Sunday, November 23, 2014

Can the San Diego Chargers Stand Up to the St. Louis Rams, the NFL's New Thugs on the Block?

The importance of the San Diego Chargers game today against the surging St. Louis Rams can not be overstated. A win will put the Bolts right back in the conversation as a legit AFC contender -- especially if Miami can beat Denver. A Charger loss, however, will pretty much remove San Diego from serious playoff contention. 

To beat the Rams, who dominated the Denver Broncos last week, San Diego's offensive line needs to get its act together and play with a lot more nasty. The guys up front need to hit the field with a chip on their shoulder. They need to play as if they have something to prove. And they do. 

Anything less, and the Rams will steamroll through this Charger line and put quarterback Philip Rivers on his back.

If football is about match-ups and momentum, this game looks like a win for the Rams, who have a punishing and increasingly confident defensive front. Meanwhile, the Chargers' O line has played poorly the last four games. They can't run block, they can't pass protect. They put fear into no one. Can they rebound? It's now or never.

This game could get seriously ugly. Rams coach Jeff Fisher is a goon, according to numerous accounts. Sports journalists as well as football players I know and respect say Fisher was a dirty coach long before Bountygate happened in New Orleans. 

When he was coaching the defense for Buddy Ryan's Philadelphia Eagles, Fisher reportedly had a bounty on opposing players. Don't act so shocked. Under-the-table payments to players who injure opposing players was more common than the NFL public relations types would have you believe. It still likely goes on.

Fisher reportedly carried on this dirty tradition when he was named head coach of the Tennessee Titans, where, according to Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman and CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf, Fisher's teams "played through the whistle -- and then some."

And guess who runs Fisher's defense now that he's landed in St Louis? You guessed it, former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended for a year for paying his New Orleans Saints players to physically harm opponents. 

A real class act, Williams should've been booted out of the NFL for life. He had a bounty on Peyton Manning when Manning played for the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints, according to former Colts coach Tony Dungy. Of course, Fisher defended Williams when the Bountygate scandal broke and criticized the league for suspending him.

Before Williams was paying his Saints players to hurt opponents, he worked for Fisher with the Oilers and then the Titans. No surprise that from 2001-2010, the Titans led the league in most personal foul penalties with 163, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The second-highest teams on the list for most personal fouls were the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants, both with 137.

Now Williams and Fisher are reunited in St. Louis, and you saw the result last week against Denver. It looked pretty clear to me that the Rams were headhunting against the Broncos. If you watched that game and don't agree, you must be a Rams fan and/or you need new glasses. 

I suspect the Rams will be be similarly geeked for this game and will be looking to take Rivers out. He's already playing hurt, but to what degree the pathologically secretive Charger coach Mike McCoy won't say.

The Rams knocked Arizona QB Carson Palmer out for the season two weeks ago. They also sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick eight times, Seattle's Russell Wilson three times, and Peyton Manning twice last week.

The Chargers offensive line has to play its angriest and best game of the year against the Rams, or Rivers really will have a broken rib. But if San Diego's offensive line steps up, holds up, and creates a few openings for Charger running back Ryan Mathews, who is as tough a back when healthy as anyone in the league, I like the Chargers chances to beat St. Louis in a close one. 

What some perhaps don't know is that while the Rams' front seven is menacing, their secondary is weak. And the Chargers obviously have the better quarterback.

There will be plenty of heated individual battles along the line of scrimmage in this football game. There will be blood. My only hope is that the good guys win the war.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why Is San Diego Chargers Coach Mike McCoy So Ticked Off?

Mike McCoy flashing his best press conference smile -

There's an unfortunate trend developing at San Diego Chargers headquarters. Mike McCoy, the team's second-year head coach, is becoming demonstrably more hostile toward the journalists that cover his team. And in so doing, he is shooting himself and his image in the foot. It's got to stop. Now.

McCoy has become positively Bill Belichick-like in his disdain for the local press. It's been like this all season, but this week it has degenerated into a genuine thing after a relatively harmless comment made by Chargers future Hall-of-Fame tight end Antonio Gates after Sunday's game that Charger quarterback Philip Rivers had a "severe rib injury." 

This news came as a big surprise to the media and to Charger fans. Gates was just supporting his teammate and friend. Rivers, one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever play this game, apparently has been playing in considerable pain, but McCoy had not listed him as injured. Until after Gates made the comment.

McCoy is treating the Gates comment like Watergate II. He's battened down the hatches on this so-called leak. He's become even more evasive and tight-lipped. Preposterously so. He's damn near mute now. And the local sports scribes have had enough of this nonsense. 

I guarantee you, if the Chargers don't win a crucial home game this Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, the media will really turn against McCoy, and probably rightly so.

