Fourth and eleven. Ball on the fourteen. Three minutes and forty-nine seconds on the clock.
In a game that had been nothing short of the epitome of a season’s worth of football in San Diego, kicker Josh Lambo and the Chargers stood a short field goal away from saving the holidays and avoiding a loss (at least temporarily) to the winless Browns. It should’ve been easy. And yet, deep down, an entire population of Bolts’ backers felt their midsections start to tighten, preparing for the gut punch that had seemed far too likely for the vast majority of the past week.
Yep. There it was. Blocked.
The Chargers had boarded the plane to Northeast Ohio surrounded by a dumpster-borne blaze the likes of which Cleveland hadn’t seen since it tried to set its own river on fire in the late 1960s. The Bolts’ star running back, the head-shaking bust of a year ago, would not take the field for a second straight game, sitting just three yards shy of a thousand on the year and mere steps from affirmation that the disappointments of 2015 were behind him. Their hapless head coach would stand on the sidelines once again, seemingly unswayed by rumors of his impending (and much-deserved) firing because…well, no one really knows why he seems so okay with all of this. Their owner, forever frustrating, would continue to lean harder and harder towards a new home in Hollywood and a potential rebranding of the entire organization while supporters came to terms with a possible end to decades of football fandom.
The Chargers will leave Cleveland surrounded by all of that same baggage, added to by the sickening, infuriating, laugh-to-keep-from-crying performance (for lack of a better word) that was this Saturday.
After a Week 15 that saw Qualcomm Stadium overrun by rival fans that cheered their own team to the playoffs for the first time in fourteen years, locals had started to reconcile with the chance that the Chargers may leave town for good. We had begun to forgo the pains of the present, in favor of memories of Dan Fouts, Lance Alworth, Junior Seau, and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Leave it to Christmas Eve 2016, however, to provide a groan-inducing splash of reality.
A game that started with a 50-yard bomb to former Brown Travis Benjamin and a touchdown toss to a wide-open Antonio Gates, quickly devolved into a battle against the deplorable demons of the Chargers’ 2016 season, as the team limped to a pitiful 20-17 defeat at the hands of one of football’s worst franchises.
There were the injuries. A team with an NFL-leading seventeen players on injured reserve managed to look even more fragile in the cold conditions of Cleveland. Offensive linemen Orlando Franklin, King Dunlap, and Matt Slauson all left the field at some point during the game, leaving the offense and stoic signal-caller Philip Rivers with what amounted to Swiss cheese-like protection from the Browns’ pass rushers. Denzel Perryman delivered one of the hardest hits of the year on fellow defender Jahleel Addae, temporarily knocking both from the game. Perryman would go down again at the end of the game, this time with a sickening knee injury that will likely sideline him for the season finale. It was a never-ending stream of hard hits and harder falls, leaving Chargers’ players grasping for the few healthy limbs that have managed to survive another trying season for the team’s training staff.
There was also the coaching. Despite the lack of anything resembling an offensive line, head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt insisted on sticking to the running game, with few results to show for it. Led by the lucky-to-be-rostered legs of Kenneth Farrow and Ronnie Hillman, the Bolts ended up running for a pathetic 34 yards against one of the worst run defenses in football. This left Philip Rivers and the passing game with the tall task of picking up the slack. As much as they tried to oblige (Rivers ended up throwing for a respectable 322 yards and two scores), a team as obviously one-dimensional as the Chargers were on Saturday couldn’t hope to gain yards consistently against any collection of defensive professionals, even those clad in brown and orange.
If there was a bright side, it was the Chargers’ own defensive efforts. The team certainly struggled to contain Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III and his read-option attack initially, but as the game wore on the Bolts’ defensive unit seemed to gain strength, routinely wreaking havoc in the backfield on the backs of high-motor rookie Joey Bosa and fourth-year nose tackle Damion Square. That duo teamed with rookie Jatavis Brown and punishing tackler Denzel Perryman for an impressive nine sacks and thirteen tackles for loss, providing hope that the team may just provide the knockout punch they needed to escape Ohio with a too-close-for-comfort victory.
Little did we know the Chargers were actually swinging for their own fans this whole time. In a season that has felt like an ongoing uppercut to the spirits of Bolts backers across the county, today proved to be the rope-a-dope from above that drove the hometown team below any low they had discovered before. Yes, Lambo missed that aforementioned first field goal attempt. But he was nowhere near done.
The Chargers actually took the ball back with a little less than two minutes to go, tempting fans to believe that the Browns had bungled away another victory. A long fourth down completion to Antonio Gates – possibly the gutsiest thing the Bolts have done all year – brought the team within field goal range once again. However, a second completion to Gates that moved the Bolts inside the Browns own 30 caught the team’s field goal unit woefully and inexcusably unprepared to take the field as the clock wound down.
Five…four… Lambo and holder Kellen Clemens desperately try to get set.
One…the kick is up…the kick is drifting right…
Zero. Wide right. No good.
This was it. This was what the underside of rock bottom looked like, the Cleveland Browns storming the field, suddenly 1-14, as FirstEnergy Stadium exploded and San Diego’s football franchise stared in disbelief. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t want to grab one of the paper bags formerly draped over a Dawg Pound member’s face and throw it over your own. You’d also be forgiven if you couldn’t quite hold back a stream of creative and colorful vocabulary from anyone who would listen.
The Chiefs game in Week 1 hurt. So did the last-second collapse in Week 4 against the Saints. So too did last week’s “home” matchup versus the hated Raiders.
But this was different. The Chargers had managed to find the few slivers of fandom we had left, extract them from our souls, and blow them into oblivion. Today left little doubt it wanted to be a new kind of suffering for the tortured fanbase of San Diego sports.
Today also provided the definitive answer to years of relocation gossip and convadium controversy. Yes, it will hurt when our beloved Bolts leave. Yes, we will miss the Sundays spent tailgating at the Q or parked in front of television sets with friends, family, and fellow fans. Yes, it will even leave our city and our community with an almost impossible-to-fill hole when the organization packs their bags and leaves for the supposedly greener pastures of the City of Angels.
Frankly, though, the pathetically poor Chargers and the mess of traffic, smog, and over-saturated sports fans that is Los Angeles make for a perfect fit. They deserve each other like few things in this world do.
Meanwhile, America’s Finest City simply deserves better.
Noah is a current undergraduate at the University of San Diego. In addition to his classes as a Business Economics student, Noah serves as the scouting director for the nationally-ranked USD baseball team and as an NFL correspondent with The Mighty 1090. You can follow him on Twitter @thebackseatlamp