Here's the incredible journey of Chargers' Anthony Lynn, a frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

COSTA MESA, Calif. — The glow of the headlights. The drunk driver careening out of control. The impact. His body flying into a parked car.

Anthony Lynn had pieced together fragments of that fateful evening, but specific details of that August night in 2005 remained fuzzy. That is, until this past weekend, when the Los Angeles Chargers coach received the closure he always needed: meeting his guardian angels. The first responders who saved his life.

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Lynn has come a long way from that horrific night, both personally and professionally.

Anthony Lynn has helped lead the Chargers to an 11-3 mark that has Los Angeles in the running for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. (Getty Images)
Anthony Lynn has helped lead the Chargers to an 11-3 mark that has Los Angeles in the running for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. (Getty Images)

He is among the top candidates for NFL Coach of the Year after leading the Chargers (11-3) on a four-game winning streak, pulling them even in the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs, whom they beat last week in prime time at Arrowhead Stadium. But it is not just victories that Lynn has brought with him to a chronically underachieving franchise in its second season in Los Angeles. Just importantly, he also has changed its culture.

He’s still overlooked in a sea of coaches that includes first-year Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy, the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay and Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints. But Lynn is the unequivocal top choice, according to his former boss, Rex Ryan.

“Oh, it’s not even close,” said the ESPN analyst, who hired Lynn as an assistant coach during their time with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills.

“No. 1, he took over a team that could never finish. … Everybody raves about this Sean McVay. ‘He’s an offensive genius.’ ‘He’s this and this.’ OK. We’ll find out,” Ryan said with a noticeable edge over the phone this week. “’Cause I think this is the best coach. He’s right there. [New England Patriots coach Bill] Belichick, obviously, has that title and it’s deserved. Mike Tomlin. But [Lynn’s] going to be in that conversation before it’s all said and done.”

‘A better situation’

Moments like Saturday are rare.

These days, Lynn doesn’t have time to think about how he got here. While his death-defying journey from under-the-radar assistant to the man behind the NFL’s hottest team is impressive, reflection is a luxury Lynn can’t afford right now. There’s too much to focus on, too many details that need his immediate attention.

For starters — containing Baltimore rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in Week 16.

“I’m locked in on trying to get this win. It’s going to be one of the hardest games,” Lynn says.

His eyes look worn. His gaze is somewhat serious.

“This is unconventional,” he adds of the Ravens, who are 4-1 since the versatile, do-it-all Jackson took the reins from veteran Joe Flacco. “Very unconventional. … What they make you prepare for.”

Consider what Lynn has endured this season and it’s hard to deny he should be an obvious frontrunner for Coach of the Year honors. His Chargers are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Chiefs. They’ve earned a playoff berth for the first time since the 2013 season. And they’ve positioned themselves to earn the AFC’s top seed, depending, among other scenarios, how they fare against the Ravens on Saturday and the Denver Broncos in Week 17.

The Chargers have won 10 of their past 11 games, largely without stud pass rusher Joey Bosa (who missed nine games) and tight end Hunter Henry, who tore a knee ligament in the offseason. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Denzel Perryman both suffered season-ending knee injuries last month. Their top running back, Melvin Gordon, hasn’t played since Nov. 25 and his backup, Austin Ekeler, didn’t suit up last week. And their top receiver, Keenan Allen, suffered an injury against the Chiefs.

Since Dec. 2, Lynn’s team has rallied from a 16-point deficit to defeat Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers, disposed of Marvin Lewis’ Cincinnati Bengals and overcame a 14-point hole to beat Andy Reid’s Chiefs.

Lynn has a 20-10 record since the Chargers hired him in January 2017.

Ryan says Lynn’s résumé speaks for itself.

Anthony Lynn and the Chargers will one day share a home stadium in Inglewood with Sean McVay and the Rams. (Getty Images)
Anthony Lynn and the Chargers will one day share a home stadium in Inglewood with Sean McVay and the Rams. (Getty Images)

Asked about his inherent bias, the ever-confident ex-coach chortled. “Is that my guy? You damn right, it’s my guy! And I’m proud as hell of that fact. Man, I’m just telling you. He’s real deal. And I knew it early. I’m proud that he coached with me for eight years.”

