Chargers Hope To Keep Winning Streak Alive in Playoffs
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Chargers fever is once again a recognized psychological condition in San Diego. Yesterday’s win over the Washington Redskins brings the Chargers’ winning streak to 11 games. Now the AFC West champs will show us what they can do in the playoffs. The team’s turnaround from a lackluster start this season has gotten many people asking who deserves the credit. Here with us to talk about all things Chargers is my guest Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, sports talk show host on XX1090 and a sports columnist for SDNN.com. Lee, welcome.
LEE “HACKSAW” HAMILTON (Sports Talk Show Host): Good morning. Happy New Year, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Happy New Year back at you. So who deserves the credit for the Chargers’ exceptional play?
HAMILTON: Well, I think the coaching staff more than anything else, although I think you have to give kudos also to the general manager. A.J. Smith has done a pretty good job putting a lot of quality young players in place but it’s the coaching staff that has to really, quote, coach them up, in NFL terminology. And Norv Turner and his staff, I think, have done a phenomenal job considering the adversity. It’s one thing historically—Norv has had great success with quarterbacks as witnessed by what he got Troy Aikman to evolve into with the Dallas Cowboys, and he’s had great success with Philip Rivers statistically and the explosiveness of the offense, but I think that lost in all the conversation about, you know, scores and winning streaks, etcetera, is the fact they coached through some unbelievable adversity. They had so many injuries early in the season. They had so many new players they had to plug in. They were bringing in what we call, in NFL jargon, street free agents, guys who were unemployed, brought them in, plugged them in. They played well. They coached up a bunch of young guys they had to play when their veterans got hurt in the offensive line. I think it’s the best coaching job Norv Turner has ever done in his career, and he’s done some pretty good things with pretty good players other places in the NFL. So this coaching staff, I think, deserves phenomenal accolades.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, along those lines, Lee, yesterday, since it wasn’t a crucial game for the Chargers, a lot of the backup players played yesterday against the Redskins. And I wonder, were you surprised at how well the team’s backups actually played yesterday?
HAMILTON: Yeah, I really was. I was on the road because they do NFL football on weekends for the NFL Radio Network, and I was actually in Tampa Bay doing a Buccaneers’ game yesterday afternoon but I was keeping an eye on the out of town scoreboard. And I thought that once Washington got the lead, well, I thought to myself, Washington’ll probably win this game because they’re playing all their starters.
HAMILTON: But the Chargers came back. They came back with their backup quarterback Billy Volek. They came back with an awful lot of their younger players getting playing time and it was a nice victory. It’s nice to continue the momentum, you know. You’d hate to think that they’d get this winning streak snapped. You know, we’ve just come through a couple of weeks of controversy with the Indianapolis Colts who, two weeks ago, benched their players and wound up seeing their 14 game winning streak go down the drain.
HAMILTON: And Indianapolis has taken an awful lot of criticism for not keeping their veteran players on the field and going for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of maybe being a 19 and 0 football team, and nobody has ever, ever done that. So there’s a little bit of heat being directed at Indianapolis. But San Diego won it with their backups. Now they get the bye week, which is hugely important, and then they get ready for the second round.
CAVANAUGH: Before we start talking about the playoffs, what would you like to say about the play of quarterback Philip Rivers? He really seems to be the heart and soul of this team.
HAMILTON: Well, he’s a football junkie. He comes from a family which his father’s a head football coach. He speaks a very different language. He speaks Norv Turner’s language. You know, if I were looking for one thing to define Philip Rivers right now, it’s MVP. I think he may well be, if this team goes to the Super Bowl, he may well have a chance to be the Most Valuable Player in the National Football League. He is on a course to break all the Dan Fouts records. We could be, in all honestly, Maureen, looking at two Hall of Fame players on this team right now.
HAMILTON: One, Rivers. The other obviously is going to be LaDainian Tomlinson. So, you know, Rivers has just come at a very fast pace. He’s an intellect. He’s a fiery leader. He’s a tough guy. He’s a compassionate guy and I think he’s just really quality.
CAVANAUGH: And really on display yesterday was the defense, and they’re playing well right now. They had some early season struggles, though.
HAMILTON: Well, the big issue, if you reflect back, and I think we chatted a couple of times here on KPBS was they got ravaged by injuries early.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Yeah.
HAMILTON: They lost 10 players with injuries in the first two weeks of the season. It was a horrific setback. And, you know, by the time we got to the end of October, this team was 2 and 3, and this team looked like a shell of what it could’ve been and everybody was using – utilizing the favorite comment, you know, window of opportunity is fast closing.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, they were. I remember that.
