San Diego Chargers: Mike McCoy

SAN DIEGO -- Saying he had seen enough, San Diego coach Mike McCoy let players take off for summer vacations a day early, ending the team's scheduled three-day, mandatory minicamp Wednesday after players finished a set of gassers.

McCoy
"I think the players have done an outstanding job this offseason and worked extremely hard,” McCoy said. "They've done everything we've asked of them, so as a little bit of an appreciation of what they did [we let them go early].

"I think we're at a good point right now. We've got a long ways still to go, but that was the best thing for the team moving forward.”

McCoy said only a couple of people knew that he going to cut minicamp short -- and none of the coaches knew his plan. McCoy said he made the decision not to practice on the final day of minicamp about halfway through Wednesday's session.

Chargers outside linebacker Jarret Johnson was pleased to get a reprieve.

"Any time you can cut out early, that's good,” Johnson said. "But we've been at it for nine weeks now, so we've had a lot of work. So it's kind of a nice little treat, especially for the older guys.”

Nick Hardwick, who suffered a foot injury Tuesday, watched practice from the sidelines. Hardwick did not wear a boot on his injured right foot, and the expectation is he will be healthy for training camp.

Right guard Jeromey Clary was seen after practice walking with crutches. Clary had offseason shoulder and hip surgery, and his availability for the start of training camp at the end of July remains a question mark.

"Every player that is injured right now is working hard,” McCoy said, when asked for an update on Clary's status. "And they will be out there as soon as they can.”

San Diego State coaches attend practice: Rocky Long, head football coach for San Diego State, attended the Chargers' practice Wednesday, along with other members of his coaching staff. Long is good friends with defensive coordinator John Pagano. Long coached Pagano's older brother, John, while he served as defensive coordinator at Wyoming.

Long said the minicamp is a good opportunity for his staff to come to practice and learn a few things that they could use at their program.

"We look at their schemes and everything,” Long said. "In fact, John Pagano and I were talking about how they cover the bunch formations, because we do some similar things, but we do them differently. So you can always learn something out here X's and Os-wise.”

Look out for Williams: Asked about the quality depth of players at outside linebacker, Johnson provided a player few have talked about so far this offseason, second-year pro Tourek Williams. With all of the injuries San Diego suffered last season, the sixth-round selection in the 2013 draft out of Florida International got a chance to play significant minutes as a rookie.

Williams played in 204 snaps last season, finishing with 10 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. His signature play was a strip sack of Peyton Manning recovered by middle linebacker Donald Butler in a home game at Qualcomm Stadium against Denver.

"Tourek is the one that's been pretty interesting to me how much he's gained over the offseason -- just how much more mature he is,” Johnson said. "He's the one that I think is going to have a huge year.”

Roll call: Safety Jahleel Addae did not practice for a second straight day due to an unspecified injury. Middle linebacker Jonas Mouton (knee) also did not practice. Tackle Michael Harris (ankle), cornerback Jason Verrett (shoulder), outside linebacker Dwight Freeney (quad) and tight end John Phillips participated in individual drills, but were spectators during the team portions of practice.
SAN DIEGO -- Coach Mike McCoy must be loosening up -- just a little bit.

For the first time during his tenure as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, McCoy played music during practice on the opening day of minicamp for the team.

Players could be seen bobbing heads and tapping toes as a mix of rap, country and arena rock blared over the speakers at Chargers Park.

McCoy
"We put someone in charge early this morning to get a mix for us," McCoy said. "No. 1, we’re going to be playing on the road, where it’s going to be loud from time to time. And when we’re playing at home it’s going to be loud, too, and that’s the environment we want to have when our defense is out there -- playing loud and having a good time.

"We decided to play it during the two-minute drill, some country music, and some other forms of music I don’t know a whole lot about, to be honest. If it’s not Kenny Chesney I’m not listening to a lot of it, but it’s better than listening to airplane music for a two-minute drill."

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said the music during practice was a good change of pace for what can become a monotonous time of year.

"I didn’t know that was happening until about a couple minutes before practice," Rivers said. "It was fine. It actually added a little energy to stretch and the individual period. In the two-minute period it was loud. It was probably louder than the standard, static crowd noise that we have. I thought it was all right."

Of course, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has become somewhat noteworthy for hiring a DJ and playing music during his practices in Seattle, and before that at USC. With training camp practices dubbed "Club Carroll", the Seahawks coach believes music adds energy and creates some fun for players when they hear their favorite song during practice.

Chargers running back Ryan Mathews agrees with that sentiment.

"It was fun," Mathews said. "It was something different. Minicamp is supposed to be fun. Football is a fun game, and Coach (McCoy) just added another level to it. It’s a great feeling."
SAN DIEGO -- I wanted to share leftover notes from the only open session for the San Diego Chargers' organized team activities this week.

The Chargers have another OTA practice closed to reporters Wednesday but will open things up to the media again Monday.

