The San Diego Chargers are attempting to recover from their worst season in a dozen years – 4-12 – and they are at a crossroads.
With the main road going out of town.
Their front office is behaving so stupidly that the most offensive four-letter word in sports comes to mind: tank. As in trying to lose to create a more lucrative future for the owner of the team. Could it be that Dean Spanos would prefer to move to Los Angeles, where the franchise began in 1960?
Spanos, 66, is wrecking a promising season before it can start. When their preseason opened Saturday, in a 27-10 loss to Tennessee, the Chargers still hadn’t signed their first-round draft pick – and No. 3 overall – Joey Bosa of Ohio State.
Bosa is a 6-5, 270-pound defensive end whose collegiate play bore striking resemblance to J.J. Watt’s. He may have the skill set to transform a 3-4 defense that last year was pushed almost into the Pacific. He clearly was missed Saturday, when the Titans romped for 288 yards on the ground.
Spanos and sons A.G. and John, who run day to day operations of the franchise, want Bosa to defer payment of part of a $17 million signing bonus which he would lose if he’s cut before the deal is finished. “Deferred bonus” sounds oxymoronic. Is it a bonus if you don’t get it now? But this practice is common in the NFL, with teams always seeking insurance against a precipitous decline or debilitating injury by a highly paid player.
Because the football players’ union has about as much muscle as a quilting club, Bosa has no bargaining power. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, rookie salaries are capped and basically predetermined. The Players Association is more concered about the rights of the current union members than those of the incoming ones.
The Chargers are going to win the battle, but they’re going to lose the season.
They are not treating a first-round draft pick the way most teams do. Sources close to Bosa say they’re creating bitterness that will endure. According to the Bosa camp, the team’s management has refused to respond to their counter-offer submitted two weeks ago. In four months of negotiating, there’s been no discernible progress.
As Bosa sees it, the team is supremely disrespecting him. Even though the Chargers haven’t done very well with their first-round draft picks over the past decade, all of them have lasted through the end of their five-year rookie contracts.
So why the worry over Bosa?
A little trust could go far. And signing Bosa might help motivate San Diego’s voters to pass a $1.15 billion tax bill to build the arena Dean Spanos wants. And in truth, needs. Qualcomm Stadium is 49 years old and clearly past its prime.
Under California law, a tax bill requires a two-thirds majority to be enacted, though its proponents are challenging that law in federal court. They’re also arguing that their tax is exempted from the two-thirds rule because the burden will not fall on them but on visitors to their most appealing of cities. A hotel tax would jump from 12.5% to 16.5%.
Needless to say, the hotel industry opposes this referendum. The Chargers are not the city’s major tourist attraction. Not with the world’s greatest zoo and perhaps the country’s most vibrant restaurant scene, plus the beaches and the quaint Gaslight Quarter all beckoning, and the climate spectacular excent when the June Gloom descends.
Passage of this tax bill won’t be easy. Protestors complain that owner Spanos is putting up barely half the cost himself: $650 million. Spanos points out, however, in a television ad, that “the new facility will be much more than a stadium,” that the downtown project will include a convention center.
But by poisoning the atmosphere with his hardballing of Bosa, Spanos makes you wonder if his stadium pitch is a sham. Is he doing just enough to gain approval from fellow owners for his short jump to LA?
Lovely as San Diego is, LA is the big money pot, and the suspicion is that’s what Spanos is eyeing. In January, he reached a tentative deal with the Los Angeles Rams to share their privately funded $2.6 billion stadium scheduled to open in Inglewood for the 2017 season. Spanos has an option to close on that deal in January if San Diego’s bond election fails on Nov. 8.
Chargers fans feel blackmailed, like those of the erstwhile St. Louis Rams, who relocated in the off-season, and those of the Oakland Raiders, formerly of Los Angeles and now flirting with Las Vegas.
A tragedy seems to be unfolding where a happy ending seemed possible, with just a little better effort from management.
While the Bolts lost 12 games last season, eight were by 7 or fewer points. And this is a football team that has the one essential ingredient for success: an elite quarterback. Philip Rivers is among the most feared and fearless of gunslingers. He doesn’t throw a pretty spiral like Carson Palmer, and he shot-puts the ball downfield in the most unorthodox delivery. But no one is more accurate short, middle and long.
Operating behind a battered offensive line and throwing to 15 receivers because so many were injured, Rivers last season accumulated 4,792 yards – more than Tom Brady or any other AFC passer.
Rivers is 34, still in his glory but only two or three years from quarterbacking twilight.
Tom Telasco, the Chargers’ 42-year-old general manager, upgraded the O-line by signing 30-year-old free-agent Matt Slauson, ex-Chicago Bear. He’s starting at center and brings feistiness and toughness as well as experience.
Rivers’ favorite target, Keenan Allen, missed half of last season to injury after catching 67 catches. He’s healthy now, but the capable slot receiver Stevie Johnson is lost for the year after suffering a knee injury in the second practice of the preseason.
Rivers, like Brady and Drew Brees, will complete passes and move the ball regardless of who’s running the routes. And the offense will benefit from the return of Ken Whisenhunt as coordinator. He directed the attack in 2013, when Rivers had his best season.
Whisenhunt is committed to making a running and receiving threat out of Melvin Gordon, who never got untracked as last season’s first-round draft pick. He looked better Saturday, taking a screen pass from Rivers 44 yards to a touchdown.
So the main issue on this team is defense. Telasco beefed up the run-stopping by signing ex-Seattle Seahawks nose tackle Brandon Mebame. The plan was to flank him with Bosa and the talented 26-year-old Corey Liuget.
The Chargers have rising stars at linebacker in Melvin Ingram and Denzel Perryman. And at cornerback Jason Verrett could be about to turn into Josh Norman.
But Bosa is a critical piece. He needs to be learning the schemes and stunts of John Pagano’s playbook. He needs to win the trust of veteran players, some of whom have criticized him for a holdout they view as selfish and futile. Time is running out. If the Chargers are going to make anything of this season, they need to get Bosa in camp and assimilated.
Otherwise, their future is in Los Angeles. Maybe that’s the idea.
Alan Truex formerly covered the NFL for the Atlanta Journal and Houston Chronicle. His beats included the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys.