Loss for words
After 6-1 start, Chargers find collapse hard to explainPosted: Tuesday December 31, 2002 4:32 AM
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Marty Ball turned into a Marty Fall.
Although Marty Schottenheimer fancies himself a teacher, his San Diego Chargers sure don't have any answers for why their season ended with such a costly collapse.
Not only did the Chargers miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season -- making them second in futility behind only the hapless Cincinnati Bengals -- but they couldn't even finish with a winning record after starting 6-1.
The Chargers (8-8) lost their last four games and seven of nine under Schottenheimer, who was hired in January to end precisely those kind of skids.
Still mathematically alive in the playoff chase Sunday, the Chargers were eliminated when Cleveland beat Atlanta. Then they blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead against Seattle and lost 31-28 in overtime.
It was like they flunked their midterms, their finals and everything in between. If not for missed field goals in overtime by San Francisco and Denver, they'd have finished with a nine-game losing streak, just like the one that got head coach Mike Riley fired after the 2001 season.
And they'll spend January like they usually do, watching the playoffs on TV.
"I'm going to feel like we belong there, that we should be the team playing," said LaDainian Tomlinson, the best running back in franchise history who nonetheless carried only 17 times for 67 yards Sunday.
"I got up this morning and I'm fine, and I can't even believe the season's over," said Tomlinson, whose 1,683 yards ranked him second behind NFL rushing champion Ricky Williams. "Last year it was like, 'I'm so beat up, and it's over.' This year, I'm not sore or anything, I feel like I should still be playing. The season shouldn't be over."
This year, it's really going to hurt. When things were going well, the Chargers thought maybe they'd be the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
"With what happened this year, being 8-8 after all the high expectations, and now looking into January and having the Super Bowl here, it's hard to kind of separate the two," Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau said Monday.
"In the past we were able to say, 'We're not even going to be part of it' and pretend like it's not here. But it's right across the street. They're going to be using our locker rooms, they're going to be here in our town. It's going to be tougher. It really is."
Seau will need surgery to remove bone spurs in his left ankle, but wasn't sure if he'll wait until after the Pro Bowl.
The collapse continues a disturbing trend Schottenheimer was hired to stop.
Last year, the Chargers lost their last nine games to finish 5-11. In 2001, they were 1-15. They have had at least a four-game losing streak during each of the last six seasons. Dating to 1996, they are 5-24 in December.
Schottenheimer didn't make himself available to reporters on Monday.
"I don't think anyone has the answers right now, to be honest," Tomlinson said. "Maybe it's going to take Marty just a couple more days to know what it is. But one thing he did say is we lost some of our fundamental techniques at the end of the season, doing things the right way. That was a little answer."
After Sunday's loss, several players said the Chargers needed to learn how to win, a surprising statement considering they feel they've got a talented team.
"Right now, we don't know how to finish games," strong safety Rodney Harrison said. "We don't know how to win ballgames toward the end. You have to be able to do that if you want to be a playoff contender."
Funny, but the Chargers said the same thing last year. And the year before that.
Schottenheimer has missed the playoffs his last three seasons as a head coach. He was 7-9 in his final season in Kansas City in 1998 and 8-8 last season in Washington.
Brees had a subpar season in his first year as a starter. His 76.9 passer rating was ahead of only Tim Couch and rookie David Carr in the AFC. During a four-week span late in the season, Brees had no touchdown passes and four interceptions. He finished with 3,284 yards and 17 TDs, with 16 interceptions.
San Diego's once-proud defense was awful, finishing 30th overall and dead last in pass defense. The Chargers allowed eight games of 300 yards or more passing, including two 400-plus games. Defensive end Marcellus Wiley, given a $40 million free agent contract in March 2001, had only six sacks a year after his 13 sacks landed him in the Pro Bowl.
General manager John Butler refused to comment on a team that's gone 13-19 in the two seasons he's been in charge.
"Not today. I don't have time," Butler said.