The NFL is a “quarterbacks league” more than ever but let’s not forget this: Football is a team game that involves several dozens of people per side.
San Diegans of all people shouldn’t need this reminder after seeing the Chargers lean on one or two very good quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Philip Rivers for the better part of two recent decades but also fail to reach even one Super Bowl.
The only Chargers team that went to a Super Bowl had Stan Humphries, not Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, as his quarterback. Humphries was neither a top-tier passer nor a threat to run. He was very tough, a pervasive trait on the Bobby Beathard-constructed, Bobby Ross-coached 1994 Bolts.
So while quarterbacks are hugely important to NFL success — certainly far more influential than an ace pitcher is to an MLB team — it bears remembering that some 60 players will carry a team’s season. Twenty coaches, minimum, will work for the same club.
Here’s another way to look at it: It takes a sharp organization, not just a very good quarterback, to go far in most years.
Rightfully with the Chargers this year, there’s skepticism that goes beyond the franchise’s uninspiring track record.
That’s because at quarterback, for the first time since 2000, neither Brees nor Rivers is on the roster.
Realistically, the team’s limitations at quarterback make the Chargers a long shot to win the AFC West, where the rival Chiefs employ the best quarterback going in Patrick Mahomes. And even if coach Anthony Lynn’s team were to snag a wild-card berth, the same limitations figure to show up in the Super Bowl tournament.
But I don’t think life without Rivers has to be dismal, though certainly many San Diegans would love to see Team Spanos, coming off a 5-11 season, do another face plant in Greater Los Angeles.
While it’s true Rivers having moved on to the Colts spells trouble in two aspects for the Bolts — his passing and durability were far better than that of Tyrod Taylor, the presumptive replacement — it’s also true Rivers was unable to lead his team to an AFC West title in his final 10 years with the franchise.
Ten years is a long cycle in the NFL, where losing teams are awarded higher draft slots and a salary cap further punishes success.
You can ascribe the stunning 0-for-10 to the organization or Rivers or both — as I do — but the fact remains: Despite Rivers never missing a significant snap, let alone a game, the Chargers never won the four-team divisional race after Norv Turner’s third team prevailed in 2009.
Launching the post-Rivers era, Taylor won’t scare opponents. In contrast to Rivers, an eight-time Pro Bowler, he won’t get any Hall of Fame votes. The Chargers are his fourth team from him. His game of it skews toward serviceable.
The mobile 31-year-old is holding the job until he gets hurt or Chargers bosses decide it’s time to start rookie Justin Herbert, in whom they invested the No. 6 draft pick and $26.5 million fully guaranteed.
Yet even if Taylor isn’t a long-term answer as the starter, there’s a not-unrealistic happy scenario for the 2020 Chargers.
For proof, see the 2017 Buffalo Bills team quarterbacked by Taylor that snapped the longest playoff drought in North American team sports.
The Bills were less talented than the ’17 Chargers including at quarterback, but nonetheless beat them out for the AFC’s final wild-card spot.
Simply, the Bills got more out of their talent while the Chargers underachieved despite enjoying good health and getting many breaks via opponents’ setbacks.
“I think it boiled down to leadership on the offensive side and the defensive side, and even from our (rookie) head coach in Coach (Sean) McDermott,” Taylor said Friday in a video chat with reporters.
Here’s something else the ’17 Bills did under Taylor: They beat the Chiefs in Kansas City.
Admittedly the opposing quarterback wasn’t Mahomes, but winning in Kansas City, one game after losing to the Chargers by 30 points in Week 11, reflected well on the Bills’ resilience.
Buffalo’s strongest unit was its defense, a unit that held the Alex Smith Chiefs to 10 points.
Know this: The current Chargers D is more talented than that Bills D.
Taylor said the ’17 Bills understood how to win.
“We didn’t think too far ahead, and we didn’t let losses keep us in a funk; we were able to bounce back and just continue to keep pressing forward, and that’s a true testament to good teams,” he said. “There are going to be ups and downs. But the teams who weather them the most and continue to stay focused on the goal at hand have the best chances.”
Taylor mustered imported resilience. A week after rookie Nathan Peterman got the start in Carson, a bizarre choice by McDermott that backfired spectacularly, Taylor started and finished the game at Kansas City.
Later with Taylor hobbled, the Bills won a key game behind their defense, Peterman and third-string QB Joe Webb. Taylor led them to an 8-6 record in his 14 starts, comparable to his 14-14 record over the previous two years.
As a former sixth-round draft pick entering his 10th NFL season, Taylor is an overachiever. As a backup to Joe Flacco for the 2012 Ravens team that would win the Super Bowl, in no small part because of the infamous “Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle” conversion on fourth-and-29 in Mission Valley, he understands NFL teams can morph into a whole that exceeds the parts. As a former childhood friend of former sports stars such as NFL quarterback Michael Vick and NBA point guard Allen Iverson, who grew up near him in Virginia, he said he’s grateful to have made good on his childhood goal to become an NFL or NBA trigger man .
Even so, he can’t expect to hold the job past October should the Chargers’ offense resemble the last offense Taylor directed, a dysfunctional Browns outfit in 2018.
In fairness, Browns coaches Hue Jackson and coordinator Todd Haley were at odds and the blocking unit was below average.
Taylor, convicted, exited in the second quarter of the third game. Whatever the reasons for it, the ’18 Browns fared much better under rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield (and interim head coach Freddie Kitchens) than they did under Taylor.
“A lot of things happened in Cleveland that were out of my control,” Taylor said, “but that never changed my attitude toward what I can do and toward the team.”
Reuniting with Lynn, a Bills assistant coach on offense for his first two years in Buffalo, allowed Taylor a year to reboot his career without having to start. He said his admiration for him for Rivers grew further after spending a year as his backup for him, one of several roles he’s handled in nine NFL seasons.
“I’ve been through a lot,” said Taylor, “and those moments definitely have prepared me for the opportunity I have now.”
Just as Rivers is better off with the Colts, who have a strong blocking unit and no team like the Chiefs in their neighborhood, Taylor has it fairly good, too.
With a strong defense to lean on, not to mention a top receiver tandem in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams plus an improved blocking unit, there’s enough talent on hand for the Chargers to finish second in the West and perhaps challenge the Chiefs.