Man, talk about wishful thinking. It was a month ago, a few hours after the Chargers had lost to the Bills 23-14, another game they should have won. A dozen or so players for what many consider the NFL's most talented team gathered around the bar in a restaurant at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
LaDainian Tomlinson was there, and so were Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Shaun Phillips, among others. Looming was a trans-Atlantic flight to London, where they would play the Saints -- a flight that suddenly seemed a lot longer after the loss left San Diego 3-4. A round of drinks -- some alcoholic, some not -- was ordered, and the players held them up and toasted, "To 9-0."
Well, 9-0 disappeared a week later in a 37-23 loss to the Saints. And 8-0 was gone two weeks after that, with an 11-10 loss to Pittsburgh. And soon 6-0 was down the drain, too, after the Colts beat San Diego 23-20 at home. Now the Chargers' only salvation is that the AFC West is so terrible that at 4-7, one of the league's biggest underachievers is still playoff eligible.
"We're alive," GM A.J. Smith said this week.
Strange as San Diego's season has been, the Chargers also have been an example of the defining story of the year: the gap between the league's best coaches and the pretty good ones. Every team has faced adversity and injuries. The teams with the very best coaches have survived.
The Patriots lost the league's reigning MVP, Tom Brady, but Bill Belichick's team has gone 7-4 with Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a game since high school. Mike Shanahan has lost six tailbacks but has one-dimensional Denver limping along at 6-5, despite Sunday's 31-10 pasting at Invesco Field by the Raiders. Tom Coughlin has had the Giants ready every week, despite the fact that they are the defending champs and have played without standout defensive ends Michael Strahan (retirement) and Osi Umenyiora (knee injury) all season and without
their top receiver and top tailback for stretches. This might be Tony Dungy's fourth-best Indianapolis team, but the Colts probably are playoff-bound. Pittsburgh can't protect Ben Roethlisberger, but Mike Tomlin still has the Steelers at 8-3. Jon Gruden and his Bucs lost Ernest Graham, last season's workhorse, and are 8-3.
Meanwhile, teams you'd figure would have the talent to overcome injuries -- hello, Chargers and Cowboys! -- have been hampered. Losing linebacker Shawne Merriman was a huge blow to the Chargers' defense. So was the loss of defensive end Luis Castillo. And Tomlinson hasn't been himself since injuring a toe. But San Diego's defense has been a mess, costing coordinator Ted Cottrell his job. Smith has been determined to build the Chargers through the draft, thus stockpiling depth, but Norv Turner, who reached the AFC title game last season -- his first as San Diego's coach -- hasn't been able to coach through those injuries to wins.
Same in Dallas. Be honest: Before the season, which team would you have said had a better quarterback situation, the Pats with Brady and Cassel, or Dallas with Tony Romo and Brad Johnson? Many would have said Dallas. But when Romo missed a month, Wade Phillips' Cowboys, despite being loaded with Pro Bowlers, could barely complete a pass.
Such underachieving naturally has led to speculation that Turner and Phillips should be fired. They shouldn't. Whom would ownership hire who would be better? The problem is, coaching is like any other profession. There are a lot of bad head coaches, guys who are glorified coordinators, like the Lions' Rod Marinelli. There are a few good ones, like Herm Edwards. And there are some really good ones and very few truly great ones. Turner and Phillips are really good but not among the top in their profession, at least not yet.
The Chargers, for their part, aren't only the league's most talented team. They also are the most snake-bitten. It started in Week 1, when the Panthers beat them at the buzzer. Then in Week 2 against Denver, there was the season's most infamous blown call: Jay Cutler's "incomplete pass" late in the fourth quarter. And it continued in Week 12 against the Colts, when on fourth down, a ref picked cornerback Quentin Jammer and Peyton Manning capitalized, hitting Marvin Harrison for a first down.
Turner has made his share of mistakes -- such as poor clock management at the end of the Colts game -- but the refs haven't helped him out. If the Chargers hope to make the playoffs, all Turner can do is overcome all the factors he can control and try to overcome those he can't. That's what the very best coaches do.
That, and maybe propose a toast to 5-0.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com