What Melvin Gordon’s Return Will Mean for the Chargers
Late Wednesday night, as it became clear that the three-month Melvin Gordon saga was winding to a close, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn could finally break from the message he’d been hammering home to his players all summer and into fall, if only for a minute. And that meant simply conceding what’s obvious to anyone with a TV set and an affinity for the NFL.
“We’re a better team with him, for sure!” Lynn said via text.
There you got, from the coach, a rare moment of exultation in what’s been a tough month for his team. You can excuse him for it, too, because just as rare would be seeing the coach down about how the breaks have gone against his Chargers during a 1-2 start, with the two losses coming by a total of 10 points.
So, yeah, Gordon’s return helps. But it doesn’t change how Lynn is approaching things, save for that quick moment of celebration.
That’s the strength of what he’s built in L.A., which is being put to the test. Again.
Week 4’s here, and we’re going to get your players to watch, plus some good mailbag questions on:
• Saquon Barkley and the Giants.
• Bruce Allen and the Redskins.
• The quarterback situations in Carolina and Jacksonville.
• The MVP race.
But we’re starting in L.A., with the struggling yet still self-assured Chargers.
There are reasonable ways to explain why the Chargers are 1-2.
The easy thing for Lynn to do would be to point to his secondary, which has been down to one remaining starter at points this September, busting under the weight of injuries late against Detroit in Week 2. Or explain how, last week, similar issues on the offensive line, with left tackle Russell Okung out, caused things to come undone at the wire against Houston.
Instead, as he and I talked through it, Lynn pushed the conversation somewhere else.
“We have to finish better,” Lynn said. “It’s just that simple. We’re one of the best teams in the league in penalties—but you look at some of these penalties and the timing of them, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God! If we hadn’t had that holding call, if we hadn’t had this or that …’ Penalties are a part of the game. You have to be good enough to overcome penalties. The best teams in the league are going to have five or six a game. You have to be good enough to overcome that.
“Right now we’re just not good enough to overcome those deals, because we’re not finishing games. We’ve been up two scores a couple times here and have had a chance to extend that, and we haven’t done it. We’re thinking more about our finish, our approach to the game, our execution, our focus, and I think that’ll allows us to overcome this.”
Lynn’s right in that the Chargers are among the least-penalized teams in football, tied for the sixth-fewest penalties assessed (19) and tied for ninth-fewest yards against (159).
He’s also right in saying that the penalties his team has taken have come at all the wrong times. In Detroit, a delay of game pushed a third-and-14 to third-and-19 and led to a game-sealing pick for the Lions. Against the Texans, a holding call against Trent Scott, Okung’s replacement, negated a third-down conversion that would have set up first-and-goal at the Houston 7, and instead put L.A. in third-and-14 with 24 seconds left.
But this isn’t about the details. There’s a larger point Lynn’s making. The injury situation may be obvious—Lynn laughed when I suggested the franchise has been cursed, healthwise—but it also can’t be controlled. Likewise, Gordon’s holdout wasn’t one that could be fixed on Sunday. The penalty problem, on the other hand, could have been.
“It’s the National Football League,” he said. “There are injuries everywhere. We’d love to have Russell and DJ [safety Derwin James], and [tight end] Hunter Henry, Michael Davis, a starting corner for us, [placekicker] Michael Badgley. We’d love to have all those guys. But shoot, no one has all their guys once the season starts.
“If we’d just done a couple things different in those last two weeks, those games would’ve been different. It had nothing to do with the injuries.”
Therein lies the hope the Chargers have—Lynn’s message is steady, and it will stand no matter what circumstances the team is dealing with.
It’s that steady hand that brought the Chargers back from an 0-4 stumble out of the 2017 gate and into playoff contention that December. That same hand guided them from, yes, an 1-2 start last fall to six straight wins, a 12-4 finish and a playoff spot. And they have faith that the formula will work for a still loaded roster again now.
That said, the Chargers are dealing with a lot right now, beyond just the late-game problems that are keeping Lynn up at night. Among the issues:
• Okung is on the non-football injury list, with a pulmonary embolism, which by rule sidelines him through Week 6. Lynn says “he could come back as early as Week 7 or Week 8, but you just don’t know. We’ll have to see after the tests.” Which is to say, there’s a lot of uncertainty hovering over the most important position on the line, as you’d expect with a condition that’s a lot less predictable than, say, a knee injury.
• James, who entered camp poised to become one of the game’s preeminent defensive stars, had foot surgery in August and is on injured reserve. That means he’s out at least until midseason, with the expected timeline pegging his return in December. “That’s what they say,” Lynn said. “I don’t like to put timetables on stuff like that, because DJ will tell you in a heartbeat, ‘I’m a fast healer.’”
