
-- Having to wear another devastating playoff loss. It always seems to be the Patriots. Tom Brady knocked the Chargers out of the postseason for the third time in his career, racking up 343 yards passing this time around in a 41-28 Divisional Round rout. It was pretty much over by halftime, when New England had a 35-7 lead.
Head coach: Anthony Lynn. All you need to know about Lynn is that he's not afraid to go for it. When the Chargers moved to within a point of the Chiefs in Week 15 after Rivers hit Mike Williams on a 1-yard touchdown pass with four seconds left, he didn't hesitate to go for the win instead of settling for an extra-point attempt that would have tied the game. It was the right move, as Rivers again hit Williams for the game-winning two-point conversion. And while I understand more coaches are being bold and playing the percentages, it still feels like a breath of fresh air when it actually happens. I loved it.
And here's another thing about Lynn. It's easy to get overshadowed coaching in L.A., because Rams coach Sean McVay is such an exciting presence. But Lynn is right there with him. He was runner-up for Coach of the Year honors behind Chicago's Matt Nagy last season. There's no doubt he's one of the best coaches in the league.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers. He's 37 years old, but he's coming off one of the best seasons of his career. He threw for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns with just 12 picks. He completed 68.3 percent of his passes. He had a passer rating of 105.5. And since I have your attention, let me go ahead and put this out there for you: Of the quarterbacks taken in the 2004 NFL Draft, he's the best one (yes, over Big Ben and Eli). And it crushes me that he's never won a Super Bowl. I'm not sure there's a non-Bears player I want to win a Super Bowl more than him. Maybe Larry Fitzgerald, but that's it.
Rivers is also in the final year of his contract. That could be a distraction for a lot of people. But considering the commitment he's made to have a custom van to drive him from his San Diego home to the Chargers' Costa Mesa practice facility, I don't see this being an issue. He's going to be a Charger for as long as he plays.
Projected 2019 MVP: Melvin Gordon, RB. I'll be very honest and up-front with all of you. Nobody has disrespected Gordon's playing ability more than me. I keep doubting him, and then he continues to go out there and prove me wrong. So I'm kind of hesitant to put this out there, because it seems like we have a great thing going, and maybe I should just continue to doubt him. But I do want to give him his due, even though Rivers, Joey Bosa and Keenan Allen also are in the running here. I'm just thinking a career year could be in the offing for the two-time Pro Bowl selectee.
2019 breakout star (offense): Mike Williams, WR. I really loved the Chargers' decision to draft Williams seventh overall in 2017. I mean, I might have gone with Christian McCaffrey (who went to the Panthers one pick later), but still, I loved that the Chargers added another offensive playmaker to the mix. Williams showed plenty of promise for stretches last season. And, as mentioned, he came up huge against the Chiefs in a critical moment. He's ready to make the leap this year and become an even bigger force for the Chargers.
Another new face to know: Nasir Adderley, S. Speaking of steals, the Chargers got one when Derwin James inexplicably fell to them with the 17th pick in last year's draft. Seriously, how did a top-five talent manage to land in Los Angeles like that? James made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, as he should have. And I don't want to put these kinds of expectations on Adderley, but he's pretty great, too. He was the only FCS player with at least 160 tackles and nine interceptions over the past two seasons. The second-rounder is ready to step in and deliver. (And if you're wondering, yes, he's related to Pro Football Hall of Fame DB Herb Adderley -- they're cousins. It was my first question, too.)
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. The Chargers are one of the best teams in the NFL. They have one of the most complete rosters in the league. The defense is stellar. And, of course, the offense is also one of the best. There is really nothing stopping them. Except maybe themselves.
Beat the Patriots? I know some people might immediately think, "Hey, don't they need to beat the Chiefs first?" Uh, the Chargersdidbeat the Chiefs. In Kansas City. Late in the year. If I'm a Chargers fan, I'm not worried about the Chiefs all that much. But at some point, you need to come through against the Patriots. I really thought they had a chance going to New England in the Divisional Round last year, but all of that travel (they played four of their last five games on the road, including the postseason) really caught up to them. And Bill Belichick.
