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Don't blame Philip Rivers for the Chargers’ dystopian existence

Los Angeles is trending toward another top 10 draft pick, but they’re closer to a breakthrough than any other 3-5 team.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

No team in the NFL is better at breaking its fans hearts than the Chargers.

Whether it’s leaving the San Diego setting it had called home for 55 seasons or finding new and exciting ways to lose close games, the franchise is in a league of its own when it comes to giving hope, then tearing it apart like warm monkey bread. The Chargers haven’t won double-digit games since 2009. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013. And the team’s inability to truly bottom out and rebuild has fans stuck in a feedback loop that never gets better and never gets worse.

The Chargers are the NFL’s version of Groundhog Day. Instead of being stuck in Punxsutawney, Philip Rivers is just out here replaying the same devastating loss 10 weeks per year.

Since 2015, they have lost 28 games — 22 of those were by eight points or fewer; 12 were by three points or came in overtime.

It’s easy to point at the Chargers’ difficult position in the AFC West as part of the problem, but the losses are distributed among teams good and bad. In 2015, there was a three-point loss at home to a 6-10 Bears team. The next year, they were the only team to suffer the ignominy of losing to the Browns. This season’s most damaging loss was a two-point defeat to a Dolphins team that, against all logic and reason, is somehow 4-3.

So what has separated the 2015-on Chargers from the unit Rivers once captained to four straight playoff appearances and a spot in the AFC title game? And how can the franchise end its Sisyphean journey to a six-win season?

Philip Rivers can no longer will this team to victory

Few quarterbacks have been asked to do more since 2010 than Rivers, who is on pace for his fourth straight season with at least 570 pass attempts. Being able to rely on the West Coast, less-successful version of Brett Favre has been the Chargers’ M.O., even in 2016 and 2017 as Melvin Gordon has developed into the kind of back who can balance off his team’s pass-heavy approach. That strategy’s returns have diminished as the veteran quarterback nears his 36th birthday.

Rivers made the Pro Bowl in 2016, an honor that accurately reflects how few quarterbacks actually want to play in the NFL’s least essential game. The invite came weeks after finishing a season where he led the league in interceptions (the second time in three years). Since 2015, a season in which he threw more passes than anyone, he’s just 12-28 as a starter.

Of course, those games have been close, and it actually turns out wily veteran Rivers — the guy who hasn’t been to the playoffs in four seasons — is better than the young-gun version who made three playoff trips in four years. Here’s how he played in one-possession games in his first four seasons as a pro vs. the last four.

Philip Rivers' performance in one-possession games

Year Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds/Game TD Int Rate Y/A
Year Result Cmp Att Cmp% Yds/Game TD Int Rate Y/A
2006-2009 19W, 12L 617 985 62.64% 245.8 51 29 91.5 7.74
2014-2017 14W, 24L 958 1492 64.21% 292.2 76 34 94.1 7.44

Without the Hall of Fame talent of LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield, Rivers has been forced to throw more. The good news is he’s largely been up to the task, upping his completion rate and yards per game. The bad news is that it hasn’t been enough, as the 14-24 record in one-possession games shows.

That limited offensive attack has been highlighted by a defense that bottomed out last season. The 2016 Chargers ranked 29th in scoring defense as all but three of last year’s opponents scored 20 points or more against the club. Injuries thinned out an already questionable linebacking corps, allowing mediocrity to fester.

Without a sustainable running game to grind down opponents, leads dissipated as an exhausted defense slowed down in the second half. Rivers did what he could to lead the Chargers back, but the deck was stacked against him — turning a handful of admirable performances into more L’s on the stat sheet.

Who can step up to get Los Angeles over the hump?

Melvin Gordon, for all his potential, is not the kind of running back who can carry an offense — at least, not yet. Though his franchise record-tying 87-yard run provided the bulk of the Chargers’ points in a 21-13 loss to the Patriots, he’s still a player who has averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry as a pro. Factor in the injuries that ended his first two seasons with the team, and it’s difficult to say with any certainty he can be a franchise tailback.

The Chargers need him to play up to the potential that made him a top 15 pick, and not just for the team’s offense. A reliable, 4.5-yard-per-carry tailback is a defense’s best friend, and the kind of player who can make fourth quarter leads against, say, the Dolphins or Broncos or Raiders, hold up. Los Angeles has been devastated late in games, and having a runner who can sustain drives, eat up clock, and put a team that has struggled to fine the end zone late in games in scoring position would be a massive boon.

The Chargers have an ascending defense that still has holes, but the foundation is there. Adding a mix of rookie and veteran talent at linebacker and safety would go a long way toward limiting the threshold Rivers has to cross to deliver a win. We’ve seen Joey Bosa and Melvin Gordon energize what’s become one of the league’s most exciting young pass rushes — now it’s time to address the rest of the Los Angeles defense.

How do the Chargers fix things and escape from the bad football version of Groundhog Day?

1. Begin, in earnest, to replace Philip Rivers

Rivers usurped Drew Brees in San Diego, growing under a veteran mentor before developing into one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Now it’s time to return the favor.

The Chargers have only drafted three quarterbacks since 2004. The only one to have played a snap in the NFL was Charlie Whitehurst. They’ll have a chance to snap up a potential building block in 2018 thanks to what’s being lauded as a quarterback-rich draft — although this year’s performances from Joshes Rosen and Allen haven’t exactly borne that out. Given the draft value of quarterbacks in recent years, the Chargers would likely have to trade up in order to acquire a top talent; as recent moves for Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson have shown, those moves can pay off.

For all Rivers’ recent issues with accuracy and turnover rate, he’s still got the chops to be an above-average starting quarterback. However, the clock is ticking, and the man now has eight kids to go home to. Los Angeles can’t afford not to have a contingency plan in place.

2. Add another high-impact tailback alongside Melvin Gordon

Gordon has his flashes and still has room to grow, but his bouts of ineffectiveness and injury concerns make adding a big, yard-churning back — Branden Oliver doesn’t count — a need. A player like LeGarrette Blount would have been a short-term option, a reliable veteran who can move the chains and doesn’t command the primary role in a timeshare.

Austin Ekeler, an undrafted rookie out of Western State, has looked solid in platoon work and has added a second backfield target for Rivers, but he’s relatively small (195 pounds) and untested. Los Angeles needs a pile-pushing back to extend drives and take some of the weight off Gordon’s shoulders — the Mike Tolbert to his LT.

3. Build around the high-value pass rush of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram

Bosa, the 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a tremendous bargain with cap hits of $7 and $8 million over the next two seasons. Ingram, with an annual contract value of $16 million, is less so. Even so, $23 million for a pair of players who command double-teams and force opposing offenses to plan around them is a reasonable cost, especially when you consider that pair has combined for 17 sacks through eight games this fall.

The presence of cornerback Casey Hayward gives Los Angeles three All-Pro standouts. But the Chargers are currently getting gashed by opposing running attacks, which is the function of an outgunned linebacking corps up the middle and a dearth of block-absorbing defensive tackles. As a result, only one team in the league has given up more rushing yards.

These additional holes — especially for a team that seems on the brink of contention — are what makes drafting an upper-tier quarterback prospect so difficult. Picking up a quarterback of the future will mean passing on one or more defensive studs who could be the final piece to the Chargers’ defensive revival. 2018 will be a make-or-break draft year for Los Angeles; it had better hope it’s got the right scouts on the payroll.

How the Chargers got Melvin Gordon free for a TD on Sunday