It is because from a fan’s perspective, it is those eight seasons since our last playoff appearance (and the nine that preceded the 1992 campaign) that has been sadly central to the experience of following the Chargers. For the players themselves, the team’s history further reminds them to maximize the opportunities in front of them. While I don’t want or expect a similar stretch of futility for The Legion of The Lightning Bolt, the Chargers must continue to play like there really is no tomorrow.
In preparation for this piece, I visited The Halls of Justice for my reflections before the Bolts’ last playoff game on the final day of 1995. I speculated that the Chargers would stare down adversity against the Colts. But I thought that they would eventually prevail by showing the same resiliency they displayed in “running the table” after a 4-7 start. The Bolts led 3-0 after one quarter that day and 17-14 in the third quarter. But the never played like they really “wanted it.” Tony Martin bobbled a touchdown pass and Indianapolis subsequently picked it off in the end zone. Jim Harbaugh (who only needed to complete 16 passes for 175 yards) threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to give the Colts the lead for good. But the biggest daggers of the day came from then-unknown Zack Crockett, who ripped off touchdown runs of 33 and 66 yards. That stupid hand gesture he celebrated those touchdowns with only assured that Crockett would one day play for Oakland.
Stan Humphries, who just one week earlier had suffered the first of the string of concussions that would eventually end his career, threw four interceptions as he tried valiantly to pull the game out. Shortly after the game, Harry Swayne admitted that the Chargers took the Colts too lightly. Even though the Bolts had just two weeks previously fought Indianapolis tooth and nail in a must win game in the Hoosier Dome, the team was unraveling behind the scenes. Chris Mims’ drunken appearance (complete with top hat and tails) at Jack Murphy Stadium on New Year’s Day served as an omen for the destruction of the rebirth that Bobby Beathard and Ross had engineered. It was no surprise when Mims was arrested for beating up someone at a Del Taco AND threatening to take his meal.
Natrone Means, whose injury during the ’95 rematch with the Dolphins almost single-handedly ended the Chargers’ playoff hopes, would be released during the following season. Bobby Beathard tried to use Means as a warning to other possible malcontents that the team’s chemistry was more important than any individual player. Unfortunately, it was the chemistry between Beathard and Bobby Ross that proved to be the most problematic area for the Chargers. In the power struggle that ensued, the Spanos’ sided with Beathard, a move they would eventually condemn publicly, and the rest is all-too-familiar history. Beathard begat Gilbride who begat Jones who begat Riley. Acquisitions like Leonard Russell, Bryan Still, Marco Coleman, William Fuller, Aaron Tayor, John Jackson and of course, Ryan Leaf, symbolized these dark ages.
But after assembling two teams that broke our hearts with fast starts and slow finishes (and one squad that was 0-5 before the leaves turned here in the East), John Butler and A.J. Smith have finally given us a TEAM we can be proud of. They recovered from a 1-2 start to pound Tennessee and Jacksonville in consecutive weeks. They avenged each of their subsequent losses, both heartbreakers. They even won games down the stretch, going 4-1 after the end of November.
However, the Chargers’ long road back to the playoffs guarantees them nothing. It merely emphasizes how precious an opportunity this team has created for itself. The most reassuring characteristic of this team is that I think they themselves understand that. This week, Lorenzo Neal reminisced about his role in the “Music City Miracle” for the media. His parting reminder was a vital one: anything can happen in the playoffs. Drew Brees revealed after the loss at Indianapolis that the players didn’t like the way they felt the day after the game. Jimmy Johnson once motivated the Cowboys before their home game against San Francisco in the ’93 NFC title game in a similar fashion. He described to the players the feeling of disappointment and regret that they would feel if they didn’t make the most of the opportunity in front of them. Neal echoed this sentiment when he told the Bolts that the playoffs would be like their December showdown with Denver, only multiplied tenfold. Describing the game that essentially sealed the AFC West title, Neal recalled that the players knew what was at stake, but tried to play without the tension that accompanied this recognition. The Chargers will need to elevate their play tenfold as well on Saturday night.
That’s the paradox of the playoffs. You need play like it’s your last game but not let that feeling paralyze you with fear. It’s almost (I know I’m reaching here) a metaphor for life in general. In order to get the most of the experience, you need to distance yourself from the finality and be a little carefree.
Now that he’s finally returned to the postseason, Marty Schottenheimer has been peppered with inevitable questions about his 5-11 playoff record. Of course, two of his AFC title game losses were due to last second Denver miracles and the third was caused by Joe Montana being knocked out in Buffalo. Schottenheimer admitted that there were probably four games this season that the Chargers could have lost, but that the Bolts could also have beaten Atlanta and Indianapolis. He confessed that there would probably be a couple of plays on Saturday night that would make the difference. At first, I thought he was being a little nonchalant about a playoff game that we’ve waited a decade for, but then I realized that he was just giving a simplified answer to the upteenth question about his postseason record. He also had an interview with the national media after his local Monday press conference. I’m sure he’s trying to maintain that balance between being cocky and truly believing that you will beat your opponent.
This team has believed in themselves since training camp, unlike even the most faithful among The Legion of the Lightning Bolt. Of course, that’s because many of the players haven’t suffered with the Bolts for the last ten years. Schottenheimer correctly predicted that Herman Edwards would have the Jets ready to play and that they wouldn’t give the game away to the Chargers. They, too, will hit the field on Saturday believing that they can win. Chad Pennington, even injured, is dangerous and has a good rapport with McCareins and Moss. Curtis Martin is playing like the Hall of Famer he is. Donnie Henderson has built a playmaking defense featuring Jonathan Vilma. The last thing the Jets want to hear from the New York fans and media is how they squandered a 5-0 start. But the fear of being vilified wasn’t enough to propel even the Yankees. The Red Sox, to the delight of their fans (I’m glad I never referred to us as “Charger Nation” and left that title for the asshole Oakland fans) finally found the right mix of players to rise above the losing stench that permeated the whole of their being.
Many people believe the Chargers will win, but the most important thing is that the team believes that. They have that chip on their shoulder, but understand that they’ll have to elevate their play for the postseason. Otherwise, it will all be over in a heartbeat—just like 1995.
But Lorenzo Neal reminded the Bolts that they need to play like they will never get this close to the Super Bowl again. Steve Foley, even with his arm stitched up, promises to be “rolling around on the ground.” LaDainian Tomlinson is well rested and eager to hit the national stage. Drew Brees has had to play for the present amid questions about his future all year long. So how has this Chargers team learned from the team’s history, so as NOT to repeat it? If the last playoff edition of the Bolts represented a team coming apart, this one is a group coming together. They’ll need to make those plays that they didn’t in Atlanta and Indianapolis. They’ll need to play at a level they haven’t been at yet. But they believed in themselves from the very start. They fought and grown. They’ve hopefully learned from their wins and losses. As a fan, that’s all you can ask for. As Aerosmith once sang, you’ve got to lose to learn how to win. Dream on, Chargers. And may you play on.
Justice IS Coming