The San Diego Chargers' season was in danger of slipping away, and the team's best and most important player knew the time had come to assert himself. So, on the day after Thanksgiving, in a players only meeting called in the wake of the Chargers' fifth loss in 10 games, LaDainian Tomlinson stood in front of his teammates and read them a poem.
Before I try to make the case that LT getting in touch with his inner E.E. Cummings turned around San Diego's season – and, if you haven't guessed, I'm being a bit facetious here – understand that no single speech, meeting or collective epiphany can explain what the Chargers have accomplished over the past six weeks.
Somehow, a team whose locker room was rife with tense, confused players – who doubted their head coach and mistrusted the motives of the man who hired him – rediscovered much of the mojo that had made it a Super Bowl favorite exactly one year ago.
The Chargers (11-5), who host the Tennessee Titans Sunday in a first-round playoff game, may not be able to overcome Indy or New England in the brutally tough AFC postseason scrum. But even if they fall short of a championship, San Diego's players can go into the offseason with the pride that comes from having staved off disaster – and from reaching a level of play many of their critics (and yes, I am raising my hand) didn't think possible back in late November.
Having engaged in conversations with numerous Chargers players over the past few days, I now have a better understanding of how they pulled it off. Here are five reasons why the outlook has gotten sunnier in San Diego:
1. The line is once again divine
Last year, the Chargers' powerful offensive line paved the way for Tomlinson's record-setting MVP campaign. However, the combination of injuries, poor performances and Norv Turner's offensive philosophy – one more partial to H-backs, extra tight ends and pre-snap motion shifts – led to struggles by the running game.
Left tackle Marcus McNeill, a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie in '06, had a classic sophomore slump as he struggled against some of the league's better pass rushers. Right tackle Shane Olivea, plagued by a lower-back injury, seemed to lose his focus and eventually lost his job to Jeromey Clary. Center Nick Hardwick, an ultra-aggressive tone-setter who made the Pro Bowl last season, missed four weeks with a foot injury but returned for San Diego's Nov. 25 game against the Ravens – the start of San Diego's six-game winning streak. Along with left guard Kris Dielman, Hardwick has asserted himself in the latter part of the season, creating consistent holes on the left side of the line and helping to restore the Chargers' power-running personality. Subsequently Tomlinson, whose relatively slow start may have been impacted by his near-complete lack of activity during the preseason, ran for over 100 yards in four of San Diego's final five games and won his second consecutive NFL rushing title.
2. The quarterback started backing up his talk
With the possible exception of the Giants' Eli Manning, the man for whom he was traded on draft day in 2004, has any winning QB gotten more flak than Philip Rivers this season? Rivers made the Pro Bowl following the '06 season, but he struggled down the stretch, including the disappointing playoff defeat to the Patriots. For much of '07, he seemed to regress further under Turner. With 15 interceptions and six lost fumbles, he has accounted for as many turnovers as he has touchdown passes (21). The second-year starter was yelled at by Tomlinson in one game (in a 31-24 defeat to the Packers in Week 3) and conspicuously blown off by LT in another (while trailing the Titans). "I don't really know of any other team where the star running back can light up the quarterback like that," says Darren Sharper, the Vikings' All-Pro safety. "That lets you know that the quarterback isn't really a franchise guy."
Both Sharper and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson describe Rivers as "average." Says Sharper, whose team crushed the Chargers, 35-17, in early November: "He likes to run his mouth, to say the least." In the 32-14 victory over the Ravens that launched San Diego's six-game winning streak, the Qualcomm Stadium scoreboard caught Rivers yelling at Chargers fans, who were booing after an early drive was derailed. Late in a victory over the Broncos on Christmas Eve, television cameras captured Rivers yapping at Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler following a fourth-down incompletion. And in last week's season finale at Oakland, Rivers gestured at Raiders fans after a sack. To his credit, Rivers has played much better in recent weeks, with 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions during the past six games. And though his trash-talking may annoy opponents, it fires up his teammates. "Everyone expects a quarterback to be a certain way, but he's just a fiery guy, and everyone on the team loves him," Hardwick says of Rivers. "If he had a different skill set, he'd play a different position – but he'd still be a football player." Adds veteran long-snapper Dave Binn: "Phil may not make the perfect throw every time, but he's not afraid to try to make a play, and people feed off his enthusiasm."