Oliver impresses: Undrafted rookie free-agent running back Branden Oliver caught my eye again Monday. The University of Buffalo product does not have elite top-end speed, running a 4.56-second, 40-yard time at his pro day. But he consistently showed good vision and quickness through the hole during 11-on-11 drills, with the ability to make defenders miss. Again, take this with a grain of salt because guys do not have pads on and no one is tackling anybody. But Oliver looks like he belongs so far running with the second and third units.

Depth at defensive end: The Chargers have a pretty good defensive end combination with Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes but not much depth behind those two. Lawrence Guy provided good minutes and had an impact as a spot guy last year. Sean Lissemore can slide out from nose guard and play defensive end. The Chargers also are hopefulDamik Scafe can stay healthy and play to his potential. The Boston College product had chance to make the final roster last season but suffered a foot injury and was released with an injury settlement. The Chargers brought Scafe back on the practice squad at the end of last season and signed him to a futures contract in January. Undrafted rookie free agent Tenny Palepoi also has shown flashes at times during practice.

Open competition at returner: San Diego has a lot of bodies competing for punt return duties so far during offseason work. Rookie receivers Brelan Chancellor, Javontee Herndon and Tevin Reese, along with veterans Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen, caught punts during the specialty period. I wouldn't rule out Royal or Allen handling punt return duties come September. Royal started 2013 as San Diego's main punt returner but yielded to Allen during the second half of the season due to a nagging toe injury. And Allen has said that he'd like to return punts again, although San Diego coach Mike McCoy might not like the idea of his No. 1 receiver fielding punts for a second straight year.

Competition at punter: A player to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie free-agent punter Chase Tenpenny, whose presence is viewed as a move to save veteran punter Mike Scifres' leg during the offseason. At 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds, the Nevada product looks more like a defensive end than a punter. Tenpenny, a left-footed punter, averaged 44 yards a boot at Nevada and finished with 30 punts out of 100 attempts downed inside the 20-yard line. Scifres had a solid 2013 season. He was among the best punters in the NFL in placing the ball inside the 20-yard line, finishing with a league-best 30 of 56 punts inside the 20. He can also kick field goals in a pinch. But Scifres turns 34 in October and is set to earn the second-highest salary among punters for the upcoming season at $3.25 million. Competition at the position could have Scifres thinking about taking a pay cut.
Coach Mike McCoy said the San Diego Chargers achieved the team's goal at the completion of this year's NFL draft.

"We improved our football team this weekend," McCoy said. "And now it's an opportunity for the players to come in this next week, and they've got a lot of work to do. But I think the type of players we've brought in are the right guys for our organization. They're going to fit in. They're good people, and good character guys that want to win."

With McCoy and general manager Tom Telesco working together for the second straight year, McCoy said the process went a little smoother this time around.

"It was exciting for me to watch as a head coach in this second year of doing it together, because you could see the amount that we've not only grown as a football team, but as an organization," McCoy said.

"Last year was chaos," added Telesco. "This year was controlled chaos."

Return jobs are open: Keenan Allen returned punts and Ronnie Brown returned kicks for the Chargers in 2013. But both of the jobs will be open for competition in 2014, with Brown gone and Allen likely focusing entirely on offense in his second season.

The Chargers struggled in the return game last season, averaging 7.5 yards per punt return (No. 25 in the NFL) and 22.1 yards per kick return (No. 23).

Telesco said sixth-round selection Marion Grice and seventh rounder Tevin Reese will compete for the kick return job, and Reese is a candidate for the punt-return job as well.

Grice averaged 24 yards a kick return, with a long of 44 yards, at Arizona State. Reese said he returned punts and kicks in high school, but not at Baylor because head coach Art Briles' policy was to not use his starters as returners.

Along with those two, guys currently on the roster who will get a look at returns include running back Kerwynn Williams and receiver Tobais Palmer. Telesco said Williams and Palmer were among the team's higher-rated returners in the 2013 draft.

Telesco said he hopes Reese (5-10, 163 pounds) will fill out a little bit, but still retain his elite speed and athleticism. Telesco believes that will happen naturally once Reese arrives at Chargers Park and begins to train at the facility.

"You have to give a little to get a little," Telesco said. "So you get an explosively fast receiver at 170 pounds. But what he has is extraordinary athletic ability, so that gives him a chance.

"If he didn't have that rare quickness, speed and jumping ability it would be much harder. But between his athletic ability -- he's pretty good route runner and has good hands -- he's got a chance."

Rookie minicamp starts on Friday: Different from last year, McCoy said the rookies will arrive on Monday and get acclimated before the rookie minicamp begins on Friday. The Chargers will hold a three-day rookie minicamp from Friday through Sunday.

"The No. 1 thing is this week they are going to learn a little bit about their teammates," McCoy said. "The one thing I'm going to tell them is make sure they understand that when you walk in the door, you know who Philip Rivers is, Antonio Gates and the rest of your teammates. Learn a little bit about them, because you're going to spend a lot of time with them throughout training camp, preseason games and in season. So they've got to learn a lot about their teammates.