When the Bills’ front office fired Ryan before the 2016 season finale, Lynn was named the interim head coach — a title he didn’t want, according to Ryan. “Anthony is one of the most loyal guys I’ve ever coached with,” he said. “And that said something. He did not want that interim job. He never wanted it.”

Lynn interviewed for the head-coaching vacancy after the season, but Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula chose to hire Sean McDermott.

“Thank God, he didn’t get that. Because this is a hell of a lot better situation,” Ryan said.

Lynn’s tenure with the Chargers has been anything but easy given the unique circumstances surrounding the team’s temporary location. Having abandoned San Diego for a permanent residence in Los Angeles, the team now finds itself splitting practice time between two fields — one that is adjacent to Costa Mesa High School, the other located within an office park across the street from an IKEA and nearby Kobe Bryant’s offices.

“Those fields aren’t 100 yards,” Lynn says, pointing toward the windows overlooking their makeshift practice field and the yellow block letters that adorn the giant furniture retail store in the distance.

The coach’s spacious corner office contains two small cream sofas that sandwich a coffee table, a bookshelf adorned with pictures, a small Chargers helmet on a nearby desk and large photographs of Vince Lombardi and Muhammad Ali. Save for a printer, a computer and a small stack of boxes in the corner, Lynn’s office doesn’t look or feel lived in.

“This was a temporary facility,” he says matter-of-factly, explaining that their crew had less than six months to transform this office park into a football facility complete with a locker room and adequate field. “They did an unbelievable job.”

He looks out the window once more. “That was trees and a parking lot out there when I first pulled up in here.”

While the Chargers await the opening of their state-of-the-art facility, Los Angeles Stadium at Hollywood Park (which they’ll share with the Rams in Inglewood), they’ll continue playing in a 27,000-seat soccer stadium — a venue in which the home crowd is severely outnumbered by rival fans.

“Let’s face it: Their situation is unlike anybody’s in the league,” said Ryan, whose son, Seth, is a coaching intern with the Chargers. “They don’t have a home-field advantage. In fact, they’re the visitors even at home. This is almost a horrendous situation and he’s handled it so well.”

Told a day later of his friend’s comment, Lynn chuckled. “I mean, there are some things that are not ideal because it’s temporary. But we’ve made the most of it,” he said. “But it’s a good organization, got good people and we make it work, you know? And if you approach it the right way, it can make you better.”

Forging bonds 

The tears fell without warning, shed in a moment of unbridled honesty, offered up in a completely safe space curated by Lynn.

At the heart of every successful organization is trust, and the Chargers’ new head coach was determined to build bonds by being vulnerable with those around him. But before Lynn could get his new players to buy into his process and expectations, he first needed to forge tight relationships with his newly assembled coaching staff.

Within a month of his hiring, Lynn asked his coaches to participate in team-building sessions. Though he politely declined to share specific details about the exercises (“I can’t share vulnerabilities because I would be violating people’s trust,” he says), Lynn explained his motive behind the small-group sessions.

“When a man can be vulnerable with me, I can learn to trust him a whole lot quicker,” he says, adding that “it started with the coaching staff and then it permeated over to the locker room. … And it was so many sessions where [coaches] got emotional. People were talking about the past and their backgrounds and some things that they had to fight through to get to where they’re at today. It was very impactful.”

Those early team-building exercises were a new experience for Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, “but part of the reason why we hired him was, we’re building a culture here,” said the 46-year-old executive, whose office is down the hall from Lynn’s, past rows of high cubicles.

Directly behind Telesco is a large photo of Philip Rivers. To the left of that is a framed No. 1 jersey with the last name of their 2014 first-round pick, cornerback Jason Verrett, whose last regular-season game was in Week 1 of 2017.

Lynn is building something special, Telesco says.

“A culture of accountability,” he continued. “A culture where everybody wants to support each other. The team building is just having players around each other, and coaches around each other, and get to know them more — less about what they do for their living and more about them as people. … Part of building a winning culture is guys being around each other, liking each other and wanting to play for each other.”