3. The coach kept his cool
Turner will never be considered a master motivator, but the Chargers came to appreciate the way he hung tough under pressure. "One of the things that held this thing together is that Norv never flinched," Rivers says. "He could've shown a sense of panic, but he stayed the course." As the Chargers drew ahead in the weak AFC West, Turner's season-long message began to resonate: Last year San Diego, which finished 14-2, was the best team in October and November but faltered in the playoffs against New England. The challenge for the '07 Chargers, in Turner's eyes, was to play their best football in December and January.
4. LT took control
In the players only meeting, which took place five days after the Nov. 18 defeat to the Jaguars, Tomlinson challenged his teammates to become more accountable. The first part of LT's message, according to several players, centered on the widely held views that Turner (as the offensive play-caller) and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell were hurting the team from a strategic standpoint, especially when compared to popular predecessors Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips. Tomlinson not only acknowledged the complaints, but he also copped to having shared some of the same feelings. That gave him even more credibility when he told his teammates, "It's not about the coaches. Between 1 and 4:15 on Sundays, we're the ones who decide our fate. Don't buy into this 'Norv's not a leader' stuff. If we do that, we're gonna finish 7-9, and we'll be the ones who suffer. This division is there for the taking, and we have to decide right now whether we're going to take it."
In that same meeting, LT killed the party. That might be a slight exaggeration, but when Tomlinson spoke of "sacrifice," telling his teammates he had given up drinking alcohol until the end of the season and challenging each player individually to do whatever it took to improve his commitment and focus, everyone understood what provoked his words. This is a team that has its share of social animals on the roster, some of whom enjoy making semi-frequent trips to L.A. to party with the Hollywood crowd. Then there was the episode which took place two nights before the Chargers' embarrassing defeat at Minnesota, one in which Vikings rookie Adrian Peterson set an NFL single-game record with 296 rushing yards. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a group of seven players that included star pass rusher Shawne Merriman and standout nose tackle Jamal Williams missed curfew by half an hour, and each was fined $1,500. Before the season Merriman, according to teammates, had spoken openly of planning to write a single check to cover all of his road curfew violations for '07. When Tomlinson said he was giving up even the casual beer with dinner, everyone at least had to rethink his priorities.
5. The inner voice prevailed
At the end of his speech, Tomlinson read a motivational poem called "The Inner Voice" – not E.E. Cummings' version, but, apparently, by an author of unknown origin. The poem read by Tomlinson speaks of the pride, fear of failure and willingness to push beyond one's perceived limits that elite athletes experience as they train. In many locker rooms the speaker would get laughed out of the room in the first stanza, or at least goofed on good-naturedly. But Tomlinson, an avid consumer of new-age and inspirational messages, delivered this one to a rapt and interested audience – a testament to his unquestioned stature as the team's dominant personality. "He's E.F. Hutton," Binn says, referencing the old TV commercial in which everyone comes to an anticipatory hush when the broker's advice is about to be revealed. "He's always been that guy. He's definitely the leader of the team, usually by example. But when he talks …"
We'll resist the urge to finish Binn's thought. Football, after all, is a sport in which deeds ultimately trump words, and San Diego didn't get to where it is now – charging confidently into the playoffs as the league's second-hottest team – because of something anyone said, even LT. More accurately, the Chargers managed to bond together and tune out the noise around them, salvaging a seemingly lost season one block and tackle at a time.
And if they should somehow shock those of us who doubted them and exceed expectations in the postseason?
I'd have to call that poetic justice.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The Jags and Steelers will stage a high-scoring instant classic on Saturday night, and the visitors will find a way to pull it out … Eli Manning and the Giants will come up big in Tampa, but the Bucs will still find a way to pull out the game … As long as Oprah stays on board, Barack Obama's campaign will continue to roll.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
America's Finest City, where two of the most physical teams in football, the Chargers and Titans, will beat on one another for three glorious hours, likely in the mud and rain. What exclusively male activity could be better?
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. In order to keep his job as 49ers head coach, Mike Nolan was required to dress in a pink leotard and tutu and perform an intricate ballet routine for owners John and Denise DeBartolo York.
2. Fred Taylor's audacious comments about the poor condition of the Heinz Field grass will play a major role in firing up the Steelers for Saturday's playoff game.