"The next thing is to learn the way we do things here. It's going to be different. We're going to coach guys different than the way they've been coached in college -- right, wrong or indifferent -- so you have to buy into the new coaching styles from a new coach. And you've got to learn the system. If you can't understand or don't know what to do, you have no chance at this level. You've got no chance. And you've got to learn to be a pro."

Telesco on fifth-round selection DT Ryan Carrethers: "He's a true nose tackle. He's built and looks like a nose tackle. He's stout, powerful and very strong. And he had uncommon production actually for a nose tackle. Usually these guys are occupying blocks, but he had 90-plus tackles and 11 TFLs (tackles for loss) at Arkansas State, who plays a pretty strong schedule, too. And he plays hard, which is a hard to find in big guys. He's got a real chance, and we're looking forward to getting him in here."

Telesco on Grice: "A very well-rounded back, that's the one thing that jumped out to us. He's junior college All-American, and then two years at Arizona State. Between running the ball, catching the ball, pass protection and kickoff returns, he can do a lot of different things at six foot and almost 210 pounds. And he was a very productive player there, too -- third in the nation in all-purpose yards. And he was a touchdown machine, with 39 touchdowns in two years. And he protects the ball, so we'll get him in here and add him to the group."

Telesco on Reese: "The big thing on him is speed. He can really, really run. Not only timed speed, but when you put the tape on, it takes about one play to see where he is, because he just jumps out with how fast he is. He also catches the ball really well, a good route runner and a lot of production. He's had a lot of big-play production at Baylor."
If you believed the reclamation of Philip Rivers by San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy was a short-term stint while the team found a long-term answer at the position, think again.

Rivers
In a conversation with ESPN's John Keim at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., this week, McCoy reaffirmed that Rivers remains the team's franchise quarterback for the long haul.

Further, McCoy believes Rivers' improved performance is not an aberration.

"He should start off where he finished and have the type of year he had last year," McCoy said. "Our team will only improve. There were a lot of first times for our team also, in a new system. There's things you're learning -- you practice things all the time but they may not be against a certain coverage.

"He was learning as we were going during the year. As time goes along you put in a new play, maybe it's a play out of a new formation, or someone else is running it, Ladarius [Green] is running it versus one of the receivers. You're still learning about one another and your system every week.

"We said the first day sitting here last year [that] Philip Rivers was not the problem. It was everyone else around him playing better. He'll be the first one to tell you also that he needed to play better. He couldn't make certain decisions he made. That's the quarterback position. You'll throw interceptions sometimes. He's going to make more good decisions than bad decisions."

McCoy said even with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt moving on and taking the head coaching job in Tennessee, he still expects Rivers to have similar success under new offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

"The system's in place," McCoy said. "We put a system in place last year to be there for the long haul, and we all sat down and there were good offensive minds in there and there are still some good offensive minds in there. We knew this could happen at this point in time that Ken could leave. But that's what happens in this profession. We have a great staff in place. We added [tight ends coach] Pete Metzelaars and he will be great for the offense also. We built the system for the long haul."

The eventual departure of receiver Steve Smith from the Carolina Panthers has been rumored for the past week. But according to this story by Steve Reed of the Associated Press, that speculation could soon become a reality.

Reed quotes Smith’s longtime agent, Derrick Fox, stating that whether through trade or outright release, Smith will not be with the Panthers in 2014.

“[Steve] is not going to play for the Panthers next year, I know that,” Fox told the Associated Press. “I just don’t know when that transaction is going to take place.”

Smith’s contract runs through 2016. Carolina will have to pay the Utah product $3 million whether he’s with the team or not for the upcoming season.

Despite the Panthers moving on from Smith, the 13-year, NFL veteran can still play, and would be a good fit for a San Diego offense looking to add more playmakers. Smith was one of Cam Newton's favorite targets, finishing with 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns in 2013.

At 5-9 and 185 pounds, Smith still has enough speed to get deep, the ability to make plays after the catch and is one of the most competitive players in the league. That passion should fit in well with the ultra-competitive Philip Rivers.

Chargers coach Mike McCoy is very familiar with Smith, having coached him for eight seasons while serving as quarterbacks coach, receivers coach and passing game coordinator in Carolina. So McCoy will know how to use Smith’s skill set in new offensive coordinator Frank Reich's version of San Diego's offense.

Smith, who turns 35 in May, also would pair with Eddie Royal to give San Diego a nice rotation at slot receiver, along with a veteran presence in the receiving room to balance against young receivers like Keenan Allen and Vincent Brown. Smith, a Los Angeles native, also could return to his West Coast roots.

Smith would have a chance to still make a run at a Super Bowl with San Diego. And with Carolina basically paying Smith $3 million to play for someone else in 2014, Smith could be an inexpensive option to help bolster the team’s receiving group.
Tom TelescoAP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackComing off a playoff season, Tom Telesco hopes to build the Chargers into a perennial contender.
SAN DIEGO -- A patient decision-maker with just a week on the job, San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco helped his new franchise make perhaps the most impactful move in recent memory when he hired Mike McCoy as the team’s new head coach a little over a year ago.

