Los Angeles Chargers

Most people don’t realize this, but the Chargers’ move to Los Angeles is really a return to their ancestral home. Yeah, it may be hard to believe, but when the Chargers first opened for business, they did so as the Los Angeles Chargers, and come next season, they’ll be doing so again. Here’s where a nostalgic sportswriter would ordinarily pop off about how the team always belonged in the place and the incarnation that had come to be known in the last several decades was a bastardization of everything right and holy in the world… But no. What do I look like, a baseball writer? (Okay, to a point I am, through this blog and another one about baseball books.) The Chargers had all of one year of history as the renegade team in Los Angeles before they bowed to the Rams and took off to San Diego, where they established a 57-year legacy. Granted, it was a legacy of repeated incompetence, heartbreaks, failures, busts, and disappointment, but it was still a legacy.

As a recent article on Deadspin pointed out, there tends to be an East Coast bias when it comes to naming sports tortures. But there tends to be a socioeconomic bias in those lists as well – ancient Rust Belt cities that are still in recovery, like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit, are popularly imagined to not have a whole lot else going for them. So it’s easy to imagine the fans in those places screaming and crying when the Buffalo Bills somehow blow yet another 21-point lead to the New England Patriots, then drowning in several vats of Labatt Blue. But there are sports cities out west whose devotion can more than hold their own with their eastern peers. This already-flopping inevitable failure of a move to Los Angeles is just one more bad thing to tack on to an unimpressive resume. At the very least, it will end the string of football pain in San Diego. (And start a new one in Los Angeles.)

The Los Angeles Chargers were formed in 1959 as one of the charter teams of the American Football League. Frank Leahy, a former coach for the University of Notre Dame, was brought right into the fold, but only as a GM. The team’s coach for the first ten years was Sid Gillman, who had experience as an NFL coach in his past with the Los Angeles Rams. Gillman’s work with the Chargers was a mark for a lot of the Chargers teams that would follow: He was known for his smarts on the offensive side of the ball. It was also Gillman who took over as General Manager after Leahy resigned because of his health issues. Chargers management put a lot of faith in him for a simple reason: He produced. The Chargers lost the first AFL title game to the Houston Oilers, then fled to San Diego for the following season. Led by running back Keith Lincoln, they rebounded in 1963 to win the title against the Boston Patriots, and made more trips to the Championship in 1965 and 1966, both of which they lost to the Buffalo Bills. While Gillman was known for his zany offenses, it wasn’t like he was shabby keeping points off the board, either. Earl Faison and Ernie Ladd were the anchors of a defensive line called the Fearsome Foursome.

In 1967, the NFL decided that the AFL might be a threat to its supremacy which might be worth taking seriously. The two leagues started playing exhibitions against each other. The AFL initially didn’t match up that well, and one example was of the Chargers getting trounced by the Detroit Lions. It wasn’t until the next year that the Chargers won their first game against an NFL team when they beat the San Francisco 49ers. In the meantime, while the terms of the AFL/NFL merger were being hammered out for the last few years of the 60’s, the Chargers continued to pile up win after win. But the 1969 season was only a little over half over when Gillman abruptly retired. Although this behavior is usually frowned at today, Gillman had a good reason: Coaching is a stressful 24/7 job which can wreak havoc on your health, and Gillman walked off with a stomach ulcer and a chest hernia. But even that wasn’t a total loss for the team; he stayed on as the General Manager.

The Chargers finished 5-6-3 the year after Gillman retired, so the team took a common route taken by teams that have bad years after their legends retire: They made him coach again! And he quit halfway through the following season, after which the team finished 6-8! It was here that the Chargers began to struggle. 1972 brought Deacon Jones and Duane Thomas to the team, but they didn’t have an immediate impact. So the team took the big step in 1973 of making a trade for the player then widely considered the greatest football player of all time: Quarterback Johnny Unitas! Who, uh, was 40 years old and ravaged by the accumulated injuries of his 18-year career. Yeah, you can figure out how that went. The first modern passing quarterback ever HATED San Diego. He clashed with both the coach and the offensive coordinator, gave his backup advice that was the direct opposite of what said offensive coordinator was telling him, and was benched after four games. At that point, he bolted like a flash of lightning (see what I did there?) right back to Baltimore. Left with little choice, the Chargers installed the aforementioned backup, a rookie named Dan Fouts. That turned out to be… Well, it actually turned out to be a damn good move.

