Statistically, Chargers wasting wonderful year

The San Diego Chargers are on the verge of making history – not the kind they'd prefer to be associated.

Facing possible elimination from AFC West title contention and virtual playoff elimination on Sunday against Kansas City, the Chargers could become the most statistically dominant team in the past two decades to fail to make the postseason.

While San Diego's 6-6 record is, by definition, average, the Chargers have produced some numbers that should be downright dominant – the stuff of a 10-2 season. In terms of wasted opportunities though, this season will never rank as bad as 2006, when the Chargers frittered away a 14-2 record by losing in the second round of the playoffs at home to New England. Marlon McCree's(notes) fumble following an interception in that game is an enduring symbol of the Chargers letting their best hope for a title slip through their hands.

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All that aside, this season would be another gigantic disappointment unless the Chargers make a miracle run down the stretch and through the playoffs.

The Chargers have dominated a stat that usually has a direct correlation to winning: They have far outgained their opponents on a per-play basis. While there are few statistics that truly mean much in football, one of the empirical ones is yards per play differential.

Any time a team has a differential of 0.6 yards or better, it is usually pretty good. That means, for example, you're averaging about 5.3 yards per play on offense and allowing 4.7 on defense. How telling is this stat? Only one team since the merger has ever won a Super Bowl after allowing more yards than they gained on a per play basis. That was the 2001 Patriots (4.9 gained vs. 5.3 allowed).

This year, teams like the Eagles, Giants, Saints, Chiefs, Steelers and Ravens are all in the 0.4 to 1.0 positive differential range. But all of them have been blown away this season by the Chargers, who average 1.5 yards difference, gaining 6.2 yards per play while allow 4.7.


As pointed out by good friend and expert researcher (not to mention excellent handicapper) Dutch Wydo of Pittsburgh, there has been only one team since 1989 that has outgained opponents by as much as 1.0 yards per play and not made the playoffs. That was San Francisco in 1991. The 49ers were 10-6 that season, missing the playoffs because of a tiebreaker.

By comparison, San Diego could be eliminated from the playoffs with weeks left in the season. For a team that has compiled a 73-35 record since the 2004 season, won five division titles but made only one conference title game, this season is a striking disappointment.

How did the Chargers do it? Well, the early season problems with special teams (five blocked punts and three return touchdowns allowed) are a big one. The fact that they've allowed five more turnovers (including an atrocious 14 lost fumbles) than they have gotten is another issue. There have been injuries, including to running back Ryan Mathews(notes), wide receiver Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates(notes).

There was also the distraction of having both left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) and wide receiver Vincent Jackson(notes) miss a good chunk of the season because of contract disputes. Since his return, Jackson has been sidelined with a calf injury.


This has been an odd year statistically around the league. Among the eight division leaders, three of them (Jaguars, Falcons and Rams) have negative differentials.

Still, a season without the Chargers reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2005 will have people wondering where it all went wrong and how it can be prevented in the future. Ultimately, it could mean someone will have to pay with his job remains to be seen. Special teams coach Steve Crosby seems obvious, but head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith's futures would also seem to be in the air.


Head slappers

Roethlisberger suffered a broken nose Sunday night.
(Gail Burton/AP Photo)


Usually, I try to ignore the players and fans who whine about the inconsistent treatment of certain players in the NFL, such as quarterbacks Tom Brady(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes). Does it happen? Yes, it happens. Just like how in the NBA and in Major League Baseball certain stars get the benefit from officials.

However, the league's incredibly inconsistent way of enforcing the rule on hits to a quarterback's head has become a major issue in the past few weeks. While defensive players have been flagged consistently for even brushing Brady or Manning on the head, hits on quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer(notes), Matt Schaub(notes) (twice against Philadelphia) and Ben Roethlisberger(notes) have been ignored or missed.

And the miss on the play against Roethlisberger on Sunday night was flat-out dangerous. Anybody who saw Roethlisberger's disfigured nose should have a good idea of how hard he was hit by Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata(notes). While it was accidental, it was still a penalty according to the rules and the very type of thing the league – which is reviewing the play – is trying to avoid to keep quarterbacks healthy.

Yet there was no call. While there may be plenty of people out there who don't feel sorrow for Roethlisberger (and probably would have liked a shot to do that to him themselves), the fact is that it's a penalty and the refs need to enforce it, diligently.