The detail-oriented McCoy, who had been the Denver Broncos' offensive coordinator, led the Chargers to their first playoff appearance since 2009. Along the way, he resuscitated the careers of quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews.

Telesco and McCoy have San Diego headed in the right direction, re-establishing a good working relationship between the personnel department and coaching staff that had turned sour under former head personnel man A.J. Smith.

Telesco and McCoy let their actions speak louder than their words. McCoy divulged little about his team in weekly conversations with reporters, concerned with leaking information to the opponent.

Telesco shares a similar approach, preferring to speak in generalities about his team’s performance. For now, the hushed approach has proved effective.

On the field, Telesco said he was attracted to McCoy’s knack for teaching his coaching staff and players what he wanted to accomplish, along with an ability to adapt.

“He’s direct with the players,” Telesco said of McCoy. “He defines what he wants from them, so there’s no gray area. So everyone knows what’s exactly expected of them, and I think that’s a great trait to have.

“We had some ups and downs, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a team in transition. And you saw on the field that sometimes we looked like a pretty good football team, while other times you could say we looked pretty far away.

“So we were a little inconsistent early in the year, but he always kept the players focused. Even when we were 5-7 and most people had counted us out, the players were locked in on Mike the whole time. And you saw that on the practice field every day.”

The Chargers were a surprise entry to the playoffs last season. But San Diego has several aging foundational players in place, including Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, center Nick Hardwick and safety Eric Weddle.

It’s the mild-mannered Telesco’s job in Year 2 to help provide McCoy with more tools to make a deeper playoff run in 2014, which means talent upgrades in the secondary and defensive and offensive lines, along with improving overall team speed through the draft and free agency.

Like most general managers, Telesco’s mantra is to build through the draft.

Telesco, 41, received his foundation for football while playing receiver at Division III John Carroll University in Ohio. And he cut his teeth in the personnel department of one of the best in the business, spending 15 years in Indianapolis under former NFL head personnel man Bill Polian. Indianapolis appeared in the playoffs 12 times, winning eight division titles and a Super Bowl during that time frame.

“He had a really great process with the way we did things,” Telesco said about his former boss. “We were very consistent. We tried to make as many good football decisions that we could, and that included taking opinions from everybody. One thing about Bill is he always listened to everybody, coaches and scouts -- and even younger guys like me when I first started.

“It doesn't mean he’s always going to go with what you said, but he always listened, which was great. We just worked the process, and we always stayed true to the process.”

The Chargers drafted well under the direction of Telesco in 2013, selecting right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round, linebacker Manti Te’o in the second and offensive rookie of the year candidate Keenan Allen in the third round -- all key contributors in their first season.

Along with those picks, Telesco found some bargains in free agency, signing running back Danny Woodhead and offensive tackle King Dunlap to two-year deals, and offensive lineman Chad Rinehart to a one-year deal.

Rinehart returned to the Chargers on a two-year deal before the onset of free agency.

However, everything did not go perfectly. Telesco’s top free-agent signing, cornerback Derek Cox, struggled through the first half of the season, and was eventually replaced by Richard Marshall.

Signed to a $20 million, four-year deal, the Chargers released Cox last week, saving $1.65 million in cap space and $4.25 million in cash.

“All the decisions that we make in this business, you’re never right all the time,” Telesco said. “And you try and learn.”

With free agency set to begin this week, the Chargers have little cap space to make a big splash. So expect Telesco to use his seven draft picks wisely, and once again spend sensibly in free agency in pursuit of building the Chargers into a perennial Super Bowl contender.
In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, NFL Insider Mike Sando notes the top-ranked defense in the NFL in Seattle will face Denver’s top-ranked offense when these two teams face off in the Super Bowl in two weeks.

The matchup begs this question -- does defense still win championships? If that’s the case, the San Diego Chargers need to continue improving on that side of the ball, although they were much better during the second half of the season.

Sando takes a statistical look at when the best offenses met the best defenses in the Super Bowl. His final thought is the Seahawks will have the advantage in this one.

Sando: “I see the Denver offense and Seattle defense canceling out each other to a large degree. The Seahawks might be the only team in the league with the secondary and coverage players to defend the Broncos' impressive arsenal. That opens the door for the Seahawks' offense to win the game against a Denver defense that will be without some of its best players, including Von Miller and Chris Harris.

“I give the edge to Seattle, particularly with Percy Harvin expected to return from a concussion that kept him out of the NFC Championship Game. But with Manning coming off a season unprecedented in league history, the Broncos aren't likely to go quietly.”

According to Vegas, the Broncos are the slight favorite.

With former Chargers OC Ken Whisenhunt maintaining his play-calling duties in Tennessee, ESPN Titans beat reporter Paul Kuharsky notes that 10 NFL head coaches will call their own plays in 2014.