• Davis was out Sunday with a hamstring, and corner Trevor Williams (quad) and safety Adrian Phillips (broken arm) are with James on IR, and the team can only pull two players off that list, by rule, over the rest of the seaosn. Suffice it to say, the secondary’s depth is likely to be tested all year.
• Henry’s timetable is uncertain, after he suffered a tibial plateau fracture in Week 1.
• As for Gordon, it’ll be interesting to see what the Chargers get from him on the game field, given that the $10 million-per-year offer he got from the team this offseason has been pulled (the trade market was lukewarm, at best) and his free agency is six months away.
Now, one member of the organization pointed out to me Wednesday that, amid all this, other teams (see: Steelers, Saints) are dealing with worse luck. And the Chargers do still have Philip Rivers present and accounted for. But after three weeks this would be a lot for any team to deal with.
It stings just a little more, because the team did a lot of work on, and poured financial resources into, how it handles its strength and conditioning, medical, athletic training and nutrition in order to address its past injury luck, only to have a bunch of bad-luck broken bones happen over the last few months.
Still, there’s a way the for the Chargers to recover. They get the Dolphins on Sunday, then the Broncos, Steelers and Titans before playing the Bears and Packers right around Halloween. After that, Okung could return, and then James, and there might be a chance to build momentum the way Lynn’s crew did last year, with the lessons of those September late-game stumbles in the bank.
“We’re trying to come out of the first quarter of this season even,” Lynn said “If you go out there like these guys are doing, and you’re giving 100 percent, and you don’t learn from that? Then that’s shame on us. I really believe you don’t lose, you learn. And if losing those two games doesn’t make us a better team, then that’s shame on us. That’s shame on us.
“So yeah, you can take something from those two losses, hard as they were. You can take something from that, and build on it, to be better.”
Then, there’s this silver lining: The Chargers still have a better roster than most teams. Rivers is there. So are Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Casey Heyward, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and now, again, Gordon.
Maybe that’s why it’s not so hard for Lynn to stay level through the bumpy start. He knows what he’s got. Which is why, when I asked if he still thinks there’s a championship talent level there for him and his staff to mine, he didn’t skip a beat.
“No doubt about that,” he said. “Some teams drop a couple earlier and catch fire later. The NFL’s about peaking at the right time. That’s what we gotta do. We have to stay in this thing, and get this team ready to peak at the right time. And maybe reinforce it with some key players coming back. I still think we have an opportunity to have an outstanding football team.”
So it’s good news that Gordon’s rejoining that effort today. But if the Chargers are going to get there, it’ll take a lot more than just his return. The better news is that Lynn’s crew already knows that. Because they’ve been here before.
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
NFL players in the spotlight in Week 4.
Eagles WR Nelson Agholor. Cool story this week involving Agholor and one heroic fan, but that fan did say what a lot of other Eagles fans had been thinking about the fifth-year pro. Philly will be relying on him again tonight in Green Bay, with DeSean Jackson set to miss another game, and Alshon Jeffery coming back from injury.
Bills QB Josh Allen. The Buffalo sophomore has been better, but not great, through the team’s 3-0 start—his completion percentage is way up (64.1 percent), but his TD-INT is sitting at 3-3. If he’s ready to turn another corner, this would be a good week to do it, with what looks like a vintage Patriots team coming to town.
Browns OT Greg Robinson. This really goes for Robinson and right tackle Chris Hubbard— Cleveland has to be better at the tackle spots, and especially this week with the Ravens bringing a fleet of pass-rushers bent on proving a point to Baker Mayfield. Or at the very least the team has to do a better job of managing its deficiency there.
Lions CB Darius Slay. He was limited in practice on Wednesday after tweaking a hamstring in Philly, so his availability/effectiveness should be on everyone’s radar headed into Sunday’s showdown with a loaded Chiefs offense. How Matt Patricia deploys his corners—Slay, along with Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman—to combat K.C.’s speed will be interesting.
Bears QB Mitch Trubisky. There’s no question the temperature has turned up on the 25-year-old, with so much else about the Bears roster appearing championship-ready. And so there’s plenty of pressure on Trubisky going into a big home game against a division opponent with a top-shelf defense. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Trubisky didn’t play great against the Vikings last year.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
A pair of draft prospects to watch this weekend.
Washington QB Jacob Eason (vs. USC, FOX, 3:30 p.m. ET). The Georgia transfer, once the top recruit in America and a true freshman starter in the SEC, has followed his career pattern early in his first year as starter for Chris Peterson—good against shaky competition, shaky against good competition. Eason ripped up Eastern Washington, Hawaii and BYU, but stumbled against Cal. “He’s a big pocket passer with good mechanics and stroke,” said one NFC exec. “But he’s an inconsistent processor of information, he leaves plays on the field that he doesn’t see. I don’t see [him as] a high pick as of right now. He has the ingredients to be one, but the Cal game performance has me doubting whether he should come out.” Another NFC exec said, “Big man and a huge arm. He has the tools to be really good but has not done it long enough yet, to get a good feel for him. The flashes are exciting, but I need to see consistency and accuracy over time.” It’s fair to say that a big game against the Trojans, given their talent, would be a big step in changing the scouts’ perception for the 6’6”, 227-pound redshirt junior.
