As the San Diego Chargers head out to the desert for a preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, I need to come clean about something: I’m a huge Bruce Arians fan.
The man holds the distinction of being the only interim coach in NFL history to win 9 games in a season. That was in 2012, with the Indianapolis Colts. He’s the first Cardinals coach since Norm Barry in 1925 to get at least nine wins in his first season (2013, when he went 10-5). He then led the team to an 11-5 record in 2014 and secured the #5 seed in the playoffs. He’s been named AP Head Coach of the Year twice in three seasons, leading to a well-deserved contract extension through the 2018 season. Oh, and SI’s Lars Anderson just tabbed him “The NFL’s Ultimate Quarterback Whisperer” in a glowing piece on Bleacher Report (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2546950-bruce-arians-the-nfls-ultimate-quarterback-whisperer).
In January of 2013, the very same Bruce Arians interviewed for the vacant head coaching job of the San Diego Chargers, and I assumed then – like many did – that his relationship with newly-named GM Tom Telesco from their days together with the Colts would make him the likely choice for that job. I was excited. And wrong.
That job went to Mike McCoy, instead. He’s 20 years younger than Arians, by the way, and while the notion of selecting youth over wisdom was progressive and made for some great buzz across the league, the results since then have been – depending on your perspective – either respectable, or mixed.
Two straight 9-7 seasons are hardly a disappointment in this league. Especially in a competitive division like the AFC West. Winning a playoff game on the road against a favored Bengals team and then losing by only a touchdown to the Broncos – the closest loss margin by any team Denver faced in the playoffs- ratified McCoy as a legitimate sideline presence.
But when you measure the job that Telesco’s done in rebuilding the Chargers’ roster through free agency and shrewd drafting vs. what McCoy’s achieved in putting those players in positions to succeed, there’s an imbalance at play. And one can’t help but wonder A) what Arians would have done with this team over the past two seasons; and B) what McCoy will accomplish with it in this upcoming season.
The stakes are high. Heading into his third year as coach McCoy faces questions about which Southern California city he’ll be coaching in a year from now; how Antonio Gates will perform after a four week absence; if rookie running back Melvin Gordon can shake off his ankle issues and live up to the hype and expectations; whether the secondary can stay healthy; how the O-line can keep his newly re-signed franchise quarterback from getting sacked 36 times like in 2014; and of course, how creative and opportunistic he, Frank Reich and John Pagano can be with their play-calling.
The weapons are definitely there. And for the most part, healthy (knock on wood). On paper, this is a team that can go 10-6 — though many in the media are predicting a(nother) 9-7 record. If the Bolts make the playoffs, McCoy’s status with the team will be secured.
Should they fall short of that, though – and having three 1pm Eastern Time kickoffs will be a huge challenge this season – McCoy will head into the fourth and final year of his contract having to answer a whole lot of questions. And do so with more than his usual fare of bland, cliched soundbites that have become staples of his press conferences.
One of those cliches is the “every season is a marathon” line. And though it’s trite to a fault, it’s also a truism both physically and mentally. As a runner himself, McCoy knows the importance of getting off to a good start, sticking to the plan, and finishing strong. Time will tell if his Chargers will be able to follow that blueprint.
But right now, in the heat of August, there are a whole lot of reasons to share McCoy’s optimism about this team and its potential to play deep into January.
The only thing better, and more poetic, than the Bolts’ HC leading them to a Super Bowl appearance would be facing off against the coach who’s transformed his Cardinals into a perennial NFC contender. And beating him.