3. There is another defensive player who has had a bigger impact than Albert Haynesworth this season.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr navigated the final four weeks of the regular season unscathed, correctly picking the Eagles over the Bills. Now, as he attempts to sweep through the playoffs, the no-repeat provision has been eliminated, meaning the Jags, Seahawks and Patriots are now there for the taking. Yet Kerr is going with fresh meat. "San Diego," he says. "It's supposed to rain, so I'm thinking LT will take over a low-scoring affair by finding the end zone a couple of times. Chargers 14, Titans 7."
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
I know it was a continent away, but how did I not figure out a way to attend the Zeppelin reunion show, as described so vividly in this blog by music maven Erik Rothenberg?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Warren Sapp, a future Hall of Famer who announced his retirement on Thursday. I spent a spirited night with Sapp in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and he was a man utterly at peace with his 13-year body of work. He's also one of the smarter people ever to play a position not prone to producing future rocket scientists. For that, among other attributes, he will be missed. When news of Sapp's retirement broke, I emailed the man who now stands alone as the league's greatest active defensive lineman, the Giants' Michael Strahan. He replied that Sapp is the "gold standard for modern day defensive tackles." Then I had a phone conversation with Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who played with Sapp in Oakland. "One of the best defensive linemen to play the game," Woodson said. "People tried to write him off when he left Tampa and came out to Oakland, but I knew the guy could still play, and he proved it. When I think of Sapp, I think of a guy that could've won the Heisman Trophy as a defensive player." Given Woodson's obvious expertise on the subject, I'll drink to that – and also to Bill Belichick for being named the Associated Press Coach of the Year. While I've been critical of Belichick at times over the past few months, I'm sincerely happy for the man who guided the Pats to what is probably the most impressive regular season in NFL history. Long ago, even before he got the New England job, I espoused the belief that he is one of the sport's great strategists; he has since evolved into a truly brilliant coach in every sense of the word.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
window washer legend of the fall
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
It was a rough week for the Reading Football Club, which said goodbye to its five-game unbeaten streak in a 6-4 defeat at Tottenham last Saturday and dropped a 2-0 home match to Portsmouth on New Year's Day. The Royals are now 13th in the Premier League with 22 points in 21 matches. In the Tottenham match, Reading had three second-half leads but succumbed to a Spurs onslaught, which included four goals from Dimitar Berbatov. Against Portsmouth, defender Ibrahima Sonko was sent off three minutes into the match, and the Royals played with 10 men thereafter. Sol Campbell's goal three minutes later (though the Portsmouth defender appeared to be offside on the play) proved to be the game-winner. Reading has a rematch at Tottenham Saturday, this time a third-round FA Cup clash. Royals striker Dave Kitson, who scored twice against Spurs last Saturday, will be rested for Saturday's match and told the Web site GetReading.co.uk that he doesn't view it as terribly important. "I don't give two (expletives) about it to be honest," Kitson said. "All I care about is staying in the Premier League. That's what everybody at this club cares about."
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Since I know precisely what Adam Duritz was thinking (along with every other devoted Cal fan) last Monday morning, as freshman quarterback Kevin Riley came off the bench to summon a transcendent effort and spark a comeback bowl victory, I'm going to put some words in the Counting Crows singer's mouth, to the exquisite tune of "A Long December."
"A long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can't remember the disasters down in L.A. and the Farm
Now the days go by so fast
And it's one more day in Strawberry Canyon
And they're one more night up in the trees
Suddenly all is well here in Berkeley … It's Riley
The stench of Washington, fourth-quarter interceptions
Balls that couldn't hit the broad side of a barn
All at once you look across a crowded stadium
To see the way that light attaches to an arm
And it's one more day up in the Canyon
And it's one more year of no Rose Bowl
If you think that might come for California … then let's roll
Stumbled up into Top Dog sometime after 2 a.m.
And talked a little while about the year
I guess the nightmare made 'em drop a bunch of passes,
Made 'em slower than molasses, made a couple act like asses
And it's been a long December and there's good reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better that the last
I can't remember all the times we tried to tell our coach
To give the kid the ball and let him pass
And it's one more day up in the Canyon
And it's one more year of chopping wood
It's been so long since we've won the conference … I guess we should"
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Titans' physical play? How about the fact Indy basically handed them the playoffs by taking out their starters early? First-string Indy would have coasted to victory. Essentially it results in Titans getting a free pass to the playoffs and Indy screwing over the Browns. I think the Commish needs to step in and do something about this. When the game has actual importance in determining the playoff teams, the other team should have to actually try and win instead of deciding who gets to go. What kind of integrity is displayed by putting in stiffs?"