Virginia CB Bryce Hall (at Notre Dame, NBC, 3:30 p.m.). Hall’s a senior, and a four-year starter, coming off a junior year in which he led the country with 22 pass breakups. And while he may not wind up going as high as Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah or LSU’s Kritian Fulton next April, he’s got a shot to lead the second tier at the position. “He’s an instinctive, long, big, productive corner,” said one AFC college scouting director. “He doesn’t have high-end movement skills, and his speed is a concern. He’s not the athlete that his old teammate [current Chiefs safety Juan] Thornhill was/is, but he’s a really solid player, probably a Day 2 guy for me.” And this will be one of the first games that scouts look at tape of—largely because there should be a nice challenge there, when Hall is matched up with star Irish receiver Chase Claypool, who stands 6’4” and 229 pounds.
Now, on to your questions.
From Doug Fast (@drfastman): Why wouldn’t the NYG look long-term & shut down (Saquon Barkley) for the season? High ankle sprains are always tricky to heal.
I understand the question, Doug, and I agree they should take their time with him. If this is a two-month injury, give him two months to heal. But once he’s fully healthy, you have to play him. And I think there’s benefit in it.
One, you help Daniel Jones—in the way having Zeke Elliott helped a young Dak Prescott, and having Todd Gurley was huge in turning Jared Goff around. Two, there’s a rhythm to playing that position that demands reps. I’ve heard backs say that getting working, and being able to train their bodies to move at a certain speed, and their eyes to see at a certain speed, is important. So 2019 reps could be meaningful to the start of 2020.
And I guess it also comes back to that old Bill Parcells thing … During football season football players play football.
From Lou from Landover (@bbosse3): How does Bruce Allen keep his job?
Lou, I was walking to dinner in New York the other night and flipping through my phone, and saw that ESPN color man Booger McFarland’s saying Allen had done a “solid job” with the Redskins elicited a headline in the Washington Post. Think about that. How unpopular does a guy have to be when a TV commentator’s saying he’s done a “solid job” is enough to generate a headline?
So yeah, I hear you and Redskins fans on this. I’d say that one thing that Allen has had going for him in Washington for a while now is owner Dan Snyder’s belief that Allen’s connections in local politics are vital to the team’s getting the stadium it desires, be it in DC, Virginia or Maryland. Add his relationship to Snyder, and his family’s history in the franchise (he’s the son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen) to the mix, and it makes sense why he’s stuck around through a lot of tough times.
If things don’t improve, would he survive a coaching change? I’m not sure. But it’d be interesting to see whether or not the structure of the football operation might change regardless, if the team might hire a GM, like it did when it brought in Scot McCloughan in 2015.
From Josh (@OpenVeinsUK): Can anyone challenge Mahomes and Brady for MVP?
I’ll give you two names. One is self-serving—I’m not going to rule out Carson Wentz, just because he was my preseason pick for MVP, and I won’t give up that easily. (It’s only been three weeks!). That said, I’m a little worried about Philly’s offensive line, and you’d have to hope the group isn’t getting old all at once, since its excellence has been such a big part of the Eagles’ identity over the last few years.
Less self-serving choice? Dak Prescott. These awards are often about narratives, and Prescott has a good one—has been riding sidecar to Ezekiel Elliott for some time now, with a new coordinator, Kellen Moore, sparking a move to the next level of quarterbacking. The fourth-year pro is also playing for a contract, and if he gets one, that’ll only add to a storyline that will be played up with each big game he has to the national audience the Cowboys always have.
Two non-quarterbacks to keep an eye on, while we’re there, would be Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Both teams are relying pretty heavily on those guys, and so each should have ample opportunity to build up the kind of statistical résumé it takes for a tailback to enter the conversation.
From TJ (@ChrisTJ31): QB Controversies in Jacksonville and Carolina when the starters get healthy?
More likely in the former than the latter, I’d say. The Panthers are still committed to Cam Newton, at least in the short-term. And so long as he takes his time and comes back 100 percent, the expectation is that he’ll play well in Norv Turner’s system. I like Kyle Allen. But I don’t see, two months from now, people thinking he’s ready to unseat Newton.
Gardner Minshew’s situation is a little different. Yes, the Jags paid Nick Foles, but they’re not close to as deeply invested in him as the Panthers are to Newton. And Minshew’s coaches really believe they’ve found something, and trust him. His teammates love him, and he’s got some time to grow. So I think Jacksonville, for all these reasons, would be more apt to ride the hot hand, than just default to franchise’s faceman.
