Asecond-string tight end named Jeb Putzier hauled in a 39-yard pass deep in San Diego Chargers territory on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, and with the clock running down and first place in the AFC West at stake, few locals regarded this as a good sign. Sure, the Chargers still held a 20--17 lead over the Denver Broncos with six minutes remaining, and their fired-up defense had forced three turnovers already. But with Denver 18 yards from a goahead touchdown and a rowdy contingent of Broncos supporters
cheering wildly following Putzier's reception, most in the crowd of 65,395 began to get a familiar, sinking feeling. And who could blame them? It had been nine years since the Chargers' last winning season, and lots of bad football had turned San Diegans into the most skeptical fans in the NFL. With their team seemingly on the verge of a colossal fourth-quarter collapse in their biggest home game in nearly a decade, they felt as though a giant plug had been pulled.
The energy on the Chargers' sideline had ebbed as well. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had 20/20 vision-- "I figured we'd hold them to a field goal that would tie the game," he said afterward--and most of San Diego's offensive starters were sitting together on the bench, plotting their response to a Denver score. Then, one by one, they rose to support a defense that, in the words of running back LaDainian Tomlinson, had "carried us" throughout the afternoon. Wideout Keenan McCardell was buoyed by the way the defense had responded in the previous week's road win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "Yo, check it out," McCardell told his teammates on the sideline. "Our D is fittin' to win this thing right now."
Three consecutive running plays gave the Broncos first-and-goal at the seven, and Denver coach Mike Shanahan sent in a pass-run option to be determined by the defensive alignment. Reading bump coverage on the outside, quarterback Jake Plummer, who had been intercepted three times, called a quick end-zone pass to wideout Rod Smith. The pattern--a fade--was appropriately named: In the midst of another post-Halloween swoon, the Broncos (7--5, after a 5--1 start) were about to slip back to the role of a bubble team in the playoff race with the NFL season at the quarter pole (box, page 78).
Here's how it played out: Plummer dropped back a couple of steps and lofted a pass toward Smith; second-year cornerback Drayton Florence, with his back to the quarterback, read Smith's eyes and reached up blindly to deflect the ball with his right hand; free safety Jerry Wilson, having correctly sniffed out the pattern, swept over to intercept the ball in the corner of the end zone. After the Chargers survived one more, last-gasp Denver drive in the closing seconds, they finally clinched their first winning season (9--3) since 1995 and took control of a division they had last won in '94, en route to the franchise's lone Super Bowl appearance.
It all happened just as no one had predicted back in April, when San Diego was contemplating what to do with the first pick in the NFL draft. Well, almost no one. "I know people won't believe this, but even before the season started, we knew we had it in us," Wilson said after the Chargers won for the sixth straight time, matching their longest winning streak since they started 6--0 in '94. "We knew we could become division champs and compete to win a Super Bowl."
the chargers weren't feeling so optimistic after the first meeting with the Broncos this season, a 23--13 loss on Sept. 26 in Denver that dropped them to 1--2. They flew home that night, and on the bus ride from the airport to the team's training facility in Mission Valley, the seeds of their turnaround were sown. "We were still trying to find an identity," quarterback Drew Brees recalls. "On that bus ride we said to one another, This is it: Either we turn things around right now, or we end up suffering like we did last year."
The next day Schottenheimer increased the pressure on Brees by moving rookie Philip Rivers, the No. 4 pick in the draft who missed almost all of training camp because of a protracted contract dispute, ahead of Doug Flutie on the depth chart. Having struggled mightily in 2003, the fourth-year veteran Brees was on the verge of losing his job in Week 4, when the Chargers hosted the Tennessee Titans. In that game San Diego jumped to a 24--7 lead only to see the Titans close to 24--17 in the fourth quarter. With just under seven minutes remaining and the ball at his 42, Brees threw a short pass into the flat that Tennessee cornerback Samari Rolle appeared ready to intercept and return for a score. But the ball went through Rolle's hands, and wideout Reche Caldwell made a one-handed catch. He raced for a touchdown that propelled the Chargers to a 38--17 victory.
From that game on Brees has been one of the league's best players. He has 21 touchdown passes this season, against four interceptions, and if not for the brilliant play of the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning, he would be a favorite for league MVP honors. One of Brees's interceptions came on San Diego's fifth play from scrimmage on Sunday, when Broncos strong safety Kenoy Kennedy made a diving grab of a pass to tight end Antonio Gates. The play snapped the quarterback's team-record streak of 194 passes without a pick.
