By Don Wanlass
For six seasons, the Los Angeles Chargers have struggled to make a dent in the Los Angeles sports market.
Like the Clippers in basketball, the Chargers are the second team in the market in football behind the Los Angeles Rams, who also own the stadium the Chargers call home.
But as the 2023 National Football League season begins this week, the Chargers are equipped to become the best NFL team in town this year. Whether they are able to take that step up remains to be seen.
The Chargers were 10-7 last season, good enough for second place in the AFC West behind the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. But the Chargers fell on their collective faces in the second half of the wild card round of the playoffs, blowing a 27-0 lead and losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-30 on a last-second field goal.
The team replaced both coordinators in the offseason, turning the offense over to Kellen Moore, who comes over from the Dallas Cowboys; and the defense over to Derrick Ansley, who was the defensive backs coach the last two seasons.
The Chargers have a lot of offensive weapons for Moore to tinker with. Justin Herbert has a shiny new contract entering his fourth year in the league and will be expected to continue to improve and take the Chargers farther in the playoffs.
In three seasons, he has thrown for 14,089 yards and 95 touchdowns, marks that stack up against the best first three years of most NFL quarterbacks.
He has fine receivers in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Running back Austin Ekeler has scored more touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL over the last two seasons. If the offensive line stays healthy, the Chargers should score a lot of points.
And if Joey Boza and Derwin James stay healthy, the Chargers defense will be able to keep other teams from scoring more often than not.
The main problem for the Chargers is that they play in the same division as the Chiefs. They also must play the Denver Broncos twice, with their new head coach Sean Payton trying to recapture the old Russell Wilson.
The Chargers open the season against the Miami Dolphins Sept. 10 at SoFi Stadium. The Dolphins are coming off a 9-8 season in which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was sidelined for several games because of concussion issues.
The Dolphins are in the much-improved AFC East, fighting for playoff seeding against the Buffalo Bills and the improved New York Jets.
They will provide quality opposition to give the Chargers an idea of where they are among the top teams in the AFC this year. After the Dolphins, the Chargers go on the road for two weeks against the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings.
That is followed by a home game against the Las Vegas Raiders and the team’s bye week. If the Chargers aren’t 3-1 by the bye week, good luck this season.
Herbert will be the key. He will be playing in a new offensive system under Moore, who is expected to open up the offense to take advantage of the skill players Herbert has to distribute the ball.
The Rams have a lot more history in Los Angeles than the Chargers do, but Los Angeles loves a winner. A run to an AFC West title and playoff success this year would do wonders for the Chargers’ status in town this season.
UPWARD BOUND: At 5-12 last season, the Rams set an NFL mark for worst performance by a team the year after they won a Super Bowl.
Nothing went right for the Rams last year. All star receiver Cooper Kupp and quarterback Matthew Stafford both missed the last eight games of the season and defensive tackle Aaron Donald missed the last six.
The Rams lost six games in a row at one point and six of their last eight without Stafford and Kupp in the lineup. They then revamped much of the roster in the offseason, getting rid of top defensive back Jalen Ramsey and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner in the process.
No one is certain what the Rams will look like going into the 2023 season, which they open at Seattle Sept. 10.
Coming off ankle surgery, Kupp injured a hamstring early in training camp and has been trying to get healthy ever since. He went to Minnesota this week to get that injury re-evaluated and is not expected to be ready to play this week in Seattle.
The Rams are well stocked at receiver, but it will still be difficult to fill Kupp’s shoes.
Stafford had a spinal column injury last year and is now 35 years old. Whether he can regain his 2021 form when he threw for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdown remains to be seen.
Running back Cam Akers and receivers Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell and rookie Puka Nacua will have to take up some of the slack while Kupp recovers and the offensive line will have to do a better job of protecting Stafford than it did last season.
Defensively, the Rams will rely on youth and quickness and hope their young players develop fast.
Like the Chargers, the Rams have to contend with one of the top franchises in the NFL — the San Francisco 49ers — inside their division. The opening week test against the Seahawks will tell a lot about the Rams’ chances this year.
They have a tough early schedule with the 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles following the Seahawks. The Rams will be lucky to be 2-3 at that point.
