Catching a football is not a difficult athletic act. And it should be practiced in a way that makes it second nature among the country’s best players. For some reason though, there are almost as many drops of footballs in the NFL – the best of the best of the best – as there are in a normal peewee league season between good local players.
Two of the six main late game Chargers mistakes involved such drops.
The first mistake came with 2:13 left in the third quarter. On 1st and 10 from their own 26 yard line, trailing 17-6, Carson Palmer threw deep to just past midfield. Safety Marcus Gilchrist jumped up, and the ball hit him in his hands right in front of his chest. He had RAC (or, in this case, “return RAC,” or “return run after the catch”) room. Probably one first down after what should have been an easy pick would have put the Chargers into solid field goal range, for the full two TD lead.
Gilchrist dropped the ball.
Mistake Number 2: The value of timeouts near the conclusion of football games, as a means to radically control the clock in the waning seconds when it matters most, is vastly underestimated in the NFL. On 2nd and 13 with 9:29 left in the 4th quarter, Rivers threw deep to Eddie Royal, on a play where Royal looked well covered, and the pass had little chance of success. Though hard to adjust for on the fly during the course of a play, this was also a slight strategic mistake in terms of the ultimate play attempt. While any score here is good, a score that uses up some clock time while simultaneously strengthening a team’s measly 5 point lead, is strategically superior, unless the long pass has a decent chance. But trying a very low probability tight coverage deep throw in this situation, that makes it a large long shot between the large distance and the extremely tight coverage – rather than a far higher probability, move the chains forward toward the opponent’s end zone, type of play – is ill advised.
In any event, the long pass went comfortably incomplete, bringing up 3rd and 13.
The Cardinals blitzed, successfully, at that, and Rivers, moving backwards quickly, and just before getting pummeled, threw off his back foot, slightly under-throwing an open Antonio Gates down the left sideline; but not by much, and Gates reeled it in for a 34 yard gain. It was a great play by Rivers under heavy pressure, and an example of why he is clearly one of the better starting QBs in the league.
But before the snap, for their second major mistake that contributed to yet another MNF loss that shouldn’t have happened, the Chargers wasted one of their three timeouts, calling it, for one reason or another. (None of which matter, frankly, since in a close game, the option to extend the game by multiple plays if necessary at the end is far more valuable by this point, whatever the problem the Chargers thought they faced at the moment.)
The completed pass to Gates put San Diego on the Cardinals 31 yard line. The key thing here, up by 5 points, 17-12, is to at least get a field goal out of it. This alone will increase their winning percentage by about 300% overall. In other words, down by 5, if the Cardinals score that last TD, and it is the last score of the game, they will win every time. Down by 8, the Cardinals will only win about 1 out of every 4 times, since they must still make the two point conversion (roughly a 50% probability) and must still win in overtime (roughly a 50% probability).
The Chargers had not been running the ball well in the second half, but their first call was a run up the middle to Danny Whitehead: Iffy call, but, arguably, reasonable. On 2nd and 9, making the exact same play call again, was not reasonable. But, for mistake number 3, it is what the Chargers did.
Rivers is a good QB. The goal on 2nd down should have been to pick up the 1st down, not go into a shell as the Chargers have done so often late in games. If a pass for a 1st down was not open, then Rivers can check down to a second or third option for a shorter throw, and perhaps a 4 or 5 yard pickup, give or take, depending on RAC.
Sure, a pass attempt versus a second vanilla run right up the middle might go incomplete. But in that area of the field on the edge of field goal range, leading by less than one full score, it was critical to keep control of the ball and try to make it a 11 or 13 point game (with the TD and two point conversion try), if they could; or at least increase their chances greatly by making it an 8 point game if they could not score the TD.
Given how poorly the Charters were running the ball, a measly run up the middle by Whitehead – not even their best runner – after the exact same play, not surprisingly, failed to work a moment earlier, was playing like a turtle with its head in the sand – something which the Chargers, in terms of game strategy (certainly not Rivers or the players) do a lot late in games.
The second run up the middle in a row by Whitehead failed as well, bringing up a 3rd and 8.
Sure, the play could have worked and gained 4 yards or so, giving them a 3rd and 4 and putting them at the 26 or something similar, and facing a 44 yard or less field goal attempt if nary another yard more was gained. But it was over cautious when the game was far from a lock; and lessened their chances of moving the ball and chains forward enough to make either the field goal or the TD score more likely. It is a subjective analysis, but it was lame enough to qualify as mistake number 3.
Mistake number 4 was by Rivers, and moves back to the “not on purpose” category.(Mistakes 2 and 3, the early call/waste of the first timeout, and the lame turtle head back in the shell vanilla play call at a critical point in the game at a critical point on the field, were purposeful mistakes.) It was a botched snap.
Long time center Stalwart Nick Hardwick had bagged football in the 9th grade, focusing on wrestling instead. At Purdue, which he attended on an ROTC scholarship, he also didn’t play his first two seasons, then joined the team as a walk on after Drew Brees (drafted later that spring by the Chargers with the 30th pick overall) inspiringly led the Boilermakers to the 2001 Rose Bowl. Hardwick quickly excelled, and was chosen by the Chargers with the 66th overall pick in the 2004 draft, 62 spots behind teammate Philip Rivers, who was drafted 4th overall by the Giants, and quickly traded to the Chargers, who had drafted an obstinate Eli Manning no. 1 overall (and who insisted he would not play for the Chargers.)
Hardwick started almost every game his rookie year, and while he has missed a few games here and there (most notably in 2009 where he missed most of the season due to an ankle injury that almost ended his career), he has been the Chargers starting center ever since he was drafted in 2004, and the current starting center, Jason Ball, held out. Hardwick also hasn’t missed a game in the four seasons since 2009.