HAMILTON: So – but all of a sudden they found young players who they coached up. They got – made them very competitive in the offensive line. They brought in a bunch of unsigned, veteran journeymen free agents, plugged them into the defensive front. And collectively, on both those lines of scrimmage, the team got better and better as they went and that’s why we are right now with an 11 game winning streak.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as you mentioned, the Chargers have a first round bye in the playoffs and, of course, that means they don’t have to play the first game of the playoffs. What – who are – I’m wondering, you said that that was huge for the Chargers. Why is it so big?
HAMILTON: Well, it is such a grind. These guys have been going at it since July almost nonstop. They are, you know, they’re banged up. Everybody in the NFL is banged up this late in the season. But for them to have a bye week, it’s going to get them off the field. It’ll get them off their legs. It will help them physically, because they’ve still got a bunch of guys that are dinged up, you know, playing. It’ll help them physically, and it’s going to help them emotionally. I mean, it’s like a day at the beach. It’s a day on the golf course. And, you know, they’ll – they’re going to sit out – They had four days off last week. They’re going to get probably three more days this week before they go back on the field for limited workouts towards the end of this, quote, bye week. It’s just huge. I mean, it’s like going on vacation and not worrying about anything and then coming back at the end of the week, so that the bye week historically has really helped playoff teams.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, so who are the teams that they might face during the second round of the playoffs?
HAMILTON: Well, the way the wildcard situation is shaping up right now, we’ve got a weird set of circumstances. Because the New York Jets won yesterday against Cincinnati and Cincinnati’s catching some flack for laying down on the job and letting the Jets win, it was a meaningless game. It’s odd. Cincinnati is going to play the Jets again this coming weekend…
HAMILTON: …in a playoff game. But now this game’ll have significant meaning. This game will be played in Cincinnati, so I got to believe the Bengals are probably going to win that one. The other wildcard weekend game is going to have the New England Patriots against the Baltimore Ravens, and Baltimore is really rolling. New England has been on a roll but the Patriots yesterday suffered a horrible loss. They lost their leading receiver, Wes Welker, with two torn knee ligaments. And there’s a question about New England’s coaching staff elected to play all their starters in a meaningless game, and they lost Wes Welker who had 123 catches this season. So that’s a huge setback, which suddenly changes the whole equation. I really still believe as, you know, as we get to the second round and then we go to the AFC Championship game, I still believe San Diego is going to play at Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game a couple of weeks from now. And the winner, of course, of that game will go on to the Super Bowl. It will be interesting, though, to see what happens in Indianapolis. They’ve now lost back-to-back games. They got beat in a blizzard yesterday in Washington. They sat their players again. So Indianapolis, which at one point was 14 and 0…
HAMILTON: …has now lost back-to-back games.
HAMILTON: So you wonder if can they get their edge back, can they get their momentum back? And, of course, they, like the Chargers, have a bye week but I think they will, and I still think three weeks from now you and I are going to be talking about San Diego and Indy at Lucas Field in Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game.
CAVANAUGH: Now besides the injuries and being banged up as you’re talking about, what are the real challenges that the Chargers face as they head into the playoffs?
HAMILTON: I don’t think there are any…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, great.
HAMILTON: …in all honesty. I mean, they have come together collectively. Offensively, they are a tremendously dynamic team throwing the ball down the field. They’re not running it as they used to run it five years ago with LaDainian Tomlinson. But this has become a pass first, run second football team. They can still get yards on the board but they’re going to throw the football down the field with the leader, Philip Rivers. Are there some concerns? Yeah, there’s – there are concerns defensively. You know, can they stop the run? Well, at the end of the day, though, if we look at the teams that are in the AFC playoffs, very few of them run the football very effectively. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem because I think the AFC is very much a throwing conference. So it’s – I think that they’ve come together and they’re going to get this bye week and get healthy and they’ve got every component, they’re firing on all cylinders and, you know, barring turnovers or an injury in the next two weeks, I got to believe this team has got as good a chance, if not better a chance, as anybody going to the Super Bowl.
CAVANAUGH: Now you gave high praise to the Chargers’ head coach, Norv Turner. I understand there are some head coaches in the NFL that have already been fired today. Can you tell us about that?
HAMILTON: Yeah, we call it Black Monday, and it happened very quickly. The Washington Redskins got off the plane in the nation’s capital, after coming back cross country after the last minute loss to the Chargers, at 2:00 a.m. Their coaching staff was called to a meeting at Redskins Park when they deplaned. They fired everybody at 4:30 this morning.