Let me rephrase that: It EVENTUALLY turned out to be a damn good move. The truth was that since Fouts went on to a very accomplished career that most quarterbacks would love to have, people forget how much the Chargers struggled his first few years at the helm. It wasn’t until 1977 that he got the Chargers to a non-losing season, and that was a 7-7 finish. The next year was the installment of a 16-game season, and that was what it took for Fouts to finally lead the Bolts on to a year where they posted more wins than losses. They went 9-7 in a year which also featured a hell of an upheaval. The Bolts won their first game that year, which was against the two-year-old Seattle Seahawks. The second game was the famous Holy Roller game against the Oakland Raiders, which is named because of a forward fumble committed by Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler as he got sacked. A couple of Raiders players are suspected of keeping the ball rolling forward and into the endzone before one player scored the game-winning touchdown for Oakland by falling on it. Week three brought a loss to the Denver Broncos, and week four saw a home game against the Green Bay Packers. The temperature in that game was over 100 degrees, making it one of the hottest NFL games ever played. That didn’t help the Chargers; The Pack’s home was in freezing Wisconsin, so you could assume they were happy to get some rays. The final score makes that argument – the Packers waxed the Chargers 24-3. At that point, coach Tommy Protho was fired, and the team replaced him with a former coach for the St. Louis Cardinals named Don Coryell. Yeah, real winner there, right?

Coryell’s resume at the time wasn’t the most impressive. He only won a couple of division titles… But both were with the Cardinals! They were also the only division titles the Cards ever won in St. Louis. Coryell had also gotten them to the playoffs, a feat which they hadn’t accomplished since 1948, when they were still the Chicago Cardinals. Coryell set a lot of passing innovations in creating an offense called Air Coryell, and the Chargers started winning again. Fouts led the team through shootout after shootout and the Bolts won their division three straight years. Unfortunately, the Chargers also got into the habit of not being able to close in the playoffs. In 1979, they took their playoff loss against the Oilers in the first round. In 1980, they made it to the AFC Championship but were beat by Oakland. 1981 was looking like the year after the Chargers made long, hard work of their playoff victory against the Miami Dolphins. In The Epic in Miami, the Chargers and Dolphins combined to set records for total points, yards, and passing yards set in a playoff game which ended after 13 minutes of overtime. Of course, you had to know what that meant: The exhausted Bolts were easy pickings for the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship the next week.

The mid-80’s Chargers weren’t so great, but they continued to put on a show and set all kinds of records on offense. Running back Lionel James set a record in 1984 for 2535 all-purpose yards and 1027 receiving yards by a running back. Fouts had thrown for 43,040 yards by the time of his retirement in 1988, which back then was good for second in NFL history. When he threw his first 4000-yard season in 1979, he was only the second quarterback to ever throw for 4000 yards in one season, and his passing in 1979 kicked off a three-year stretch where he threw for 4000 every year. When he threw for 4802 yards in 1981, that was supposed to be the unsurpassable record until Dan Marino broke it in 1984.

Coryell decided he was done by 1986, after the Chargers had been on the decline for a few years. The following string of 6-10 finishes was naturally something anyone writing a short but comprehensive history of the Los Angeles Chargers wouldn’t waste more than this sentence on. But in the early 90’s, the Bolts did make a couple of notable hires: Coach Bobby Ross and quarterback Stan Humphries. Those were both in 1992, and that turned into a true turnaround year. After losing their first four games of the season, the Chargers stunned the league by winning 11 of their next 12 games to make their first trip to the playoffs since Coryell. They’re still the only NFL team to visit the playoffs after starting 0-4. That made Ross Coach of the Year, and the Chargers even managed to make a run into the playoffs when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs before getting mauled by the Dolphins. Two years later, the Chargers finally had their shining moment. Ross and Humphries anchored a team which also included bruising running back Natrone Means, wideout Tony Martin, defensive end Leslie O’Neal, and all-time great linebacker Junior Seau. Going into the playoffs with an 11-5 record, the Chargers won two close, hard-fought games against the Dolphins (22-21) and Pittsburgh Steelers (17-13). The thing with the AFC back then, though, was that they weren’t producing a lot of overwhelmingly great teams. The Chargers have the distinction of being the team that broke off the Buffalo Bills’ legendary four-in-a-row Super Bowl run, and those Bills were the best – and arguably the only – shot the AFC had at beating the NFC at all between 1983 and 1997. After San Diego won the AFC Championship, everyone was already ceding the Super Bowl to the opposing Niners of Steve Young and Jerry Rice, and they were right. The Chargers were an afterthought in their only Super Bowl appearance. The Niners hammered the helpless Bolts 49-26, and it wasn’t as close as the score makes it look.