Trust their offensive line? The O-line played pretty well for most of the season, but there were some glitches, especially in the playoffs, when the Patriots exploited right tackle Sam Tevi. He allowed 41 hurries, 12 hits and eight sacks during his 483 pass-blocking snaps last season, per Pro Football Focus. His 92.9 pass-pro rating was the third-worst in the league, behind the Raiders' Kolton Miller and Texans' Julie'n Davenport. The Chargers drafted Trey Pipkins in the third round this year, but the Sioux Falls product is considered more of a project, so you have to wonder if the position will be an issue again in 2019.
Replace Tyrell Williams? You have Keenan Allen and Mike Williams forming one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL. But the depth at the position took a hit with Tyrell Williams' departure for Oakland. Who is going to be the slot guy for the Chargers? Somebody who could really help in this department would be a fully healthy TE Hunter Henry. That's right, people. Henry is back after tearing his ACL in OTAs last year (well, he actually returned for the Chargers' final game last season) and should be one of the best at his position. He was certainly trending that way before his injury.
Three key dates:
-- Week 1 vs. the Colts. The more I do this, the more I use Week 1 as a key date. But this game against the Colts is going to be huge, so much so that I'm probably going to attend this contest. These are two of the biggest threats to the Patriots in the AFC this year. The Chargers can't afford any missteps early, and this game could end up having ramifications that are felt late in the year when it comes to playoff seeding.
One storyline people are overlooking:The Chargers have been pretty great since they started 0-4 in 2017. The Chargers' return to Los Angeles in 2017 had a rough beginning. The team dropped its first four games, each in excruciating fashion. There were missed kicks. Mental errors. And just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But the Chargers are 21-7 since that time. Only the Patriots (22-6) have been better over that stretch among AFC teams.
One storyline people are overthinking:Yes, the Chargers have fans. I'm a little tired of the joke. I can confirm as somebody living in the Los Angeles area -- there are Chargers fans. A lot of them. My wife being one of them. They have the best Twitter account of all the NFL teams, according to Complex. Their 2019 NFL Draft party on the Santa Monica pier was the social event of the season. I almost feel like I'm going to have to work overtime to keep my kids from shifting their allegiance from the Bears to the Bolts.
And another thing: I mentioned the Broncos have low-key done well in the draft, non-quarterback division. The Chargers have absolutely crushed it, though. Especially in the first round. Here are the Chargers' first-round picks since 2012: Melvin Ingram, D.J. Fluker, Jason Verrett, Melvin Gordon, Joey Bosa, Mike Williams, Derwin James and Jerry Tillery. We'll just assume Tillery is going to be a Pro Bowler. Aside from Verrett, who was knocked from his Pro Bowl course by injuries, the lone miss was Fluker in 2013 (and even he's been a starter every year of his career) -- and the Chargers nabbed Keenan Allen in that draft, so it all worked out. Has there been a team that has drafted better than the Chargers in recent years?
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Chargers MUST ...
-- Win the Super Bowl. It seems almost unfair to put this kind of expectation on a team that has never won a Super Bowl and whose lone title is the AFL Championship it won in 1963. But I'm not going to sell the talent on this team short. There are a handful of squads that could be considered legit Super Bowl threats. The Chargers are one of them.
I consider the Chargers the top team in the AFC West right now. The Chiefs are exciting, thanks to Patrick Mahomes. But the Chargers are the best overall team. Their 2018 season ended a little earlier than you would have hoped (obviously). But the team (and coach Lynn) gained some valuable experience. This seems like it's been a long and winding road for the Chargers. It's like they are the NFL's version of Ted Mosby. But this also feels like it should be the year when they finally put it all together. Maybe 2019 will be when they stop being the groomsman and actually become the groom.