On September 20, 1998 the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs met in a driving rainstorm at Arrowhead Stadium. The contest resulted in arguably the worst quarterback performance in league history, as Ryan Leaf could only manage one measly four-yard completion to Freddie Jones in 15 attempts.
Counterpart Rich Gannon didn’t manage much better, completing 10 of 29 for 144 yards in a 23-7 Kansas City win. After the game, Leaf committed the legendary meltdown in the locker room, which to this is day the lasting image of his brief pro football career.
(Incidentally, Leaf is now out of jail and back in the news, eying a possible far-fetched comeback at age 34.)
The same two teams met again in equally miserable conditions at Arrowhead last season, but it was the Chargers feeling most comfortable as mudders, rolling to an easy 37-7 win. Philip Rivers threw for three touchdowns, while Matt Cassel was held to 97 yards passing. A month later San Diego would score another easy victory over KC at home, 43-14. Those two results seemed to support a talent gap between the AFC West Champion Chargers and the rebuilding Chiefs.
This year saw the same rain and the same minimal contribution from Cassel (10-22, 68 yards, one TD pass), but with a much different result – and the aftermath includes a comparison of Philip Rivers to Ryan Leaf. What exactly has changed in just over 10 months?
For starters, Kansas City is beginning to assemble some talent. A certain San Diego talk show host rambled about the Chargers loss as being “appalling,”‘ as if indicating the Chiefs talent level was UFL-like. Let me read off some names off the KC roster:
Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster (Dante Hall, but even more explosive), Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson, Javier Arenas, Eric Berry…
Sounds like a recent SEC All-Star team, although Berry did get schooled a bit trying to cover Antonio Gates in his pro debut. Also include RB Jamaal Charles (the Texas Longhorns seem like the Chiefs personal running back farm system) along with Tambia Hali (Penn St.) and veteran Mike Vrabel (Buckeyes). Last week I picked KC to go 8-8, and that should be very attainable in the 2010 AFC West.
In San Diego, the absence of Vincent Jackson cannot be totally covered up, at least right away. Malcolm Floyd was identified as someone who could fill that void, but I don’t see a big improvement out of him; he’s a nice #3 type receiver who gets three catches for 50 yards in a typical week.
Legedu Naanee appears the most likely to step up with V-Jax’s divorce from the organization being irrevocable. Fellow holdout Marcus McNeill is obviously also a loss, although replacement Brandyn Dombrowski graded out fairly well in the loss.
As for the receiver from last year the Chargers really miss, I’m referring to Kassim Osgood, who was a Pro-bowler on special teams. McCluster took one punt 95 yards to the house and Arenas would have also scored on a return if not for a last-gasp trip up by punter Mike Scifres. The Old saying is true: special teams is one-third of the game, and a difference on this night.
We can also hold off on the anointing Ryan Mathews as a seamless transition from the LaDainian Tomlinson era for at least a while. Mathews had an okay night on the stat sheet, but was overshadowed by a critical fumble that accounted for the seven-point difference in the outcome. Fumbles are part of the process with young backs, and Mathews was also noticeably absent late in the game as the Chargers tried to tie.
Then there’s Norv Turner’s play-calling, a complaint in the 6-1-9 even since he’s held the head coaching job.
Case in point: on the final drive 260-lb Mike Tolbert does his best Christian Okoye impression punishing the Chiefs defense for a 23-yard run. So what does San Diego do after that? Not once, but twice, they called Darren Sproles number on draw plays, which were both blown up and have been accounted for in opposing game plans since Sproles went off on the Raiders in last year’s season opener.
And it was also a case of square peg/round hole considering the wet conditions. Incidentally, Sproles 2010 salary ($7.28 million) might be a bit high for a situational player/kick returner.
Part of the post-game talk even speculated on the possibility of the Chargers wearing the wrong cleats for the wet turf. I would like to think they had that covered. The team did get the memo that the sun doesn’t always shine in the Midwest like it does in SoCal. Still, it seemed like the Chargers were slipping much more than the home team.
But the biggest post-game talking point centered around the demeanor of the losing quarterback, not unlike what happened 12 years ago. It wasn’t like Rivers had a bad day statistically, throwing for nearly 300 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. But the bigger focus was Rivers’ obvious frustration which included kicking a football, some heated exchanges with teammates, and briefly shaking hands with Cassel en route to making a bee-line to the locker room at games end.
The opinion of Rivers has not been flattering in the blogging and social media forums. Peter King commented that Philip could use an ‘on-field maturity pill’ while another top Twitter post said ‘There’s a line between passion and ‘ryanleafishness’…Rivers is close to crossing it’.
Rivers has also just made a list of the ‘ten most over-rated quarterbacks of the past decade’, a grouping that also includes Donovan McNabb (why does he continue to be dissed?) as well as Mark Sanchez (will agree as of now, he’s Leinart 2.0 until he proves otherwise).
Watching Aaron Rodgers on a weekly basis gives me a good base-line with a quarterback who not only has the physical skills, but who also has the respect and admiration of his teammates. The next teammate that Aaron lashes out on during a game will be the first. Rivers reputation, meanwhile, is starting to take a few hits.
Yes, he gutted out a torn ACL to play in the AFC Championship game three years ago, although once that disclosure became known, the question was asked if the Chargers would have fared better with a healthy Billy Volek for that game. It’s said Philip is just merely overly competitive and contributes generously to various charities. That’s all wel and good; no one should be painting him out to be a seedy character, unlike a few of his recent teammates (Steve Foley, V-Jax, Antonio Cromartie, to name a few)
But his actions and body language can’t be rubbing the entire team the right way. Understand that he doesn’t say bleep or blank. Nonetheless, I still sense a Tiger Woods-like frustration; that emotions get to Rivers, and ultimately trickles down to the on-field product istself.
Are the Chargers headed towards a free-fall down the AFC West pecking order? Not likely. The upcoming schedule includes Jacksonville, at Seattle, Arizona, at Oakland, at St. Louis. The AFC West/NFC West combo should be good enough this year for the 10-11 wins needed to qualify for post-season.
But then again, this is also a team that’s lost home openers to the Panthers and Ravens the past two years, so the Jaguars cannot be considered an iron-clad lock. But a win on Sunday should have the Chargers heading back in the right direction and eventually into January.
And then will come the real test for this team. And to have any shot at advancing further than recent years this outfit is going to have to be drastically improved from Week 1.