Top five
1. New England Patriots (10-2):
We saw what happens when the defense gets just a little better. The Pats are hitting their stride at the right time.
2. Atlanta Falcons (10-2): They had a couple of surprising mental lapses early in the game against Tampa Bay, but got their focus back at the right time.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3): Ben Roethlisberger's broken nose was like a throwback moment to the days of Chuck Bednarik and Johnny Unitas.
4. New York Jets (9-3): Losing Jim Leonhard(notes) is huge, although it shouldn't have made that big of a difference against the Patriots.
5. Chicago Bears (9-3): I'm not sold on the Bears, but it's hard to argue with their success. If they can get a bye in the playoffs, they'll be dangerous.

Bottom five
28. San Francisco 49ers (4-8):
Will Mike Singletary be the next head coach to get fired? Oh heck, it doesn't matter, he's done regardless. That offense is awful.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (2-10): Getting fooled on fourth down is typical of how stupid the Bengals have played all season.
30. Denver Broncos (3-9): The image of Josh McDaniels fist-pumping after the win over New England last year should be a lesson to all coaches. Keep your emotions under control.
31. Arizona Cardinals (3-9): Next up is John Skelton(notes), a long, lost relative of Red. Actually, I have no idea about that, but it sounded good. Skelton – John, not Red – has a big arm.
32. Carolina Panthers (1-11): For a moment there, armed with a 14-0 lead, the Panthers resembled an NFL team. Like I said, it was a moment.

This and that

Jackson with current starting QB Campbell.
(Kirby Lee/US Presswire)


It may not qualify as an achievement, but Oakland is in position to break the worst run of seasons in NFL history with a victory in one of its final four games. The 6-6 Raiders could assure themselves of not losing at least 10 games for the first time since the 2003 season. They have already locked up not losing 11 games, which is the minimum number of defeats they've had in that seven-year stretch of stench.

Speaking of the Raiders, give offensive coordinator Hue Jackson a lot of credit for the turnaround. The Raiders are a competitive team even though they have gotten uneven play out of quarterbacks Jason Campbell(notes) and Bruce Gradkowski(notes). The Oakland running game, fueled by standout backs Darren McFadden(notes) and Michael Bush(notes), has made the team respectable and augmented a good defense. The fact the Raiders rolled up 251 yards rushing at San Diego on Sunday was impressive. As for Jackson, expect him to get some looks for some head coaching jobs, including a strong push from the likes of Ray Lewis(notes), Ed Reed(notes) and Willis McGahee(notes) for the job at the University of Miami. Lewis, Reed and McGahee are former UM players and know Jackson from Baltimore. Miami is still looking for a big-name coach, but Jackson would be a great fit there.

As a Stanford grad, I almost hate to say this (and sadly Cal grad Michael Silver is going to love this), but it's looking more like Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck will be the top passer in the 2011 NFL draft if he declares himself eligible for it. Luck could stay in college for two more years (he's a redshirt sophomore) or turn pro with a chance to make more than $50 million guaranteed if he's the top pick. Take the money, son, but also follow the example of fellow Stanfordite and Washington National pitcher Drew Storen by finishing school.

The NFL doesn't lose in the ratings game very often, but it did last week when it went up against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The Thursday night game between the Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, James' former team, outdrew the Houston-Philadelphia game, 5.0 to 4.1, in the overnight ratings. Then again, you don't get too many games with a superstar going up against his jilted former team. The NFL's offering of Texans at Eagles, which was on its own network, was a run-of-the-mill game even though it featured Michael Vick(notes).


Having mentioned the Chargers and the playoffs already, it's worth noting that the AFC playoff picture could almost be locked by the end of the Monday night game between Baltimore and Houston. With San Diego, Oakland, Indianapolis and Miami at 6-6, all of them are two games behind Baltimore for the final playoff spot in the AFC. If Baltimore and the Jets win this week, the only thing really left to decide is who wins the AFC South and West.

Football legends Dan Marino, John Elway and Joe Montana will participate in the Inside the Game Tour starting in January. Fans will be able to sit in on a discussion session with those players at venues, starting with three performances on the East Coast. On Jan. 18, the tour will kick off with Marino and Elway at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., followed by events in Philadelphia and Providence, R.I., the next two nights. Tickets go on sale Dec. 13.