At 0-4 after Week 4, the Los Angeles Chargers' bandwagon was in flames on the side of the road. The offense and defense hadn't quite been woeful, but special teams were destroying the season. Through Week 4, their special-teams DVOA was negative 14.3 percent. We've seen worse over the years, but not by much. The Chargers ranked among the 25 worst special-teams performances to start a season since 1989. Younghoe Koo missed game-winning kicks in both of the first two weeks of the season, in a pair of games the Chargers lost by a combined five points.
To "Charger" became a phrase synonymous with "to lose games in an unexplainably weird way," and StubHub Center road team attendance became a punchline.
It's never easy to predict a comeback from the brink for any team that starts 0-4. Since 1989, just one team has started 0-4 and made the playoffs: the 1992 San Diego Chargers. However, if there was any team we should have seen as ready to rebound up the standings, it was this one.
The Chargers were one of just seven teams in the DVOA era to start the season 0-4 with a DVOA above negative 10 percent. At 9.6 percent, they had the highest offensive DVOA ever for an 0-4 team. And, unlike the rest of these teams, special teams were the No. 1 reason why they were struggling. (DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average, is Football Outsiders' proprietary stat that compares success on every NFL play to a baseline adjusted for situation and opponent, explained further here.)
Los Angeles still has poor special teams -- through this week we have the Chargers as 31st in the league, barely ahead of Denver -- but its special teams begin to look a bit better when you look at the kicker struggles in a vacuum, isolating the Koo games, as well as Thanksgiving, when Nick Novak hurt himself attempting a field goal. The Chargers have still been way below average in punt and kickoff coverage, but with current kicker Travis Coons seemingly competent, this unit isn't the sieve it was early in the season.
Otherwise, the talent that made this team a preseason darling is still quite evident.
A fierce pass defense keyed by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram is sixth in DVOA, with both players in the top 20 of pass pressures generated according to Sports Info Solutions' charting. A secondary that could already rely on last year's league leader in interceptions, Casey Hayward, was tested when starting corner Logan Verrett went down early in the season. But the depth has shown up in a huge way for the Chargers. Undrafted free agent Trevor Williams, a cornerback who converted from wide receiver early in his college career at Penn State, has stepped in and solved almost all of the drop-off outside. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Williams is 19th among all qualifying corners in success rate when targeted. Not bad for a guy with five career starts before the season. Desmond King has also been phenomenal as an in-the-box defensive back. He has an even higher success rate than Williams (though not enough targets to qualify for a ranking), and has added four sacks and a pick-six. This is a guy the Chargers pilfered in the fifth round.
The Chargers are third in pass offense DVOA, and it's a number that's only been improving as we get further into the season. Three of Los Angeles' first six games resulted in a passing DVOA of 10.3 percent or lower. Since Week 7, the Chargers have been firing on all cylinders, and their lowest game pass offense DVOA over that span is 25.6 percent against Cleveland. A healthy Keenan Allen, combined with better usage of second-year tight end Hunter Henry, has settled each of the Chargers' receiving targets into his optimal role. Philip Rivers' arm seems to falter here or there, but he still makes the pre-snap reads with the best of them, and when he gets as hot as he's been since November, this offense can look unstoppable in stretches.
When you think of coaching clichés from the 1990s, the type we're all bathed in as we watch studio announcers and color guys from that era, you may think of sayings such as "teams win with good special teams" or "you have to run the ball and stop the run to win." The Chargers are not subscribers to these statements. They are a team of extremes. They throw the ball well when Rivers is protected, and they stop the pass on the other end. But they have the 29th-ranked DVOA run offense, as Melvin Gordon and the gang have struggled to run the ball, and they have the 26th-ranked run defense DVOA as well. That the Chargers are succeeding in spite of these flaws says a lot about how the modern NFL has shifted toward the pass, even if you wouldn't know it by listening to some of the ex-players who have the microphone.
Los Angeles can go a long way toward punching its ticket to the playoffs by handling Kansas City on Saturday. It's a matchup that, despite being on the road, sets up well for L.A. Kareem Hunt has barely run on any functional defense since Week 5, and the Chiefs' pass defense is in utter shambles. Past that, games with the Bryce Petty Jets and the reeling Raiders look promising for the Chargers to complete the worst-to-first leap.
But the sights are even higher now. We know that the AFC is a wasteland. We know that outside of the Patriots, Steelers and Jacksonville's defense, there's not much to fear. The Chargers are well-positioned not only to nab a playoff spot, but to be a major contender in the AFC playoffs. Some AFC playoff contenders can throw, and some can stop the pass -- but nobody but Los Angeles can do both exceptionally.
This has been an unprecedented comeback from 0-4, but it could be that the Chargers have even more unprecedented history to write.
That is, provided they don't "Charger" these last three games.