Early in this game against the Cardinals, he left the game with an ankle injury. (No word yet on whether it’s the same ankle he badly injured badly in ’09.) The Chargers back up center is Rich Ohrnberger. On 3rd and 8 from the Cardinals 29 yard line, still with a 17-12 lead, 7:34 remaining in the game, and from the shotgun – and, perhaps because Rivers wasn’t as used to getting the snap from Ohrnberger, perhaps not – Rivers either outright botched the snap, or wasn’t ready for it, and it deflected off his hands and was ultimately (if barely) covered up by a scrambling Rivers back at the 43 yard line, for a 14 yard loss. This brought up 4th and 22, and put the Chargers completely out of field goal range.
The fifth mistake was another one of both game and time management. After starting out at their 9 yard line with 6:50 to go after the Chargers punted from the Cardinals 43, the Cardinals drove 91 yards for a TD, failed on their 2 point conversion try, and left the Chargers, who after the kickoff had 2:25 left, and trailed by 1, 18-17, with far too much time. (This was still much better, by the Cardinals however, than not scoring at all.) Rivers hit on 2 passes in a row, bringing up a 2nd and 2 from the Chargers 40 yard line at the two minute warning. Two quick incompletes brought up 4th and 2 with 1:53 left on the clock.
Here, with plenty of time after the incompletion to call a play and get set up and adjust at the line of scrimmage, the Chargers nevertheless failed to do so. And, to avoid an automatic 5 yard loss on a delay of game penalty, and also turn a manageable 4th and 2 into a challenging 4th and 7, someone from the sidelines managed to just call a timeout as the ball was snapped with zero seconds on the play clock. This brought the Chargers down to only 1 timeout remaining; which meant, along with their earlier timeout expenditure, that if they got stopped here, instead of having a still excellent chance in the game if they could stop their opponents on an ensuing 3 and out, they would essentially have no chance left in the game.
Mistake number six came on that ensuing play. Larry Foote, who but for the year 2009 (when he was with the Lions) was a Pittsburgh Steeler from 2002 through 2013, planted his own foot as Rivers threw, threw his hand up and beautifully timed the throw, deflecting it heavily near the line of scrimmage.
Luckily for the Chargers, the ball wobbled right into wide receiver Keenan Allen’s hands just past the short first down maker. Unfortunately for the Chargers, Allen dropped the ball.
The Cardinals took over with 1:49 left. San Diego had one timeout left. If the Chargers still had their remaining three timeouts, a stop on three plays followed thus by an inevitable Cardinals punt would have given them the ball back with about a minute and twenty seconds or more remaining after the punt. Which, for a field goal drive, is more than enough time. Particularly with Rivers at QB.
Even if they only had two timeouts left, albeit it would have been much harder, the Chargers still would have had an outside shot, getting the ball back with around 45-47 seconds or so left. But with only one timeout left, all they could do was stop the clock after the Cardinals first play, which they did.
The Cardinals snapped their second down play at 1:43. And with the Chargers unable to stop the clock, snapped 3rd down with 56 seconds remaining. This would take the clock down to about 11 or 12 seconds before they punted, giving the Chargers time for maybe one last miracle type attempt play, from deep in their own end of the field. (As if happens, the Cardinals picked up the first down on their third down play; but without the situation being present, if the Chargers had been playing for the game, rather than all but going through the motions, no one can say what the outcome would have been.)
It was really at least seven critical, major, mistakes, but the 7th was negated by a fortuitous penalty. On 3rd and 8 from their own 33 yard line, leading now by only 5 after the Cardinal TD and failed two point conversion attempt, and with 10:33 on the clock, Rivers threw a pick to Safety Tony Jefferson. A defensive holding call on the Cardinals however made it first down for the Chargers, out at their own 38, instead of Cardinals ball just outside the San Diego 40 yard line. (This was followed by a three yard loss, the ensuing long incomplete to a well covered receiver deep up the middle, the long pass off Rivers’ back foot under heavy pressure to Antonio Gates, the two runs for a yard apiece, and the botched snap for the 14 yard loss, as described above.)
Last year, to open the season for NFL’s Monday Night Football, the Chargers blew a 21 point lead to lose to the Houston Texans (who would then win a close game in week 2, then go on to lose the next 14 games in a row en route to the number one pick in this past spring’s NFL draft).
The year before that, the Chargers also lost in a Monday Night Football game for the ages. A game – in fact, a “half” – which really marked the beginning of a new, if late, offensive dynasty for the Broncos, as it finally all came together with Peyton Manning at the helm. (With the Broncos, including that game itself, going 25-3 in the regular season since then up until this point and including Sunday’s 31-24 win over the Colts. And, setting all kinds of records the following year – 2013 – in the process, with Manning, at age 37, even throwing 55 regular season TD passes, shattering Tom Brady’s single season TD passing record by 5.)
For to start out the second half of that infamous game, the Broncos trailed the Chargers 24 -0. And, rather remarkably won the game by 11 points, 35-24.
At least the Chargers blown leads – 24 points in 2012, 21 points in 2013, and 11 points in 2014 – on Monday Night Football Games are getting smaller. But from a basics standpoint, last night’s loss might have been the worst of all, as the Chargers made multiple, if largely overlooked, strategic mistakes, and a multitude of various types of errors, including a few of the most common, but still, seemingly, most frustrating of all; since it involves an action that, however hard it is to be an NFL player, and be among the best of the best, is a fairly easy athletic act – and one that is yet so important to the outcomes of football games – simply catching a football that hits one square in the hands. And not dropping it.