Really, that's your solution? And what would you suggest that Commissioner Goodell do? As long as the goal is to win the Super Bowl, teams with a chance to do so will take care of their own interests, period. I don't have a problem with that.
"After watching Kerry Collins pass the Titans to game-tying, game-winning and insurance field goals, I wonder why Jeff Fisher and his staff didn't give him more playing time this year. Don't get me wrong, Vince Young is a great talent, but I just think the Titans would have benefited from what Arizona was trying to do with Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner earlier in the year (before Leinart suffered a season-ending injury). Collins could throw the ball just as well as anyone in the league, while the inexperienced Young can roll out and scramble away from pressure. Do you think there will ever be a day when a team uses two quarterbacks to win games throughout the season? The rifle- armed veteran Collins and multi-dimension youngster Young working in tandem seems like the perfect example."
I hear you about the potential benefits of playing Collins, and I know Young has struggled in his second season. But I have this feeling that Young is about to do something really, really special on Sunday in what should be a terrific game in San Diego.
"Your attack on Browns fans for seemingly disrespecting Derek Anderson by heartily cheering Brady Quinn when he took the field shows how little you know about the situation. It appears that Anderson led the team to the brink of the playoffs, but closer scrutiny reveals that he wasn't that good – at all. His performance declined severely down the stretch – when the team needed him to step up the most. During the final four games of the season, Anderson's QB rating was a weak 64.9 and he threw 5 TDs compared to 6 INTs. His previous success can be largely attributed to a vastly improved Browns offensive line (which also contributed to the resurgence of Jamal Lewis) and the maturation of Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. Believe it or not, Anderson looked bad most of the season and was carried by the guys around him. If you watched the games, you would have seen this. Of course, you can't be expected to watch each and every game before you analyze them, but this is one instance which proves that numbers don't tell the true story."
I'm pretty sure that most Browns fans – and players – would disagree with you on this subject
"The Patriots' division opponents combined for 12 wins. The Chargers' division opponents combined for 15, and yet the Chargers 'played in one of the most awful divisions known to sport' while you keep on worshiping Tom Brady's egg roll and dumplings. Keep loving his man meat while you can because LT and Turner (Michael, not Norv) are gonna punish them in a few weeks to shut you and all the haters up. Thanks. Happy New Year. Your column is actually pretty decent besides the Charger bashing. Peace"
I love the Chargers. Honestly. I'm just not sold on Norv as a head coach. But I'm willing to be reeducated.
"Hey Mike, Bad news heh? New England went 16-0! You must be in a real quandry now. Being the ignorant dumbass that you are, you're probably still scratching your empty head trying to figure out why the rest of the free world attached so much significance to the '72 Dolphins' undefeated season while you were berating the entire Patriots organization for having the audacity to attempt to achieve the same task against the Giants. Well, good news Mike! You'll have more fodder to spin in two weeks when the Patriots play again! I can already hear it in your next pathetically predictable Yahoo video interview! 'Yes folks, Bill Bellichek is once again giving the rest of the league the middle finger. In yesterday's Division playoff game, he actually had the audacity to play his starters the entire game hoping to win and go onto the Super Bowl'! With your flair for the spin, you should be a political strategist for the Democratic party!"
West End, NC.
I'm not totally sure what the exact nature of your insult is, but I'm blown away by what the Patriots have accomplished so far, and I'm extremely flattered that you watch me on video. And yeah, the Dems could definitely use some better spin. Finally, I would note that for what it's worth, this ignorant dumbass does know how to spell the words "quandary" and "Belichick."
"Michael, … do you think that (San Francisco) will ever right itself under (Mike Nolan)? He cannot coach, has no NFL experience in this position. All I see is another losing season in San Francisco. If they start out next season with a losing record, can you see this ownership firing Nolan?"
Sure. But until the Yorks fire, you know, the Yorks, this problem is likely to keep cropping up.
"Who the hell is your source that fed you these pack of lies about the 49ers situation? You just ruined my New Year of 2008 that the (expletive) ownership would dare bring back a man who cannot win a big game, cannot win a losing game, and cannot take this team to the playoffs. I don't care if the OC was gone or 'he' had (a) injury; you play through it! Colts had several injuries …. You journalists turn my stomach when you can't do your freaking job out there. We got Ann Killion, Tim Kawaski, and other reporters that want Nolan out. We got a fan base that wants Nolan out! I'm just sick about the whole thing because of you! You weren't even acknowledged on my local stations, much less, the newspapers! You're nothing more then a tabloid journalist! I hope this team suffers this year. I hope Alex Smith breaks his other shoulder. I, as a 49ers fan, am sick and tired, and I'm done as the 49ers fan. … Don't ever write another 49ers article, unless it says Mike Nolan is fired!"
