There were days, years ago, when an older, grayer Chargers head coach stalked the sidelines. He would clap his hands, stare into the eyes of his players through thinly-rimmed glasses, and yell with a voice as raspy as an antique airplane engine: “One play at a time.”
Maybe that is what San Diego needed on Sunday.
When the time came to rise to the occasion, when the chance to reverse their miserable start arrived, the Chargers were paralyzed by a mindset that couldn't forget. By their own coach's diagnosis, not letting go of the past is what doomed the Chargers to repeat it, as they built an early road deficit that proved insurmountable in a 20-17 letdown in St. Louis.
“The one thing I sensed early in this game,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said, “is what happens when you're ... trying too hard. I sensed our guys were pressing. … I think our guys had a little bit of that early. 'What's wrong with us? Let's go. Let's go. What's wrong?' That mentality. You can start to press when you're going through a rough period.”
And now, the period continues.
The Chargers, whose defensive breakdowns and offensive sputters left them trailing 17-0 in the second quarter, are tied for last place in the AFC West at 2-4. It is the worst start since 2003, back when Marty Schottenheimer was rebuilding the club one fiery speech at a time.
Before the season, Turner described the team as possibly being the “best team I've coached as a head coach.” After Sunday's loss, he said the team is its record.
“I've not lost faith in this group,” he said, “but certainly, we have a lot of work to do.”
Describing how the team was pressing early, Turner used the example of a dropped second-quarter interception by safety Eric Weddle. But that was only one play, and it didn't lead to points.
Cornerback Antoine Cason, a bright spot in the previous losses, had his worst game, getting beat deep on a 38-yard touchdown pass by Dontario Alexander, a newly signed undrafted rookie. The second touchdown came on a one-yard Steven Jackson plunge after the Chargers allowed rookie quarterback Sam Bradford to convert four third downs, including ones from nine, 13 and 17 yards out.
“We weren't out there having fun like we're used to having,” linebacker Stephen Cooper said. “We should have been out there having fun and flying around the ball like we're used to doing. ...It's inexcusable. We have to be ready to start the game."
The Chargers offense also faulted at the start, failing to convert on its first six third downs. Quarterback Philip Rivers was sacked seven times for the game, most of his career, and had to work with Antonio Gates (toe) and Malcom Floyd (strained) forced to the sidelines.
Buster Davis was hot and cold between tight-toed sideline catches and can't-miss drops, and Patrick Crayton was steady in leading the team with six catches and 117 yards.
Like after falling behind 21-7 to Kansas City, 17-0 to Seattle and 12-0 to Oakland, San Diego attempted a comeback win and fell short. Ultimately, Rivers needed one more possession to make up the last score, and the defense couldn't provide it. On a 3rd and 6, Jackson rushed for nine yards up the gut to take the game to the two-minute warning. Two plays later, a 12-yard gain sealed it.
The Chargers, tied with the Raiders and Broncos in the AFC West and sitting 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Chiefs (3-2), host the New England Patriots on Sunday.
“We've got to put this one behind us quick,” left tackle Marcus McNeill said, “because if we don't and we don't care of next week and we keep on letting these L's roam around, it could cause us problems down the road.”