The former offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, McCoy is by all accounts a truly decent man. He's a guy who consistently emphasizes the importance of family. But my patience is thinning. For whatever reason, Mike just can't handle the process of talking to the media. He can't stand the fourth estate. And that sentiment is becoming increasingly mutual.

Nick Canepa, the acclaimed sports columnist for UT San Diego, said it best. "McCoy is SoCoy," Nick wrote. "He’s like an old spokesman for TASS — furtive, calculating, cautious, the deliverer of … well, not always misinformation, but of little or no information. You know, coy. And for what? Because he’s one of those football coaches who looks under his oatmeal in the morning to make sure it’s not bugged." 

McCoy isn't just paranoid, he's also a bit of a snob. He seems to think he's smarter than the people who cover him. He's not. In his presser this week, he laughably labeled the Chargers ugly 13-6 win over the Raiders on Sunday an “outstanding team performance.” Please, Mike. Who are you trying to kid here?

While the defense had its moments against Oakland, the offense was awful. The offensive line, specifically, played poorly. It has for the last four games. Does McCoy think we aren't paying attention?

This coach has every reason to be happy. He's making about $4 million a year and living and working in San Diego, the best city in the world. And his 6-4 Chargers are still in it. 

McCoy's squad is just one game behind the first-place Denver Broncos in the AFC West and just a half-game behind the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite suffering a boatload of injuries to key players this season, the Chargers still have a shot at the division title. But instead of giddy, we get surly. McCoy is downright nasty at times.

Is it a lack of maturity? After all, McCoy, 42, is the youngest head coach in the league. When the cameras go on and the microphones are placed in front of his face, he becomes Mr Hyde. This is a trait that can very quickly lead you to ruin as a head coach. 

McCoy has a good football mind and, importantly, still has the locker room in his corner. Charger players clearly still believe in his ability to lead. And by all accounts he is a compassionate man who agonizes over the player cuts he has to make.

So where is that guy at his press conferences? They're cringe-worthy. And it didn't just start this week. It's been going on all year. Even when the Chargers were sitting pretty at 3-1 and in first place, when I watched McCoy address the media he appeared perturbed every time he was asked even the most basic, harmless question by a professional journalist.

Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco needs to tell McCoy to lighten up. He may be the only person to whom McCoy will listen.

I'm sure that talking to sometimes-cranky sportswriters isn't always a joy. But it's an integral part of the job description for a head coach. And it's the best and often the only way to communicate directly with the fans, who are ultimately responsible for paying McCoy's generous salary. It doesn't serve anyone's purpose if you are belligerent and hostile.

If there has been a specific incident that has soured McCoy on the local or national media, that may be a different story. But I'm not aware of any such incident. I don't know of any situation in which McCoy was burned by a reporter or egregiously misquoted or unfairly criticized.

If McCoy thinks the San Diego media are rough, he should thank his freaking stars he's not in New York, Philly or Boston. The media jackals in those markets would be eating him alive by now.

Telesco, also a relative youngster in his second year as GM, has talked often about how open this new Charger regime is to the public. How it embraces a family atmosphere. That's reflected by the fact that more assistant coaches are now sometimes talking to reporters now than they did in the A.J. Smith regime.

But those assistant coaches are far more effusive than McCoy, who is stepping into odious Belichick territory here. And he just hasn't earned the right to do this. Win a few Super Bowls, then you can get away with being a jackass. 

Belichick, the undeniably successful coach of the New England Patriots, is one of the worst humans in sports. A dismal guy. I shudder to think that McCoy is headed in that direction.

We all know that sportswriters can at times be a pushy and sometimes even obnoxious bunch. But the vast majority of reporters I know who cover the Chargers - both print and broadcast -- are professional and fair. They've given McCoy no reason to be so hard.

So here's my advice, Mike: Just chill out! You got the job. And you know how to coach. Last year you should have been in more conversations for the NFL Coach of the Year. Is that it? Is that why you seem angry all the time when the camera and recorders are on?

Just try smiling now and then. It doesn't hurt. Talk to the media. Joke with them. Answer a question honestly. I know you don't like to talk about team injuries. But now and then you can, and should, and must.

You're a pretty nice guy when the cameras turn off, virtually everyone says so. Just remind yourself that members of the media are men and women with families, too, just like you. They have an important job to do, just like you. And remind yourself that whatever vibe you give off at a press conference is how the public sees you, too.

Above all else, coaching is about leadership and the ability to handle pressure and adversity and set the standard for a team. If you can't stand the heat, Mike, you're in the wrong job.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Chargers Beat The Raiders... But Can They Make The Playoffs?

San Diego Charger outside linebacker Dwight Freeney harasses Raiders' QB David Carr  -

The San Diego Chargers eked out a 13-6 win over the hapless Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in what some are calling a gritty defensive battle. But let's get real, folks. This game was not so much a defensive battle as it was an offensive debacle. 

