Bolts backers beware: Chargers are off to a bad start

This Sunday was a classic representation of what it means to be a sports fan in America’s Finest City.

The San Diego Chargers, after a nightmarish offseason full of stadium drama and one of the longest holdouts in NFL rookie history, courtesy of first-round draft pick Joey Bosa, were finally getting back on the field. Things were going to be about football again.

The week began with the Chargers naming their captains for the 2016 season. On offense, the team nominated two long-time fan favorites in quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates. Rivers, San Diego’s all-time leader in almost every major career passing category, is coming off what might have been the best year of his illustrious career.

During the 2015 season Rivers threw for 4,792 yards and 29 touchdowns as the heart and soul of the Bolts’ offensive attack.

The 36-year old Gates, despite missing four games because of a suspension for performance enhancing drugs, was one of the quarterback’s primary targets when healthy last year. Gates hauled in 56 catches and 5 touchdowns while battling recurring injuries for most of the season.

Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and linebacker Manti Te’o were the selections for defensive captains. Mebane, an offseason free agent signee of the Chargers, should spend the 2016 season using his 6’1”, 311 lb. frame to fill space and clog running lanes. Meanwhile, Te’o has rebounded from an embarrassing college catfish scandal to emerge as one of the leaders of the Chargers’ defense.

The fourth-year linebacker and former Notre Dame Heisman candidate, who famously had an online girlfriend who turned out to be non-existent, recorded 83 tackles in 2015 and looks primed to take another significant step forward this year.

Finally, the Chargers named Darrell Stuckey a captain for a fifth straight season. Stuckey has established himself as one of the top gunners in the league, routinely drawing double teams from opponents and earning the nod as the team’s best special teams player.

Stuckey, a 2010 fourth round pick, is captain of San Diego's special teams. Photo courtesy of Eric Neitzel/Flickr CC

Stuckey, a 2010 fourth round pick, is captain of San Diego’s special teams. Photo courtesy of Eric Neitzel/Flickr CC

With such a solid group leading the way, the Bolts appeared ready to rebound from a disappointing 2015 season that saw them go 4-12 and finish last in the AFC West. A road game against the Kansas City Chiefs in hostile Arrowhead Stadium was going to serve as a worthy early test for the organization.

For the first half, the Chargers appeared to be more than up to the task. An offense that often experienced frustrating sputters last year went six-for-six on third downs. Running back Melvin Gordon, after not scoring once all last season, crossed the goal line twice for the Bolts early on.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen and quarterback Rivers picked up right where they left off last season when Allen went down with a lacerated kidney, completing passes all over the field. Meanwhile, the defense was swarming around Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, creating pressure and forcing mistakes out of the veteran signal caller.

Out of nowhere, the Chargers looked good, really good. And then, just as suddenly, they didn’t.

Holding a 21-3 lead in the late stages of the second quarter, fourth-year wideout Allen cut to the sideline on a crossing route and crumpled to the ground, holding his knee and grimacing skyward. After being tended to by the Chargers’ training staff, the University of California, Berkeley product was eventually carted off the field and into the locker room, his head in his hands and tears in his eyes.

Early reports soon surfaced that the breakout star had suffered a major knee injury, which were later confirmed as a torn ACL, assuredly sidelining the team’s best receiver for the rest of the season.

Almost immediately after the injury, the wind appeared to rush out of the Chargers’ sails. Offensive drives stalled. Chiefs players started to find larger holes in the Bolts’ defense. Mistakes began to pile up.

After looking like world-beaters for almost 30 minutes of football, the Chargers did what their fans have become accustomed to: blow a 21-point lead and ultimately lose to the Chiefs in overtime. A season that appeared destined to start 1-0 had flipped its script without warning.

It was the kind of collapse that Chargers fans have grown used to over the last year-plus. It was the kind of collapse that leaves fans both young and old shaking their heads in disbelief. More than anything, it was the kind of collapse that does the franchise no favors as it fights for its San Diego life.

Because, as Bolts backers across the county watched the unbelievable become reality on Sunday, it became harder and harder to shake the creeping feeling that none of this really means anything.

The fact of the matter is that, after almost 60 years in San Diego, the Chargers organization could easily be headed north next year to join the Rams in Los Angeles.

Ongoing stadium discussions here in San Diego have resulted in a downtown proposal needing approval from two-thirds of voters on the November ballot to pass. If the stadium initiative doesn’t pass, the Bolts will need to make a decision on a possible L.A. move by mid-January with no real incentive to stay in San Diego.

The current initiative calls for the majority of its funding to come from raised hotel taxes. While this may not have a significant impact on San Diego tourism, as the city’s climate does more than enough to keep visitors coming in, it also wouldn’t have much of a chance of positively impacting the city.

The raised taxes would also create potential animosity with the very hotels that the downtown stadium could eventually call its neighbors. Current projections have the initiative at less than 50 percent approval, meaning a massive turnaround will be required to keep the Bolts by the bay.

The more likely scenario is that 2016 will be the Chargers’ last year in San Diego.  Considering this makes it even more unfortunate that such a swan song would begin the way it did. The numbness that followed that debacle in Kansas City, the kind that can make diehards use “they” instead of “we” when they talk about the hometown team, is something that may not be able to be measured in dollar signs or vote tallies.

Nevertheless, it could be one of the biggest factors eventually pushing the Chargers northward. It’s not the fair-weather fandom that many San Diegans have been accused of, rather a pragmatic insurance against insanity.

And, ultimately, if the Chargers continue to drive their fans to these kinds of lows, week in and week out, is there any reason for those same fans to fight to keep their once-beloved NFL team? If not, we could get used to seeing Qualcomm Stadium half-empty for the rest of the season.

Written by Noah Hilton, Contributor