ESPN Bills beat reporter Mike Rodak offers a position-by-position offensive watch list for this weekend’s Senior Bowl.

In this ESPN Insider piece Insider, Steve Muench recaps the East-West Shrine game. Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was named the offensive MVP. West Texas A&M defensive end Ethan Westbrooks and Northern Arizona running back Zach Bauman also stood out.

Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego covered the AFC Championship Game, which includes a trio of former San Diego players headed to the Super Bowl in defensive end Shaun Phillips, cornerback Quentin Jammer and offensive lineman Louis Vasquez.

Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego talks with Chargers team president Dean Spanos, who is encouraged by the future after the first season with general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy.
The San Diego Chargers will have to fill two coaching vacancies on the team's offensive coaching staff, with the Tennessee Titans announcing Friday that head coach Ken Whisenhunt hired Chargers tight end coach Jason Michael.

Michael, 35, spent three seasons coaching tight ends in San Diego. The promotion offers a move closer to home for Michael, a native of Louisa, Ky.

The Chargers hired quarterbacks coach Frank Reich to serve as the team's offensive coordinator to replace Whisenhunt, creating a vacancy at quarterbacks coach. Now, San Diego coach Mike McCoy also will have to replace Michael.

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said this week his organization has been proactive in filling the vacant coaching positions.

“The great thing about Mike [McCoy] is he is very detailed and prepared,” Telesco said. “He has a list of people that if an opening comes available, this is the people he will be looking at. I have been in the league long enough to where I know a lot of people. You are always prepared for that. Usually it's not going to be a cold call resume coming in.”
SAN DIEGO -- Mike McCoy's journey to earning the head coaching job of the San Diego Chargers began north of the border, playing quarterback for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.

McCoy was a midseason replacement for Calgary in August 1999 after Dave Dickenson and Henry Burris suffered injuries. He learned on the run, completing 117 of 183 passes (64 percent) for 1,669 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

[+] EnlargeMike McCoy
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsRookie head coach Mike McCoy says he taps into his experience as a player to better prepare him as the Chargers' leader.
According to his college head coach at the University of Utah, Ron McBride, McCoy learned Calgary's entire playbook in a day.

"That's his whole thing -- he's intelligent," McBride said. "He doesn't get rattled. He's confident. He knows what to do. Pressure doesn't bother him. He's the same way coaching. He doesn't get rattled. He has the same demeanor throughout the game."

McCoy led Calgary to the Grey Cup as an injury replacement, losing to Hamilton 32-21. Calgary wanted him back the following season, but at 28 years old, McCoy was ready to relinquish his dream of playing professional football.

Former San Francisco head coach George Seifert had taken a new job as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, offering McCoy a chance to work as an offensive assistant and quarterbacks coach for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

"This was an opportunity of a lifetime," McCoy said. "I had always thought about it, and people had always talked to me about coaching. But to make that jump at such a young age and to work for a great coach like George Seifert and Jerry Richardson, as an owner, I couldn't pass it up."

McCoy quickly switched over to pursuing another dream -- becoming a head coach in the NFL.

Fast forward 14 years later and McCoy has reached his goal. One of eight new head coaches hired in 2013, McCoy is the only one still left in the postseason. That impressive fact is a testament to living up to his word when he first addressed the Chargers after being hired on Jan. 15, 2013.

On his way out the door after being relieved of his head-coaching duties, Norv Turner said San Diego had some serious work to do to once again become a playoff contender. But McCoy proved Turner wrong, leading the Chargers to the playoffs just a year later.

"From the very beginning in the first meeting, it was about us," safety Eric Weddle said. "It's not rebuilding. We're going to do things right, on and off the field. You're going to be a good person, and it's going to transfer over. And the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl.

"From the onset, that's what it's all been -- being confident and believing in each other. Every day he's preached it, consistency and belief, belief, belief -- that we can go in, play with anyone and beat anyone. And when you hear it every day, and the older guys transfer it down and push this team in the right direction, you're capable of doing anything."

McCoy, 41, instituted a dress code for game days, making players wear a suit and tie on road trips, giving birth to Philip Rivers' bolo ties. McCoy's a task master, paying attention to every detail of this team's schedule from sunup to sundown.

McCoy has a tough, no-nonsense attitude. He can be a bit paranoid about injury situations regarding his players, divulging as little information as possible on the status of his star performers heading into a game day.

But he also has built a bond and a trust with the Chargers by showing he cares about them. And that nurturing attitude stems from McCoy's time as a fringe player in the NFL and a star player at the University of Utah.

McCoy went to training camp with Denver in 1995, signing with Green Bay's practice squad that year. He played for NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals, and also spent time in San Francisco and Philadelphia before concluding his career with Calgary in 1999.

In college, McCoy led the Utes to a 10-win season and a 1994 Freedom Bowl victory over the University of Arizona's "Desert Swarm" defense.

