Peter Read Miller


  • The Los Angeles Chargers have a chance to make the playoffs after an 0-4 start, a feat that's only been accomplished one other time in NFL history: Twenty-five years ago, by the San Diego Chargers. How did that team do it? It took a stoic coach, a veteran leader at QB, a quiet fan base and more than a few beers
By Conor Orr
December 15, 2017

There wasn’t really a moment, a Churchill-esque speech, that prompted the greatest in-season turnaround in NFL history. First-year head coach Bobby Ross was battling a skeptical local press and a fan base lost to indifference. His San Diego Chargers had just slipped to 0-4 to start the 1992 season after getting throttled by the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome in front of 58,000 people, and Ross’s plea to his team was in-character with the quiet, honest man his players had gotten to know over the previous six months: Can we just stop playing poorly?

“I just remember, he stood up in the locker room—I could tell he was really angry—and he said ‘At the end of the day, we’re making too many mistakes, too many penalties, too many turnovers. We can’t win this way. We gotta stop it,’” Chargers owner Dean Spanos says.

“And then [Ross] says: I’m telling you right now, I’m sick of the other coach coming over to shake my hand and telling me he’s sorry. And that’s going to stop.”

And it did. As they slowly broadened the playbook for quarterback Stan Humphries—he was acquired just before the start of the season and replaced Bob Gagliano late in the third quarter of the opener—and reinvested in the running game, they won their next four games and 11 of their next 12. Without the pressure of a rabid fan base they could operate sans chaos and lean on the stoic Ross for reassurance. A strong late-season push helped them become the first and, to this point, only team in NFL history to accomplish a feat the 2017 Los Angeles Chargers are trying to replicate: start a season 0-4 and make the playoffs.

“I believe that season, it’s something that we built,” quarterback Stan Humphries says. “And it’s still going today.”

While the current Chargers staff is wary of commenting on their eerily similar run, it’s undeniable that the 1992 season is becoming part of the narrative 25 years later. Should Los Angeles beat the division-rival Chiefs on Saturday night, making it five straight wins and eight of their last 10 after an 0-4 start, they would take the lead in the AFC West and move one step closer to replicating one of the franchise’s most incredible feats. Buoyed by another unflappable first-year head coach (Anthony Lynn), nestled in another stadium where the away-team fans outnumber the home supporters, backed into another corner of irrelevance, this rendition of the Chargers is on the verge of stunning a league that wrote them off in October.

This year, Lynn’s blending of a vicious, downhill running scheme with an air show expertly run by Philip Rivers and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt—complemented by a defense that includes arguably the best pass-rushing tandem in football—has given the Chargers a new identity and a new confidence. L.A. is talented enough to reach the Super Bowl under the right set of circumstances. Back in 1992, it was a little more complicated.

Bobby Ross's calm demeanor came in handy after the 0-4 start.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

After Ross’s speech, their next stop was the Longhorn—a bar less than two miles from Jack Murphy Stadium. “My thought was, if you know your teammates off the field like you know them on the field, you’re going to care more about each other and play better,” Humphries says. “If you know their wives, their kids, their families, you just seem to come together as a team.”

Still new to the Chargers, Humphries started taking a small group of offensive linemen to the bar after Thursday practices for cheeseburgers or steaks. Before long, a receiver or running back would show up, then another. Humphries was prepared to foot the increasingly expensive bill every week. He viewed it as an investment.

“I don’t know how much that happens nowadays,” he says, “but back then it was a big reason for our success.”

After Week 5, Humphries had just three games where his passing yardage total dipped below 200 yards. In that same span, they ran for 150 or more yards five times while the defense held opponents to 14 or fewer points in eight of their final 11 games. Running back Ronnie Harmon and wide receiver Anthony Miller both made the Pro Bowl. Defensive end Leslie O’Neal, cornerback Gill Byrd and 23-year-old linebacker Junior Seau got Pro Bowl nods on defense.

“Bobby stayed the course and believed in what he was teaching, the system and the process,” Byrd says. “I remember after we lost that fourth game, he came to me on the plane and said ‘Do we need to change?’ I said no. As long as you believe what you’re doing, stay the course. Just stay the course.”

Two-and-a-half decades later, the “success” story (the Chargers won a wild-card game and lost eight days later to the Dolphins, 31-0, in the divisional round) sounds so banal. We just kept with it. We all had a few beers together. But consider the mental hurdle of an 0-4 start, one of the few things that still translates directly to the NFL today. As Byrd said, self-doubt creeps in. The seeds of a full-on coup are planted everywhere. A mix of different personalities and emotions can become a collective powder keg. In San Diego, a relatively quiet market populated heavily with transplants and retirees, all you have is the disappointing player staring back in the mirror. There is no outside motivation.

It was enough back then for Ross to simply say that he was tired of getting embarrassed. Players trusted him in that moment and agreed. Some of the greatest NFL teams are celebrated for do-or-die decisions, drastic maneuvers made with their backs against the wall. Ross showed that there was a beauty in subtleness, a plan to dig out of the pit one day at a time.

“When you look at it now, it’s pretty incredible,” Spanos says. “Back then it was just, Thank God we got there [to the playoffs]. We did something positive for the community, the team. That was more of our focus. But as the years have gone by then you start thinking about it.”

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