That was San Diego’s great window to bring ultimate glory to their eternally downtrodden city and its depressed populace, and it was closed after that. By 1997, the Chargers had gone from first in the AFC to first in the Draft. Okay, well, it was actually second to the Indianapolis Colts, but the 1998 Draft was royally fucking loaded. It ended up producing notable talents like Matt Hasselbeck, Ahman Green, Randy Moss, Hines Ward, Matt Birk, Charles Woodson, and Fred Taylor. But back then, it was noted for a pair of surefire quarterback prospects. Of the two, the Chargers had their hearts set on Ryan Leaf, a powerful quarterback from Washington State University who was widely considered the better thrower and better overall of the two. When Leaf was left after Indy’s selection, the Chargers sighed in relief and nabbed him. And Leaf proceeded to swagger into the league and throw… Games! Many, many games! And interceptions! Dear god, the interceptions! Leaf started out with rookie jitters and the Chargers went 5-11. They improved the following year and posted an even record, but that went out the window quickly when the Bolts won one game the following season. Everything that happened after that had nothing to do with Leaf, because he was released after 2000 and out of the league two years later with a reputation as maybe the biggest Draft bust ever. As for the Colts, they made off with some guy named Peyton Manning. I wonder how that turned out.

The Chargers took a step in the right direction in 2001 when they hired John Butler as general manager. Although he would be dead of lymphoma within two years, he took the first steps in creating some awesome teams in San Diego. Drafting quarterback Drew Brees and running back LaDainian Tomlinson got the Bolts in the right direction, but real progress was slow to show up. A lot of this falls on the slow growth of Brees, who was hiccuping something fierce for his first few seasons. Although coach Marty Schottenheimer believed in him, quarterback Eli Manning was drafted in the first round of the 2004 Draft anyway. Manning wasn’t exactly thrilled to be heading to San Diego – he came right out and told the team to trade him or he was quitting football and going to law school. The Bolts gave the privileged little cocksucker his wish, and Manning was off to the New York Giants in exchange for another quarterback taken in the first round of the same draft, Philip Rivers. Unfortunately for the Chargers, it was in 2004 that Brees finally blossomed. He led the Bolts to a 12-4 record and went to his first Pro Bowl, and that left the team in a tricky situation because they just gave up a lot to get Rivers on their team. The Chargers finally said they were going to let Rivers call the plays after Brees made the decision for them by tearing his throwing arm. Returning to the team after a difficult operation and rehabilitation, Brees was given a free agency offer by the Chargers that told him they didn’t believe in him. So he blew town to the New Orleans Saints. Don’t feel too bad for him, though; he is currently in the part of his career where he’s adding bullet points to a resume that accomplished everything a quarterback could possibly accomplish, including a Super Bowl victory.

The Chargers, meanwhile, continued making choice Draft picks. Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles, and Antonio Gates became notable players. The Chargers excelled for the next several years, winning their division every year from 2006 to 2009 and even being heavy Super Bowl favorites. Once again, though, they could never figure out just how to close. They lost the divisionals to the Patriots in 2006. The next year, they went all the way to the AFC Championship, but lost to the Patriots again. (That one was perfectly understandable – that was the infamous 2007 Patriots team which was on a perfect run until it lost the Super Bowl.) The next year, it was the Steelers, followed by the New York Jets, both in the divisionals again.

Their window closed again, the Chargers started to age a little and drop off. Tomlinson, long their lynchpin, left after the 2009 season. The next few years were the good-not-great variety; they would win seven, eight, or nine games and just miss the playoffs. They did appear back in the playoffs once, in 2013, and even beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card game before the Broncos put them down in (say it with me) the divisionals. 2015 basically completed their latest fall from grace, and they went right back to the top of the Draft pool. But that was nothing to the run of bullshit the Chargers had in store. After the 2015 season, the Chargers, Raiders, and Rams all filed to relocate to Los Angeles. The Rams were getting a big, fancy-ass new stadium in Inglewood, so the league gave its approval to them first. The Chargers had to stay and wait, all while claiming they tried to build a new stadium in San Diego. Of course, that was a big fucking lie; they merely begged San Diego to give them tax money to build the stadium. Given a public referendum, the people of San Diego stood tall and told the team and league to go fuck themselves. So up the I-5 the Chargers returned, and they’ll have to spend the next couple of years playing in a 30,000-seat stadium in Carson, to an apathetic city which is already rejecting the recently-returned Rams.