"Being a former player you can always relate back to the players," McCoy said. "That is one thing that helps me now. I was very fortunate to only have one injury and it was in college. You see the ups and downs, and the losses you take at certain times that are harder than others."

San Diego's success did not come early. The Chargers hit a season-low at 5-7 during the 2013 campaign, but tight end Antonio Gates said players finally started to believe in McCoy's philosophy and approach.

That belief, along with key players such as King Dunlap, Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram returning to the field, resulted in a five-game winning streak -- and the Chargers being eight quarters away from the Super Bowl.

"Mike is very detailed, and very understanding," Gates said. "I can't say enough about what he brings to this team. The leadership ability that he has, and the ability to keep us poised in tough times, to me all those messages he tried to put out, unfortunately it took time for us to comprehend and buy in. And now we're just at a point where that's happening for us offensively and defensively as a group."


When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

SAN DIEGO -- Sunday’s AFC divisional round contest between the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos will be the rubber match for the AFC West rivals.

Denver took the first contest, a 28-20 victory in which San Diego made a late charge to pull within a score in the fourth quarter. The Chargers surprisingly took the second contest in Denver, 27-20, dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Now the Chargers face the daunting task of playing the Broncos a third time in one season, with a chance to play for an appearance in the Super Bowl on the line. Making the task more difficult, the Chargers face Peyton Manning on two weeks rest and plenty of time to game plan for his opponent.

"You have to do what you do best when you go out there," San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "Every week, regardless of who it is, you’re going to put a few new wrinkles in there. And that’s all part of game planning. You’re more familiar with the opponent. You have a good idea what they’re going to do, but you have to adjust on the fly.”

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said with the endless amount of game tape and statistical information at their disposal, it’s important to not get bogged down with minutia.

“You can almost out think yourself or out plan,” Rivers said. “As a quarterback, I can out think myself, and you out think what they might do or did there, what they did on this situation or that.

“So I think it’s important just to plan like you always have, prepare like you always have, study the same and be prepared for something new. ...You prepare for a wrinkle, and the way you prepare for something new is just by saying that they’re going to throw something new at us. You can’t chase ghosts and start trying to dream up what they may do new.”

The Chargers can lean on the fact that they have had some success in the postseason against Manning. San Diego is 2-0 against Manning-led teams. The Chargers defeated the Indianapolis Colts 28-24 on their way to the AFC title game in 2007. A year later, San Diego beat the Colts in overtime, 23-17 in an AFC wild-card matchup.

The pressure is on Manning to put the finishing touches on a historic season by leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl win. Manning is 9-11 in the playoffs, and has been one-and-done eight times in the postseason, a NFL record in the Super Bowl era.

McCoy said his team is not focused on winning streaks, trends or facing a team a third time. McCoy just wants to win the game in front of him.

“It’s the next step,” McCoy said. “To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. And they’re the No. 1 seed. We are where we are at. And we know who they are, and what type of team they have. It’s going to be a tough test for us. We have to go out and play our best football game.”
CINCINNATI -- It’s been six years since San Diego Chargers running back Ronnie Brown galloped that far on the football field in anger.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChargers RB Ronnie Brown saw his most extensive action of the season on Sunday at Cincinnati.
"A long time, especially for an old guy like myself," Brown said, smiling. "It felt good, but I think the biggest part was us getting a victory. I think it pretty much put the icing on the cake at the end of the game."

Brown's 58-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday sealed a 27-10 playoff win for the Chargers over Cincinnati. Brown hasn’t had a run that far since a 62-yard touchdown scamper in a 38-13 win against New England on Sept. 21, 2008. That season, Brown sometimes served as the Wildcat quarterback for the Dolphins.

The No. 2 overall selection in the 2005 draft for the Dolphins, at 32 years old Brown is one of nine players on San Diego’s roster 30 years old or older.

He helps provide a calming influence in the locker room.

“He shows up to work every day,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "All he does is work and help his teammates out, and that’s all you can ask. He’s a true professional -- a great guy to be around. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Brown’s long run helped contribute to San Diego’s season-high 196 rushing yards against Cincinnati, and was the team’s longest run of the season. Brown finished with eight rushes for 77 yards.

The Chargers might have to take advantage of Brown’s fresh legs even more this Sunday in the team’s AFC divisional round game at Denver.

Workhorse running back Ryan Mathews entered the contest with a balky ankle. Mathews rushed for 52 yards on 13 carries, but gave way to Danny Woodhead and Brown after one carry in the second half.

"We're doing what’s best for the football team," McCoy said, when asked about Mathews' injury status. "We rested him a little this week, as we’ve done the past couple weeks. We’re still playing, so we have to do what’s best for the team moving forward."

What’s best for the team moving forward could mean more carries for a healthy Brown over playing a hobbled Mathews.

Brown should be ready for the increased workload. Besides handling kick return duties, Brown’s played in a total of 14 snaps in the month of December before San Diego’s playoff win against Cincinnati.

