The San Diego Chargers offensive line sure couldn't save quarterback Philip Rivers from taking a pounding.
So the man with the headset did.
Head coach Norv Turner, to the boos of tens of thousands at Qualcomm Stadium, made one conservative decision after the next Sunday in key offensive situations, and poor all-around execution had the Chargers hobbling to a 16-13 overtime loss against the Denver Broncos.
The question now: At 4-7, who can rescue Turner? He's watching his quarterback's back. Does Chargers ownership still have his?
By not being more aggressive with his playcalling, Turner probably lost out in the court of public opinion, if he hadn't already.
Had he called more pass plays, opening Rivers to more punishment, and the Chargers lost because of a strip-sack or under-pressure interception, the story fans may have told driving home was how, darn it, the bandages wore off that rag-tag offensive line. And Turner's team has lost six straight games and is three back in the AFC West with five to play, but he doesn't have the personnel to succeed.
Backup Chargers left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski finished the game with a foot injury. Rookie Stephen Schilling was the fourth player to start at left guard. RIght guard Tony Moll, signed earlier in the month, made his season's first start. Off the edges, Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller were a terror.
The prevailing storyline instead was how Turner didn't even try.
He was asked first in the post-game presser why "just throw in the towel" at the end of regulation with his playcalling. He was later asked if he was "playing scared."
"You're not going to put a guy (Rivers) in a difficult position," Turner said. "We're trying not to expose him. You're trying to protect him ... We’re trying to manage a group of guys up front. Again, you saw a number of guys have trouble with one-on-one protections. We took a couple big sacks. We had pressure ... We’re in a unique position, and we’re trying to manage it the best we can."
He defended his decisions, one by one.
- 1:47 in second quarter, third and 10 from own 34: Chargers settle for punt with shotgun hand-off to running back Mike Tolbert up the middle. Broncos would score touchdown to cut deficit to 10-7 before halftime. "We run the ball, gain 18 yards, and a holding penalty moves it back to first down. Obviously, we're under pressure after that. So on third and 10, instead of taking a sack and punting from the 10, we ran the ball. Thought we'd get positive yards."
- Forty-two seconds left in fourth quarter, second and 20 from own 38: Tolbert rushed for eight yards. Chargers let regulation expire rather than attempt a Hail Mary pass. "If you base it on what had happened, I don't look at it in terms of playing scared. We threw a ball, completed a ball, looked like we were going to get something going. Then we took a 10-yard sack. If you throw up a ball from the 50 with two seconds left, hoping, I understand the feeling of that. I was more concerned about Philip taking a big hit, and I think we did the right thing."
- 4:46 in ovetime, first and 10 at Denver 35: Chargers call three runs following Ryan Mathews' 14-yard dash. Mathews, who rushed for a career-high 137 yards, wasn't on the field for the final two. Tolbert had a four-yard loss on third down, a designed run to left to set up kicker Nick Novak, who'd miss a would-be game-winning 53-yard try. "(Mathews) came out and I don't know why he came out. We were obviously in the middle of a drive. Again, don't know if (running backs coach) Ollie (Wilson) subbed him ... We're in the middle of the drive, and I'm trying to get substitutions on the field and play. I'm calling a play based on our personnel."
The locker room cleared out quickly after the loss, and yet, Turner doesn't seem to have lost it.
Players expressed disappointment with their record, not the plays called.
"He's been doing this for years," Tolbert said. "Decades. He's been doing this longer than most of us have been alive, so he knows what he's doing. We're not going to second guess him at all."
Said tight end Randy McMichael: "We've got to execute the play that is called. You've got to block the man in front of you. We just didn't convert when we needed to convert, and they did."
So, what now?
After last year's playoff drought, the Chargers likely needed a tournament berth for their coach to be in any semblance of comfortable standing within the organization. The postseason is now in grave danger, and thereby, so seems Turner's future with the team.
The public majority may have made its ruling all ready.
About an hour after every home game, Qualcomm Stadium's cleaning crew usually has one yeller within the group, screaming for a good 10 seconds: "Chaaaaargerrrrrrrs!"
This time, he briefly bellowed a succint chant that, right or wrong, could echo into the offseason: "Fire Norv! Fire Norv!"