Dude, don't shoot the messenger. And if you do, kindly fire at Ms. Killion or Mr. Kawakami first – or, better yet, the sore losers who didn't acknowledge me
"Only you, Silver, could get Jon Gruden to say he was a 'slap-dick'. Great journalism!"
Edward R. Murrow just turned over in his grave, but I'm not complaining. (And for the record, as I'm sure Darren from Novato will be thrilled to learn, Ann Killion was present during the fateful utterance.)
"You and Gruden have a lot in common – like smirking and being slap-dicks. I'm not sure if you're actually a slap-dick or not, but I feel it's the kind of term that should be used more frequently by the sports media. Slap-dick, slap-dick, slap- dick."
Another thing Gruden and I have in common: Al Davis loves us.
"Two articles on the Hawks in two weeks? Wow, more press than the team got the first 15 weeks of the season; though I can't blame the media for that (losses to Arizona and Cleveland didn't help). Loved the article as a Hawks fan but also because it pointed out the obvious: Defense Wins Championships (even though you didn't say it). Steelers and Colts won the SuperBowl with great defenses while the Bears and Seahawks got there with good defenses. The Hawks have a great defense and could very well end up in Arizona. How was my grammar and spelling?"
Other than your unfortunate running together of "Super Bowl," your grammar and spelling were disarmingly impeccable.
"About your Seahawks article, Kelly Herndon doens't play for them anymore, idiot "
He doens't? Is that the contraction for doen sot? Remember that reader from earlier in the season who tried to insult me by calling me a "moran"? I think I'm beginning to understand what he meant. As for the actual point of your email, yes, that was a mistake. The player I meant to identify is Kelly Jennings. My bad.
Translation: Only people who pick the Cowboys to go all the way should be allowed to cover the NFL for Yahoo!
"There's more than one team (Reading) in the premiership. How about a little love for the Gunners and Arsene Wenger every now and then. Their brand of football is beautiful and effective. Plus, their in first place."
Sorry, I have eyes only for the Royals. And for what it's worth, your brand of spelling is ugly and ineffective (though I do appreciate the feedback and the fact that you actually enjoy soccer).
"Since you can apparently speak to Pete, will you tell the old chap to pick up his bloody phone!? Thank you, that is all."
Perhaps he's too busy doing book research on the Internet.
"Fun with letters using today's word of the day: Silver. 1. Vile 2. Rile 3. Liver (with or without fava beans and a nice chianti.) 4. Vise 5. Evil."
If only you had an 'h' in your last name, I could spell handgun. Now, are we dun?
"Michael Silver, you are the de facto deity of NFL analysis (de facto because I don't want to assert that you are an actual transcendent being and piss off my uber-conservative father). I am a Cal student, and if you publish my mail my friends will worship me as I do you. In fact, we made a bet that if I can goad you into publishing my mail, they will literally bow before me. The rest is up to you …"
Someone in your crew owes me a pitcher at the Bear's Lair.
"I was checking on the Titans/Colts score before I started up my World of Warcraft game for the evening and happened to click on your column. Scrolling through the emails was one of the funniest experiences I've ever had. As an English teacher, I heartily approve your attempts to civilize these spelling and grammar barbarians. Now just imagine trying to deal with them every single day. I'm actually hoping you can explain something to me. Why has my little brother, raised to be a good Cincinnati fan, deserted us for St. Louis? (Oh, and for the Cubs … and for Duke. Heresy for any UK fan.) While the rest of us generally take the Bengals' less-than-stellar seasons with good humor, it's not necessary to jump ship yet. (Is it?)"
He jumped for the Rams? That is some serious acting out.
"I didn't believe it but, you've gotten more stupid. How can you do that? You already the more ignorant fool in sports media. Why don't you get that job flipping burgers at McDonald's and put us all out of our misery. (Expletive)!"
And you the more ignorant fool in reader community.
"Never give up! It's your duty to keep up the fight. You're the keeper of the grammar grail. Editors are gadflies. I think I saw yours depicted in a Salvador Dali painting."
That's, like, totally surreal.