For two seasons, Derwin James had to watch his team struggle from the sideline through numerous blown leads and games given up. He rehabbed and worked to get back on the field to lead his team.
He has done that this season.
It hasn't been an easy year for this Chargers defense, but the team overall is still in contention to make the playoffs, and having number 33 on the field is a big reason.
When Brandon Staley was hired in January, he spoke about James' role in the defense. He reiterated that James has been a central figure in their defense on Wednesday.
"We're asking him to do a lot because we need him to be doing a lot right now," Staley explained. "Like I've told you guys before, what's best for him would be just to play safety. But, what's best for our team is for him to play both safety spots, Star, Money, X, playing a lot of different places. That's what he's done for us."
The Chargers asked him to play in the slot in week two because cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was out with an injury. He was able to quiet slot receiver Cedrick Wilson.
He has been asked to cover tight ends like Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and Austin Hooper. At times, he took those guys out of the game at crucial moments.
"He's one of the special players in the league," Staley explained. "He's getting better each game. I've told him that because sometimes, when you have a premium player like him, what you can't do is you can't take them for granted. You have to keep coaching him so that he's improving at a high level. What that does for us is it allows all the other players to know that we're coaching Derwin James harder than anybody. Then, that has a real impact on his teammates. This guy is as good as it gets in the NFL."
James is still getting his feet under him. Take away the two seasons, and he is a second-year player with so much talent. In his rookie year, he showed veteran instincts and had a nose for the football. He had over 100 tackles along with 3.5 sacks and two interceptions.
Missing the last season should put him in contention for the "Comeback Player of the Year" award at the end of the season. He will have challengers like Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
He isn't focused on that, though.
"I just want to go out there and focus on playing the hardest that I can," James said. "At the end of the year, when I look back, I'll just let my tape speak for itself."
Even with only having played five games out of 32, James picked up where he left off. This season he has rushed the quarterback numerous times. He has 1.5 sacks and is two incomplete pass calls away from matching his sack total from 2018.
"I definitely like rushing, but I like to cover a guy and rush a guy," James said. "I just like playing football, so, to me, it doesn't really matter."
Early in his rookie year, there was one aspect of his game that was evident, and it was his leadership. He was respectful of the veteran voices in the room because he was a rookie, but he is a natural-born leader.
In both of his following training camps, he took command and was more vocal as a leader.
"His leadership is what is most impressive to me, and how early of a leader he became for our team," running back Austin Ekeler said. "It's his confidence and how he holds himself, how he plays and his preparation."
He has come up clutch this season for a defense that clearly missed him the last two years. In week four against the Raiders, quarterback Derek Carr drove his offense up the field. James was covering Waller when Carr decided to throw his way, which the Chargers safety read and intercepted to seal the victory.
"Every day, he comes out with a passion," Allen said. "He just leads us in the right way. He's making plays. When we need a turnover, he goes down and makes it. They should've given him a fourth fumble and a sack. He's making plays. Every time that we need a play, he's the one who comes up with it."
Last Sunday in Denver, James might have played his best game of the season. He had seven tackles and two tackles for loss, but two other plays stand out.
Late in the first quarter, it was first-and ten for the Broncos on their 44-yard line when James came walking up to the line of scrimmage on the side of Joey Bosa. When the ball was snapped, the tight end Albert Okwuegbunam helped the right tackle by chipping Bosa and leaving James free to come up and blast Teddy Bridgewater, which caused him to fumble.
It was recovered by the linebacker Kyzir White. They said Bridgewater's arm was coming forward when it was reviewed, but Staley, Allen, and James believe it was a fumble. It led to a Javonte Williams nine-yard touchdown run to put Denver up 14-0 instead of an opportunity for Justin Herbert and the offense.
A couple of drives later, it was Drew Lock at quarterback because Bridgewater felt the effects from the James hit. He was facing second-and eight from the Chargers 48-yard line. Lock faced the pressure of Bosa going to his right when James came down to defend receiver Kendall Hinton. Lock decides to throw it, to which James dove In front of Hinton to intercept the pass.
It allowed the Chargers to drive up the field and put points on the board before halftime.
"I didn't think Drew would throw the ball, but he did, and I had to make a play," James said after the game.
James is only seven tackles away from being the only defensive back since at least 2000 to record 100 tackles after missing the entire previous season due to injury. The way he has tackled it could happen in the first quarter in Cincinnati.
"That definitely was one of my goals, over 100 tackles," James explained. "That was one of them. I needed five interceptions coming in. That was one of the goals that I wanted to have for myself, that I set for myself. We're getting closer."
He has kept this defense together through the good and the bad, but when the offense needs the ball back, it seems like 33 is always the one to do it.
The organization knows what they have in James. Staley came in knowing because of Jalen Ramsey. The players know because they have seen it first-hand that they have a generational player leading them.
"He's the best safety in the league," Allen said. "I think he's going to be All-Pro again. It's just what it is. It's his consistency and availability. If he plays all 17 [games], only God can stop it."