From Alfred (@alfreddsc): What’s the Chiefs backfield going to look like in the following weeks?
I think ideally there’ll be a three-way split between incumbent Damian Williams, Andy Reid’s old buddy Shady McCoy and rookie Darwin Thompson. And while they aren’t terribly far off from that right now—Williams played 37 snaps, McCoy 26 and Thompson 5—it’ll take some development from the young guy, Thompson, to get there.
As a result, my guess is this is a week-to-week thing for the Chiefs.
From Sean Cameron (@SeanCam90928718): Is the NFL going to do anything about tanking? Clearly the Dolphins are and just waiting for next year when the Clemson QB is eligible.
I’m not sure it’s much of a problem, Sean. The Browns did a teardown in 2016, and the Dolphins are enduring one now, but I don’t see many other examples (2013 Jaguars would be the next on the list, and it’s iffy putting them there) from this decade. If that is indeed it, would two examples spark major change? I tend to think not.
And I don’t think there’s the motivator to do it that there is in the NBA—where the league is wholly superstar-driven, and it’s very hard to find such a player without a very, very high draft pick. It’s also not that common that there’s a quarterback that everyone agrees on to the degree that it’s worth throwing a season over him. (Andrew Luck might have been one in 2012, and Trevor Lawrence has become another now.)
I also don’t sense a great appetite for an NBA-style draft lottery, which I think would be a lot of fun. So in short, no, I wouldn’t expect change any time soon.
From Tom Quinn (@doublespeak152): Any CBA news?
Tom, it’s status quo. The league continues to push the expanded schedule chip (17 or 18 games) and players want a bigger piece of the revenue (they currently get 47.5 percent) and the same number of games. In the meantime the sides chipped away on smaller elements of a potential deal this summer.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith is doing team visits now, and is pledged to continue with these until Oct. 10, so chances are there won’t be another negotiating session until after that. Things could heat up thereafter, especially since the league has already communicated to the union that it hopes to get a new set of broadcast deals done between now and Thanksgiving (which, I’ll be honest, seems a tad ambitious).
From Connor (@ConnorMcCarty23): Tell me why so many people don’t think Josh Rosen is good?
First of all, Connor, I think so many of Rosen’s issues thus far in the pros have to do with his environment. Going to Arizona to play for a one-and-done head coach and through an in-season overhaul of the offensive staff was only made worse by the horrific offensive line he was playing behind. And he may have wound up in a worse situation this year, going to Miami as it kicked off a teardown.
Because of all that, I don’t think we have much idea of Rosen’s ability in the pros. And maybe we never will get that idea, if he never gets a shot at being the centerpiece in a well-run program. That’s too bad. At one point, early on in his career at UCLA, Rosen was seen as the next great quarterbacking prodigy. There were certain points where he didn’t help himself. But he’s also been a pretty serious victim of circumstance.
From Chris Hart (@Who_Harted): Are there any longtime position coaches around the league held in the same regard as Scar? Who will be 10-15 years from now?
Chris is talking about Dante Scarnecchia—and he’s right. There aren’t many who have the interesting career path that Scar has. He’s spent 34 of the last 38 years as a Patriots assistant (he was Indy in 1989 and ’90, and retired in 2014 and ’15), serving as special teams coach, tight ends coach, a special assistant and defensive assistant before settling in as offensive line coach in Pete Carroll’s last year in New England, 1999.
There are some special teams coaches who, over the years, have stayed in spots and survived turnover—Mike Westhoff was one, sticking in Miami from 1986 to 2000, then with the Jets from 2001 to ’12. There are line coaches with the same sort of longevity with a franchise. Ex-Bengals line coach Paul Alexander was with the franchise from 1994 to 2017. And there are guys like Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub and Redskins offensive line coach Bill Callahan who have made their bones specializing in one area.
But very few have the interesting career Scar has had.
From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Has John Dorsey made a mistake in gutting the O-line for star players??
Don, I think the argument for that is definitely there in plain sight. The Browns let Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz go in 2016, watched Joe Thomas retire in 2018, and traded Kevin Zeitler in the spring—those four have combined to make first- or second-team All-Pro 15 times over the last 10 years. And the Browns only spent two top-150 picks in that time to replace them. Neither of those two picks (Shon Coleman, Austin Corbett) have helped much.
Could the Browns make a move on someone like Trent Williams to fix the problem on the fly? Sure, I guess they could. But it won’t be cheap. And that’s the price paid for not addressing this area more seriously as all that talent walked out the door (which, to be fair, wasn’t all Dorsey’s doing, with Sashi Brown overseeing the first couple years of the issue).
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