“Every guy is important,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Ronnie Brown is a team favorite and a great teammate. He's so unselfish. He’s dressed so many games and not played. When he’s called on, you see why he was picked high in the draft and why he’s had a heck of a career. We’re glad we got him."
Giovani BernardAP Photo/Tom UhlmanThe Chargers' defense stifled the Cincinnati offense by forcing four turnovers.
CINCINNATI -- According to Mike McCoy, the San Diego Chargers executed the rope-a-dope Muhammad Ali made famous on the Cincinnati Bengals.

"A lot of times teams lose the game rather than win it," the San Diego coach said of the Chargers' 27-10 victory. "When you make some mistakes and turn the football over and do certain things, it hurts your football team."

The team McCoy not-so-subtly referred to is the unlucky Bengals. San Diego advanced to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs by expertly sidestepping Cincinnati's initial barrage, ultimately allowing the Bengals to beat themselves by turning the ball over four times and falling for the fifth straight time in the postseason.

Cincinnati entered the contest as a seven-point favorite, but the Chargers performed more like the experienced playoff team from the onset.

It started with the Chargers' unflappable quarterback, Philip Rivers, who didn't try to do too much in his first postseason appearance since 2009.

"Playoff games aren't meant to be pretty," said Rivers, who sported his trademark bolo tie. This one made from elk horn was sent to him by a fan. "You just find a way to win, and we did that in all three phases today."

Rivers was efficient, finishing 12-of-16 for 128 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Ladarius Green. Rivers threw a career-low six times in the first half.

"Rivers played a smart game," Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said. "He didn't force anything. He took what was there."

San Diego's complete effort was punctuated by a surprisingly suffocating defense that limited Cincinnati's potent offense to a season-low 10 points at home. The last time these two teams met, the Bengals bowled over the Chargers for 164 rushing yards in a 17-10 win. But San Diego was ready this time.

"We were talking all week -- if we stopped the run, they weren't going to beat us," Chargers linebacker Reggie Walker said. "We just knew if we made it a passing game, they weren't going to beat us."

The Chargers held Cincinnati to 113 rushing yards, grabbed a 14-10 lead at halftime and extended it to 20-10 with just more than 14 minutes left in the game.

The Chargers forced Andy Dalton to beat them with his arm, and he couldn't do it. Dalton wilted under the steady pressure of San Diego's defensive front. He finished 29-of-51 for 334 yards but also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Dalton was sacked three times and was hit six other times. He finished with a 67 passer rating.

The Bengals had not lost at home this season, averaging 34 points per contest.

"I know we were all glad, and itching to play them again," Walker said. "Thank God we got seeded to play them again. Because of all the teams we wanted to play, we wanted to play them again. We had to get our toughness back, because that was ridiculous.

"We have a great blitz package. So we knew if we could get them in third-and-long, they were not going to beat us."

Need proof that the Chargers have reached the big time? Golfer and San Diego native Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, attended the game on Sunday, and have plans to make it to the Chargers' AFC divisional-round game at Denver next week.

The Chargers could use star power facing Peyton Manning for a third time this season. No doubt, Manning and the Broncos will be ready after losing 27-20 in Denver on Dec. 12, the last time these two teams met.

But the San Diego defense plans on bringing its A-game, too. Aside from holding Denver to a season-low 20 points, this defense has allowed an average of just 16 points a game in the team's past five contests.

"They're going to be ready, but we're going to be ready, too," Walker said. "So we're just going to go in there and put our hard hats on and see what happens. We're not just happy to be playing. We've got a goal, and we're going to go get that."

Added middle linebacker Donald Butler, who finished with a team-high 12 tackles: "All the pressure is on them. We're loose. We're just going to go play and try and win another game."

 


The last time the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals met, both teams were missing key players, they played in a local TV blackout, and they could comfortably compete on a 60-degree, postcard-perfect Southern California afternoon.

Those were the conditions just one month ago Wednesday.

At least one of them could be the same. With ticket uncertainty rolling over into Thursday, Bengals officials have been working hard to avoid the NFL's first postseason blackout since 2002. On the field, the Bengals and Chargers have been working to get back key members of their teams, and are anticipating playing in conditions much less favorable than what they had on the West Coast.

Sunday's playoff game isn't only a rematch of the regular-season game won 17-10 by the Bengals. It also marks the first time the teams have met in the postseason since 1981, when Cincinnati beat San Diego for the AFC championship at old Riverfront Stadium. Because of a minus-59 wind chill, that game was dubbed the "Freezer Bowl." While it shouldn't feel that cold Sunday, conditions will be tough. Snow, freezing rain and rapidly dipping temperatures are in the forecast. The weather could make passing difficult for two teams that rely heavily on their quarterbacks.

To break down Sunday's game, we turn to ESPN.com NFL reporters Eric D. Williams (Chargers) and Coley Harvey (Bengals).