The Charger defenders made some plays, give them credit. Especially the defensive backs. But the offense was mostly awful. Quarterback Philip Rivers made one spectacular throw early to wide receiver Malcolm Floyd, who made a brilliant catch in the end zone for a touchdown. And running back Ryan Mathews ran hard and well after being out for two months. 

But beyond that, the Chargers' offense stunk up the Q. Why? Because the big uglies have evidently forgotten how to block. Shades of the Chargers in 2012. Yeesh. This increasingly leaky offensive line needs help fast, because the Chargers' schedule doesn't get any easier.

Charger RB Ryan Mathews impresses in return -
Despite the feeble showing by the beleaguered O line, the win raised the team's record to 6-4, which means the Bolts still have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. 

But for that to happen, the O line needs to quickly improve its run blocking and pass blocking, and the D line needs to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks whose teams are not based in Oakland. 

Chargers coaches and players better know that Sunday's home game against St. Louis is another must-win against a vastly underrated Rams team that has beaten the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos and still has eyes on the playoffs. 

A loss would drop the Chargers to 6-5 and throw them into a pile of mediocre AFC climbers trying desperately to reach the Wild Card summit.

The good news? San Diego is just one game behind Denver and Kansas City in the AFC West race. Yep, the division title is within reach. But San Diego's remaining schedule is probably the toughest in the league:

San Diego's remaining schedule: St. Louis, at Baltimore, New England, Denver, at San Francisco, at Kansas City.

Denver's remaining schedule: Miami, at Kansas City, Buffalo, at San Diego, at Bengals, Raiders.

Kansas City's remaining schedule: at Raiders, Denver, at Arizona, Raiders, at Pittsburgh, San Diego.

As you can see, all three AFC West playoff contenders have three remaining home games, and three remaining away games. But San Diego has the toughest slog. It's brutal. Kansas City still gets to play the lowly Raiders twice. 

Charger WR Malcolm Floyd's touchdown vs. Raiders -
The Chargers must beat Denver at home and Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium to have any chance. That won't be easy. But it can happen. San Diego went into Denver last year during the regular season and beat the Broncos. 

Up until a few weeks ago, Denver had looked better than it was last year when it made it to the Super Bowl. But that's now up for debate after Denver's two losses in the last three games. 

San Diego, however, is clearly a better team than it was last year, despite its O line troubles and all its well-publicized injuries to key players.

One good sign for the Bolts as they reach the stretch run is that their defense enjoyed a minor resurgence Sunday, albeit against the Raiders, who dropped to 0-10. The DBs did their job, namely Shareece Wright. 

It certainly helped to have outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochu back on the field after injuries sidelined both for most of the season. Their presence demonstrably improved the pass rush, which has been sorely lacking the last several games, and allowed veteran backer Dwight Freeney to get some in-game rest between spurts.

If Ingram and Attaochu can both stay healthy for the last six games, and that's a man-sized if, their presence will complement Freeney and backer Jarrett Johnson and make it much tougher on opponents' passing games. 

Chargers gang tackle Raiders -
But will it be enough to give the Chargers' gritty but inconsistent defensive unit the playmakers they need as the team heads into rougher December waters? Rookie cornerback Jason Verrett, who's had a hugely positive impact already on this defense, is out for the season.

Meanwhile, San Diego's offense, which is typically the team's pillar of strength, is inexplicably wobbly. The once-potent group of red zone hogs was out of sync and stalled Sunday after coming off a bye week. 

Rivers was burdened again by a consistently collapsing pocket and by receivers, tight ends and running backs who made a few great catches but could not create enough separation from Oakland's defensive backs and linebackers. No one was open.

The return of Mathews from injury made a difference. He made the best of what few holes he was given, and the running game was better than in the previous week. But overall the offense couldn't get out of its own way.

San Diego must somehow fix its broken offensive line this week in practice and get the receivers back in unison with Rivers. It'll take a much better offensive effort to beat the Rams than it took to beat the Raiders. 

Make no mistake: The St. Louis game will determine whether the Chargers' season is still on track, or off the rails. 

But as we speak, Kansas City is the team to beat in the AFC West. Denver is still good, but Charger fans all know -- and now Rams rushers know, too -- that Peyton Manning is vulnerable when he's properly pressured and doesn't have multiple Pro Bowlers to throw to. KC is on a roll. 

But don't count out San Diego just yet. You can never dismiss a team led by Rivers, an elite warrior who's reportedly been playing with severe rib pain for weeks and now has knee pain to go with it. Where there's a will, there's a Rivers, who does more with less than any other NFL quarterback I've seen.

If the offensive linemen can figure it out, if they can hold back a stout Rams' D line on Sunday and give Rivers just a little more time to throw the ball -- even an extra second -- the Chargers will win and move to 7-4. 

And that'll get people talking about the Chargers again as contenders, and give this team the confidence it needs to make a legitimate playoff run in these final six games.