HAMILTON: It’s a cruel part but we knew this was coming, that that was an ill-fitted Washington coaching staff. Within the last hour, the Buffalo Bills fired their entire coaching staff. Of course, they had axed their head coach, Dick Jauron, about six weeks ago. And today they made it official, they cleaned house. And, of course, they’ve already hired a new general manager, a former Charger assistant by the name of Buddy Nix, and he will be hiring a new head coach there. So we’ve got Washington and Buffalo with openings on Black Monday. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Tampa Bay. They finished 3 and 13 yesterday with a very, very young team. Their coach is only in his first year. There are rumors everywhere where he, Morris, could be fired. I think most of the other places have pretty much settled down. So Jacksonville lost 4 in a row at the end of the season but their coach, Jack Del Rio, is owed a lot of money and still got, I think, three years left on his contract. But I would say what just happened and what might happen in Tampa might be pretty much the extent of any coaching changes.
CAVANAUGH: I want to close out with, I guess you could call it sort of the last gasp of the sports holiday season, the college Bowl games. They come to an end this week. Tonight the TCU Horned Frogs take on the Boise State Broncos in the Fiesta Bowl. Can you give us a preview of that matchup?
HAMILTON: It’s been a very strange Bowl season, Maureen. We’ve had weird games. We’ve had bad games. We’ve…
HAMILTON: …we’ve got coaching controversies, the firing of the coach at Texas Tech for abusive players right before their Bowl game. It’s just really been strange. We get to the Fiesta Bowl in the Valley of the Sun and it’s going to be a doozy tonight. Boise State is 13 and 0. TCU is 12 and 0. Two very high-powered football teams. In fact, this game probably is going to be more exciting than the BCS National Championship game that’s going to come up on Thursday.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right. That – Yeah, why is that?
HAMILTON: Well, just that Alabama, as they get ready to play Texas, Alabama is a very good defensive team but, you know, defensive football, quarterback sacks and takeaways, is not real sexy to watch. They don’t have a great offense at Alabama even though they do have the Heisman Trophy running back Mark Ingram. But I think that will be a defensive struggle. Texas has a very good quarterback but that’s all they have. They have no running game. And I got to believe it’s going to wind up being a field goal kicking contest and normally if you say, hey, national championship will be decided by kickers, that turns out to be boring football. That’s why I think tonight’s game is going to be so exciting. Names to watch: Boise State’s got a great young quarterback Kellen Moore. They’re averaging 44 points per game. TCU’s got a great defense, actually the number one defense in the entire country. And, of course, we get to see them when they play San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference. So I think Boise State-TCU is going to be a fun Bowl game to watch.
CAVANAUGH: So that’s tonight. That’s the Fiesta Bowl. And the other one you were talking about, Alabama versus Texas Longhorns, is the BCS National Championships that comes up on Thursday. You know, I got to tell you, Lee, there’s one thing during the discussion of the Chargers that you did not mention. You did not mention two words. You did not mention Super Bowl, and everybody’s talking about that. What do you think about that?
HAMILTON: Oh, I think they have as good a chance as anybody. I will tell you it’s hard to win in Indianapolis and by virtue of their slow start, they’re going to have to go back to Indianapolis and beat the Colts on their turf. And this is a very good Indianapolis football team. Peyton Manning is just obliterating the NFL passing records, and they’re playing great, great football at home. They’re very explosive. But then so is San Diego. What I probably should mention is Philip Rivers versus Peyton Manning…
HAMILTON: …the Chargers’ quarterback has beaten him three of the four times they’ve played.
HAMILTON: And San Diego has won in Indy at the old Hoosier Dome a couple of years ago. So I think they have as good a chance as anybody. They’re on a roll. They’re probably the hottest team on a roll of any of the teams in the AFC or the NFC. You know, the great story would be Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, San Diego-New Orleans Super Bowl. A couple of weeks ago I could’ve imagined that but, you know, on the other side of the street, New Orleans is staggering defensively.
HAMILTON: They’ve lost three games in a row here at the end of the season. At one point, they were 13 and 0 before their bubble was burst.
HAMILTON: So there’s so many great storylines to talk about but I don’t look forward to the Super Bowl. Let’s just take it one week at a time and a couple of week from now you and I’ll be getting together and, hopefully, I’ll be able to say show me your lightning bolt ‘cause we’re going to Miami.
CAVANAUGH: All right. All right, thank you so much, Lee.
HAMILTON: Maureen, thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, sports talk show host on XX1090 and a sports columnist for SDNN.com. Please tell us your comments. You can go online at KPBS.org/TheseDays. And stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes. You’re listening to These Days right here on KPBS.