If they can’t win two of those games, they might want to consider tanking, putting themselves in line to draft Caleb Williams from USC next April. It could be that kid of season for the 2022 Super Bowl champs.
QB CONTROVERSY: No football team goes into a season hoping for a quarterback controversy. A football sage once said if you have two starting quarterbacks you really don’t have one good one.
UCLA coach Chip Kelly finds himself facing that situation a week into the 2023 football season.
The Bruins defeated Coastal Carolina, 27-13 in their season opener Sept. 9 at the Rose Bowl. Kelly said he was going to use three quarterbacks in the game but only two played: Ethan Garbers, a junior who backed up Dorian Thompson-Robinson the last two seasons; and freshman Dante Moore, who many experts considered to be the best high school quarterback in the country last year.
Collin Schlee, a junior transfer from Kent State, didn’t get off the bench.
Kelly promised that all three would see action Sept. 16 when the Bruins face San Diego State, but most people who watched the win over Coastal Carolina are ready to designate freshman Moore as the Bruins’ quarterback of the present and future.
Moore completed 7 of 12 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing one interception. Garbers completed 10 of 17 passes for 121 yards and one touchdown and two interceptions, while playing most of the first three quarters.
Under Garbers’ direction. the Bruins scored seven points. With Moore at the helm, the Bruins scored 20.
Moore moved better in the pocket and improvised better under pressure than Garbers did. Kelly may want to have another look, but most Bruins’ fans would be very happy to see Moore named the starter this week.
Overall, the Bruins looked good. The defense recorded four sacks and two pass interceptions, while holding Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall, a four-year starter, to a pedestrian 27 for 421 passing for 271 yards and only one touchdown.
Offensively, the Bruins found a star wide receiver in Cal transfer J. Michael Sturdivant, who caught five passes for 136 yards and a 62-yard touchdown from Moore.
Running backs Carson Steele and T.J. Harden both gained 76 yards on the ground. Steele averaged 5.8 yards a carry, Harden averaged 6.9.
San Diego State will provide more competition than Coastal Carolina did. The Bruins need to play defense the same way they did in the opener and Kelly needs to play Moore at quarterback.
It should be a simple decision.
FALLING APART: It hasn’t been a good week for the Dodgers. They could have withstood losing three games out of four to the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are the best team in baseball and the Dodgers had a chance to win all four games. Then the roof caved in.
Julio Urias, who hasn’t quite been able to live up to his status as staff ace this year, was arrested Sept. 3 on charges of domestic violence, the second time in four years he has been accused of that crime.
He was suspended for 20 games in 2019 while Major League Baseball investigated the previous situation. No criminal charges were filed at that time.
As of noon Sept. 6, no charges have been filed against Urias this time and Major League Baseball has yet to place him on administrative leave, which would give the league seven days to investigate the charges and decide if either more time was needed to investigate, in which case the administrative leave would be extended.
MLB also could choose to suspend Urias again or it could take no action. Urias did not travel with the Dodgers Sept. 4 to Miami for the start of a six-game road trip. A free agent at the end of the season, Urias has probably thrown his last pitch for the Dodgers.
Compounding the problem, Clayton Kershaw gave up two home runs and walked five in five innings of a 6-3 loss to the Miami Marlins Sept. 4. Kershaw apparently is still suffering from a shoulder problem that sidelined him for the entire month of July.
With Urias away from the team and Kershaw still ailing, the Dodgers rotation now consists of Lance Lynn, who gave up seven runs and seven hits in 4-1/3 innings against the Braves Aug. 31, and rookies Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Gavin Stone and Michael Grove.
The Dodgers are hoping Walker Buehler can recover fast enough from Tommy John surgery less than 13 months ago to pitch in the playoffs, but they may need Buehler sooner than expected.
Miller pitched well in a 3-1 win over the Braves Sept. 3 and has shown a lot of promise in posting a 9-3 record for the Dodgers in his brief career.
Pepiot, Stone and Grove are prize prospects. But a wise baseball scout once said prospects are suspects until they prove themselves.
The Dodgers hopes for an extended playoff run this season and a possible matchup with the Braves for the National League pennant for the third time in four years has taken a major hit this week.