A win Sunday and San Diego will pretty much control its own destiny, because so many AFC teams vying for a playoff spot will be playing each other, and beating each other.

While San Diego hosts the Rams this Sunday, the Lions play the Patriots, the Jets play the Bills, Miami plays Denver, and the Ravens play at New Orleans.

Next week, while San Diego plays at Baltimore, the Browns play at Buffalo, the Saints play the Steelers, the Patriots play at Green Bay, the Broncos play at Kansas City, and the Dolphins play at the Jets.

Then in week 14, while San Diego hosts the Patriots, the Steelers play the Bengals in Cincy, the Ravens play at Miami, the Bills play at Denver, and the Chiefs play at Arizona, which could be a Super Bowl preview. 

Then in week 15, while San Diego hosts the Broncos, the Dolphins play at New England, the Packers play at Buffalo, and the Bengals play at Cleveland.

If San Diego beats the Rams on Sunday and heads to Baltimore next week with a 7-4 record, and wins that game, which granted will be tough, the Chargers will be 8-4 and right in the mix for a Wild Card berth and perhaps even a share of the AFC West division title. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Young Americans Didn't Vote, Latino Americans Didn't Vote, And You’re Calling This A Mandate?

Big winner: Sen. Mitch "The Turtle" McConnell & wife Elaina Chao

As many of you know, I’m a moderate Democrat with some rather conservative beliefs compared to my more liberal friends. Maybe that’s why about half of my closest pals are Republican. Actually, come to think of it, perhaps a little more than half of my friends are Republican. Now before you start psychoanalyzing me, I bring this up only because of what happened last night. You know, the election? Not surprisingly, my Republican friends are dizzily happily today about the results.

It was a big night for the Grand Old Party, obviously. Some people I know are calling it a “tidal wave," and some are even calling it a "mandate." They note the net pickup of nine seats in the Senate and the larger majority now in the House. And they keep reminding me about the several states that replaced Democratic governors last night with Republicans. 

That’s a story, for sure. It's huge. There is certainly a palpable rebuke of President Obama here, regardless of whether it is based on anything substantive or fair. But while I'm perfectly happy to congratulate my buddies and their party for the big victory, y'all need to turn down the giddy just a bit. 

Here's the cold fact: only one-third of the country’s eligible voters cast a ballot last night. You can’t call an election a national mandate when two-thirds of eligible voters stayed home. Young Americans and Latino Americans, specifically, sat this one out.

Overall, last night was a fairly typical midterm election for a president in his second term. There were a lot of angry voters who don't like this President, and there were huge chunks of the American electorate that didn’t vote at all. Now I’m not defending that by any means. I wish everyone would vote in these midterms. But let’s talk after the 2016 election. We’ll see then how much of a national mandate last night really was.

Republicans will still control the Senate after 2016, probably, but they will not win back the White House. And Democrats will still have a hard time winning midterms. These two facts will likely not change any time in the near future.

The key point my Republican friends should remind themselves while they jump for joy today is that when more Americans vote, more Democrats win (except, of course, in those preposterously gerrymandered House districts). Generally speaking, the fewer the voters, the more successful the Republicans. That is antithetical to anything resembling a "mandate." And it's certainly not something of which any of my Republican friends should be proud.

Just as a quick reminder: President Obama is just slightly more popular right now than was George W. Bush in his sixth year in office. Obama’s approval rate is about 41, while W’s was 37. Which is to say, neither guy was much beloved their last two years in Washington.

The crushing blow to those who think this election shows that the Republican Party is the Party of America's Future is the fact that young people barely showed up last night, and the ones who did voted mostly for Democrats.

According to CIRCLE, a nonpartisan academic research center at Tufts University that studies young people in politics, just 21.3 percent of voters ages 18-29 cast a ballot Tuesday across the country. “In terms of both youth turnout and vote choice, 2014 looks like a typical midterm election year as far as youth are concerned," said Peter Levine, Associate Dean of the Tisch College at Tufts. "Young people made up a similar proportion of voters in 2010."

In the national exit poll data on House races, 18-29 year-olds preferred Democratic candidates by 54 percent to 43 percent. In many close senatorial and gubernatorial races, too, young Americans preferred Democrats.

And then there's the Hispanic vote. NBC News reported this morning that Latinos made up only eight percent of voters last night. In Florida, Hispanics made up only 13 percent of the electorate, which helped keep the state seeing red.

Before the election, NBC reporter Sandra Lilley noted, voter groups were hoping the growing numbers of Latino voters in Florida - especially Puerto Rican voters who are U.S. citizens - would boost the numbers. But turnout was not as big as expected.

But virtually every observer of this election agrees that young Americans and Latino Americans will vote in far greater numbers in the next presidential election in two years. That's likely when most of my good Republican friends will stop dancing.