Who knows what the future holds for Brees--Schottenheimer says having Brees, who's in the final year of his contract, and Rivers on the roster together is an "ideal problem to have"--but right now the Chargers are Drew's Crew. That said, he was unspectacular (14 of 27, 106 yards) on Sunday, yielding the offensive spotlight to Tomlinson (30 carries, 113 yards, two touchdowns). LT was just about all the offense San Diego had last year, when he finished as the NFL's third-leading rusher and caught 100 passes. But he has been bothered much of this season by a groin injury, and the Chargers haven't had to depend on him as much, thanks to the emergence of Brees and Gates and the acquisition of the savvy McCardell from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Oct. 19, the league's trading deadline, McCardell, a 13year veteran who had been holding out in a contract dispute and wanted to be traded, didn't think a deal would be done in time. He went to Shadow Hawk Golf Club near his suburban Houston home to play a round with the commissioner of the Pop Warner League in which McCardell was serving as a volunteer coach. "Nobody called all day, and I figured it wasn't going to happen," McCardell recalled last Friday night. "Then, at about 2:30, a half hour before the deadline, my cellphone started blowing up. Finally, a guy rolled up to the 17th green in a cart and said, 'You need to call your wife about a trade that's going through.'" Instead, McCardell played the 18th hole and then called home, at which point he learned that the Chargers had outbid the Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens for his services. (Tampa Bay received a third- and a sixth-round selection in the 2005 draft.) With his new team McCardell has 28 catches in six games--all victories.
Then there's the second-year sensation Gates, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003, a year after leading Kent State's basketball team to the Elite Eight. The 6'4" 260 pounder hadn't played football since high school, so he spent the year reacquainting himself with the game and getting acclimated to the NFL--and used an unlikely learning tool: a joystick. "It's funny," Gates says, "but you know what helped? Playing Madden. I was always the Chargers. After I got here, I'd play the game and notice things about the defenses. I started recognizing formations in the [video] game, then I'd get to practice and see them there." Though he didn't have a touchdown reception on Sunday, Gates has caught 11 this year, leaving him one shy of the NFL record for tight ends. He's the league's fourth-leading receiver with 72 catches, for 826 yards.
If Gates's is an improbable success story, the emergence of the Chargers' offensive line has been downright implausible. Brilliantly directed by veteran line coach Hudson Houck, who won two Super Bowls in a similar capacity with the Dallas Cowboys during the 1990s, none of San Diego's five starters played a down for the team in 2003. Center Nick Hardwick (third round, out of Purdue) and right tackle Shane Olivea (seventh round, Ohio State) were 2004 draft picks; right guard Mike Goff was a free-agent pickup who had spent six years with the Cincinnati Bengals; left guard Toniu Fonoti is in his third year with San Diego but missed all of last season with a foot injury; and left tackle Roman Oben was acquired in an off-season trade with Tampa Bay. "We've all got chips on our shoulders," Oben said last Friday. "It's not always pretty, but together we're effective."
the defense is similarly devoid of star power. After finishing the 2003 season as the Atlanta Falcons' interim coach, Wade Phillips became the Chargers' defensive coordinator and installed his 3--4 scheme, to the benefit of no-names such as 348pound tackle Jamal Williams and linebacker Steve Foley. On Sunday, Foley and fellow outside backer Shaun Phillips each intercepted Plummer, who wasn't much of a mystery (16 of 40, 278 yards, no touchdowns) to San Diego. "I was reading Jake all day because he was looking right where he was throwing the ball," Wilson said. "That might have been because he was under so much pressure."
The team's most recognizable defender, outside linebacker Donnie Edwards, was taking down Broncos all over the field--his 20 tackles were the most he's had in a game in his nine-year career. Having set up the winning field goal with a late interception in the 34--31 victory against the Chiefs, his former team, Edwards was hoping to deliver an encore against Denver. As he reminded his teammates after Putzier's long catch, "Just because they're down near the end zone doesn't mean they're getting in. Don't let them score." The Broncos didn't, thanks to Florence and Wilson.
And thanks to the San Diego turnaround that began in Week 4, Edwards experienced a defining moment recently while out to dinner with his wife, Kathryn, in La Jolla: A waiter delivered a complimentary slice of apple pie a la mode. "I love all the little perks when you're winning," says Edwards, who's in his third year with the Chargers. "Trust me, that stuff wasn't happening around here before."
The fans of San Diego can relate. After all those losing seasons, like a bolt from the heavens, they, too, are getting their just deserts.
"I know people WON'T BELIEVE THIS, but even before the season started we knew we had it in us," said Wilson, who made the game's biggest play on Sunday.
"We were trying to find an identity," Brees recalls. "We said to one another, Either we TURN THINGS AROUND right now, or we end up suffering like we did last year."