The Chargers have retired the numbers of Dan Fouts, Lance Alworth, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Junior Seau. All of those are justified. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates seem to be likely candidates for number retirement, but this IS the NFL, and retired numbers are limited because there are so many players on every team. I mentioned Fouts’s accomplishments. Tomlinson holds some spectacular records as well: Most rushing touchdowns in a single season (28 in 2006), most touchdowns from scrimmage in a single season (31 in 2006), and 18 straight games with a touchdown. Seau went to 12 Pro Bowls and finished his career with 1849 tackles. Other important Chargers include Kellen WInslow, Charlie Joiner, and Ron Mix. The Chargers also have the distinction of having Johnny Unitas and John Mackey play for them. Both were for the final year of their careers – Mackey in 1972 and Unitas a year later. Both players were staples in the rich history of the Baltimore Colts during the 60’s, and they played together on the Colts team that was heavily favored to beat the Jets in the Super Bowl. The Chargers also fielded a pair of linebackers with unique marks on their careers. In 2013, the Chargers were the team that drafted Manti Te’o. Te’o was seen as an odd duck because of a weird scandal that happened over the course of his last college football season: Te’o, who went to Notre Dame, had a long-distance girlfriend named Lennay Kekua, who went to Stanford. Kekua was fighting leukemia, but she died in a car accident in September of 2012. Before she died, she made Te’o promise to play in her honor, which Te’o did. After her death, though, Deadspin started investigating her identity. In January 2013, Deadspin published their findings: Kekua didn’t exist. Te’o never told anyone that his relationship with “Lennay Kekua” was exclusively online, and the two had never met in person. Her existence was a hoax by someone who was, depending on the source, either a family friend or an acquaintance of the Te’o family who had fallen in love with Manti and was using the ruse as an escape from feelings he knew would never be returned. (Honestly, the journalists not doing the word here is understandable; someone just died such a tragic death, and you’re going to ask for the damned birth certificate? I admire Deadspin, but the reporters who uncovered this story were lucky they didn’t get beat within inches of their lives.) Te’o was first thought to be a possible distraction, but he’s been quietly building a solid career for himself, and was named one of the team’s Captains in 2016. The other is Takeo Spikes, a great linebacker who played for some 15 years in the NFL for five or six different teams. He put up statistics comparable with some of the greatest linebackers, but he was always playing for the wrong team at the wrong time. The Chargers were his final team, and by the time he was finished in San Diego, he had played in 219 regular season games – and zero playoff games. That’s the most games ever played by a player who never went to the playoffs.

The 1994 Chargers stand out because they could have been San Diego’s ticket to ultimate glory had the NFC not been so much better than the AFC. But they’re one of the most tragic teams in the league – eight players on that team have died. None of them made it to age 45. Three were dead before the end of the 90’s, starting with David Griggs being killed in a car accident in 1995. Some of the casualties are pretty typical: Drugs, heart attack, disease. But one was struck twice by lightning. Seau committed suicide, and has become one of the poster boys for the kind of mental damage long-term play in the NFL can cause.

You need to know that the Chargers have a very cool color combination: Navy blue, powder blue, and gold. But the team’s name is a different story. This is one of those weird sports names that’s been losing its power as the times have rolled. The name was chosen because the team’s original owner like the idea of a team flying out to a horn and a yell of “CHARGE!” You know what a charger is now? To my generation? (Millennial.) It’s something we use to make sure our cell phones are on. Yes, there’s the bolt on the helmet – hence the team’s nickname, the Bolts – but that was created to go with the name. Lightning is a rather common image in sports; the NHL has a team called the Tampa Bay Lightning.

San Diego was right on the border to Mexico, so they had a lot of media coverage that was in Spanish. Two cities in Mexico have radio stations which cover the Chargers, and one of them is on an FM band. Two other Spanish stations cover Los Angeles and Orange counties and San Diego.

As you can see, the Chargers have a bullet point list of tragedies that stacks up with any other sad sack team. It’s remarkable they have fans at all with it. San Diego isn’t known for diehard passion, but they did have a 57-year history before going back to Los Angeles, so they must have had an appeal to someone. A team isn’t going to be good just because it’s in San Diego. It’s difficult to think of this team as the Los Angeles Chargers right now because their entire history is still in San Diego, so if you adopt the Chargers, you’re really still adopting the San Diego Chargers, not the Los Angeles Chargers.

Pros

Play in southern California; lots of things in Los Angeles for visitors to see and do; usually field a fun offense even when they suck

Cons

People outside of San Diego didn’t pay much attention to them; people INSIDE Los Angeles aren’t going to pay ANY attention to them; are now symbolic of how greedy the NFL truly is; even a lot of the league’s champions think moving to Los Angeles was stupid and unnecessary; will be forced to play in a tepid 30,000-seat stadium for the next couple of years; won’t be any better than either of the two ridiculously elite and storied college football teams in Los Angeles

Should you be a fan?

No. Fuck no. Owner Dean Spanos deserves nothing but failure. They’re now the reigning symbol of the league’s unquenchable lust for Los Angeles, and they’re coming right on the heels of a return by the Rams that’s not going well because, you know, Los Angeles still has the Bruins and Trojans, both of whom could easily pound the Chargers and Rams into the turf.

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