Harvey: One of the Bengals' biggest keys in the first meeting was running the ball. They rushed for 164 yards, having success even late in the game when San Diego clearly knew a run was coming. How can the Chargers prevent Cincinnati from having another prolific ground game?

Williams: First, the Chargers will have two players available who did not play in the first game -- outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram. Both are pretty good run defenders who should help San Diego play more physical up front. Second, the Chargers have to do a better job of maintaining their gaps and not allowing Cincinnati’s talented offensive line to create space for the running backs. Last, the Chargers have to do a better job of wrapping up BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard. Both running backs finished with a lot of yards after contact, as San Diego had trouble bringing down the hard runners in the back end of the defense.

One thing I'm curious about is the Bengals' defense. The Bengals are tied for third in the league in turnovers forced with 31, and have six defensive touchdowns this season, all at Paul Brown Stadium. Why has Cincinnati’s defense been so successful at creating turnovers?

Harvey: If you ask defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- which we did Monday -- he'll say it's because his players just know they have to do whatever is necessary to pick the offense up and to put the ball back in its hands. There have been several instances when a turnover put the Bengals' defense on the wrong side of the 50, needing to come up with a stop. Defensive players say they relish those opportunities, and believe in their ability to not only hold for a field goal, but get the ball back. Cincinnati's defensive line plays a major role in helping create a lot of the fumbles and interceptions. Even after losing Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line has still pressured opposing quarterbacks, forcing poorly thrown balls. The line and linebackers also do a great job of stripping balls and forcing timely fumbles.

I'll add that there is something slightly different about the defense at home. When it comes to turnovers, for example, 21 of the 31 forced by the defense have come at Paul Brown Stadium. As you mentioned, six have resulted in scores. Each of those scores either changed momentum or helped ice the game.

How much do you think playing the Bengals just 35 days ago will benefit the Chargers? They clearly learned something from that loss, and haven’t lost since.

Williams: That is correct -- the Chargers are on a four-game winning streak since losing to the Bengals on Dec. 1. Defensively the Chargers have been stingy, holding teams to just 18 points a contest in the past four games. San Diego has played more consistently on offense, particularly in the red zone, scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Chargers are playing with more confidence now than earlier in the season. Chargers coach Mike McCoy has figured out a blueprint for his team to win on both offense and defense -- a prolific, ball-control offense paired with a bend-but-don’t-break defense that keeps teams out of the end zone.

Philip Rivers finished the regular season tops in the NFL in completion percentage (69.5), fourth in touchdown passes (32) and fifth in passing yards (4,478). The Bengals did a nice job containing Rivers in the first matchup. What will it take for a repeat performance?

Harvey: It's going to take a lot of pressure, and some tight coverage both downfield and near the line of scrimmage. Bengals cornerback Terence Newman was telling reporters this week about what he felt made Rivers special -- his intelligence. As an 11-year veteran, Newman has seen it all. According to Newman, what is most impressive is Rivers' ability to use his eyes to steer linebackers or safeties one way, only to pass another because he knows he has a tight end or running back open in a soft spot the defense isn't covering. Newman stopped short of comparing Rivers to Peyton Manning, but he believes the two have much in common. Members of the Bengals' secondary know they can't just key on his eyes, they have to know where his playmakers are at all times. Members of the Bengals' line know they have to keep hounding Rivers like they have hounded quarterbacks all season.

Rivers is San Diego's household name, but how important have running back Ryan Mathews and receiver Keenan Allen been to the offense?

Williams: The Chargers leaned heavily on Mathews during the second half of the season, with good results. San Diego is 7-1 this season when Mathews has at least 19 carries. He has carried the ball at least 24 times in the past four games, all wins for San Diego. Allen finished the season with 71 receptions for a team-leading 1,046 yards, becoming the first rookie since Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to finish with 1,000 receiving yards. Green had 1,057 in 2011. Mathews keeps defenses honest with his bruising running style, and Allen emerged as Rivers’ go-to receiver when San Diego gets near the red zone. Allen is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with eight.

We've seen the good (33 touchdowns) and the bad (20 interceptions) from Andy Dalton this season. What type of performance do you expect from Dalton on Sunday? And will it matter if he does not play well?

Harvey: Because of how good this defense is, especially at home, I'm not sure it will matter if he plays well Sunday. Last week against the Ravens, Dalton threw four interceptions -- the first came 1 yard outside Baltimore's red zone -- and the defense ended up acting as an eraser and pretending the turnovers never happened. The one interception that came on Cincinnati's 21 resulted in a field goal. An interception on the following drive also resulted in a field goal. Instead of being down 14-0 early, the Bengals trailed 6-0, giving Dalton enough confidence to calm down and make plays when he needed to as the comeback began. I'm expecting another mixed bag from Dalton. Just like last week, he has shown this season that he can pass for 270 yards, three touchdowns and still have three interceptions. I wouldn't be surprised if his nerves are elevated a little at the start of the game, but as long as the defense keeps playing the way it has been and his receivers are not dropping passes, I believe Dalton will come out OK on Sunday.

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