Lynn’s tenure, however, began with four straight losses. “It’s not like he changed after four games,” Telesco said. “That may be his biggest trait — that he didn’t change after those first four games. And when our players saw that, they bought right in.”

Lynn always has been a “tough-ass, so his team reflects that,” Ryan said. Both he and Telesco stressed that Lynn’s leadership, fairness and innate ability to connect with players and staffers are the reasons why the Chargers have been so successful under his guidance.

Lynn believes that when there’s trust, it’s possible to have “healthy conflict without hurting each other’s feelings. And then, you have accountability. And when you have accountability, you can have results.”

The results are certainly there. Rivers — who is making a strong case for Most Valuable Player consideration — is tied with the Saints’ Drew Brees and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson for the third-most touchdown passes (31) and is tied for seventh in the league in passing yards (3,951).

“Philip and I, we’ve had some healthy conflict,” Lynn says of Rivers, who is equally as feisty and competitive as him. “I feel like some of the things that he and I had early on made us closer. I love that dude.”

Anthony Lynn on his starting quarterback, Philip Rivers: “I love that dude.” (AP)
Anthony Lynn on his starting quarterback, Philip Rivers: “I love that dude.” (AP)

‘They saved my life’  

Long before Lynn was leading the Chargers in Orange County, he was in Oxnard, California, serving as the running backs coach for the Dallas Cowboys. And on that summer night in 2005, following the team’s final training camp practice, he and fellow position coach Todd Haley went out in search of dinner.

Pizza, they had agreed.

As they left the restaurant, Haley crossed the street first. Lynn followed.

Without warning, the drunk driver — who, according to media reports, had been traveling close to 60 miles per hour with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit — exited off a freeway ramp and crashed into Lynn, launching the former NFL running back 40-to-50 feet in the air, onto a Volkswagen.

Lynn slipped in and out of consciousness as he lay on the pavement, his head cradled in Haley’s hands.

The driver had fled.

Lynn’s lungs had collapsed. His nose was nearly ripped off.

He thought he was going to die. The doctors told him most people would have.

Lynn insists now that he doesn’t think “much” of that near-fatal hit-and-run accident 13 years ago. But he admitted the tears flowed uncontrollably this past weekend as he stood face-to-face with the two police officers and two fire department paramedics who treated him.

“They literally saved me that night,” he said. “They saved my life.”

And whether he has time to think about it or not, that night helped lead him here.

‘Here for a reason’

Lynn has endured more than most will ever know and he has survived circumstances that defy logic. The young boy from McKinney, Texas — whose childhood dream of throwing touchdown passes in high school were dashed by a former coach who told a 13-year-old Lynn that “black guys can’t play quarterback” — would eventually make it to the NFL as a running back and special-teamer, and win back-to-back Super Bowls with the Broncos in 1997 and ’98.

Now, he’s one of six black NFL head coaches, a number that is sure to decrease due to sweeping offseason staff changes looming across the league.

While he doesn’t have time to “think about the big picture” until the season is over, “I’m not naive,” said Lynn, who will turn 50 on Friday, the day before the Chargers face the Ravens. “I understand that I have a huge responsibility to do my best and just be the best me that I can be.

“I feel like the good Lord put me here for a reason and so he’ll use me how he wants. But at the same time, I have to be very good at what I do and maybe that’ll open the door for another young African-American coach. I don’t make too big a deal out of it, but I do understand that it would help if I’m very good at what I do.”

For now, though, his focus is on the Ravens. And Jackson, a young, mobile (and black) quarterback who continues to shatter the misguided pre-draft preconceptions of pundits.

Similarly, Lynn continues to defy the odds, but in a far more subtle way. Each breath he takes is a reminder of how fragile life is and how fleeting football careers can be.

But when he looks through those large windows covering almost an entire wall in his office, Lynn can only see how much further he has to go — not how far he already has traveled.

“I probably should,” he says, flashing a tired smile. “But I just don’t feel like I have time, to be honest with you.”

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