Chargers’ Illusion Makes Game Clock, Seahawks Disappear


Looking for a formula to take down the Seattle Seahawks, the oppressors, the NFL’s bully boys?

Last Sunday the Chargers found one. They worked it to a T, grabbing a fast lead then snuffing out the reigning champs in the broil of a late California summer. 120 degress at kickoff, we were told. The blueprint went something like this:

Step One: Get yourself a 255-pound tight end, a Minotaur who can gore linebackers and run with safeties, who can burn downfield or play in heavy traffic and still collect the ball with the softness of kitten paws.

That was Antonio Gates, the 12-year vet. Phil Rivers went his way seven times and Gates grabbed all seven. Three for first downs, three others for touchdowns. The Seattle linebackers, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, played him up tight but not tightly enough.

“That’s kind of their forte in a sense,” Gates said in the postgame. “The Legion of Boom is what I’ve been hearing about all week. Obviously they believe in their skills to cover. Fortunately I was matched up with linebackers at times…Phillip put the ball where no other player could get it.”

“That was really the big element in this game,” said Pete Carroll, the Seattle coach. “The chemistry between those two guys. We couldn’t figure out how to stop it.”

Step Two: Crank up your quarterback, preferably one with a lobbing, shotput delivery, who’ll stand in there and deliver with things crashing around him or, when all else fails, can punch out a big first down on a pair of wooden legs. That was Rivers, who gunned for 284 yards on the day, on 28-of-37 passing.

He did his thing with Gates, and he got it to his outside people, Eddie Royal and Keenan Allen, and when that wasn’t there he dumped it off to his shifty backs. He also ran it for 17 yards, including a pair of first downs that contributed to San Diego’s time-of-possession avalanche. More on that avalanche in Step Three.

“Well, I ran way more than I wanted to,” Rivers said. “It was just kinda the way things came off. A lot of those scrambles were hitch, hitch, hitch and then leave. It wasn’t like pressure was the reason I had to get out of there.”

“He knew when to throw it and when to run for a first down,” said Seattle corner Byron Maxwell.

Step Three – and this is the tricky phase, the magician act: Create a game-long illusion with the clock. Convince the enemy it’s still there, but bleed it away using subterfuge, with sleight-of-hand. With the kind of play-calling that makes time stand still when it really isn’t.

The Chargers made it vanish on Seattle. Boy, did they ever – 42:15 minutes of possession to just 17:45 for the Seahawks. They may as well have made the Taj Majal disappear. Or the moon. It was that subtle. Nobody noticed. Not even the Seahawks, who managed just 30 offensive plays on the day. Ok, so they noticed at the very end, when the ruse was finally up, as they were scurrying around and desperate for points and there just wasn’t enough time.

The Chargers pulled this trick without a serious rushing effort from any of their backs. Big clock days like this are almost always the aftermath of major ground offensives. On the very same afternoon the Cowboys kept it for 41:11 versus Tennessee – on 220 yards rushing. The Dolphins once got 239 against Indy and set the all-time record for possession along the way (45:07). I can even remember 1986, when the Falcons beat New Orleans with 245 run yards and 42:11 of possession.

The Chargers desecrated that theory. Their leading ground man got 32 yards – little Danny Woodhead, a mighty mite. Ryan Matthews, the feature back, got 31. Subtract Rivers’ busy little scrambles and the Charger total was 84. As head coach Mike McCoy talked to the press he hinted how it was a heroic day for his ground forces, but at 3.2 yds/carry, that sentiment rang a little bit hollow.

“Everyone wanted to question the way we would run the football,” he said. “I think we had an attitude and a belief up front…Guys stepped up.”

The withered Seattle defenders, the guys wearing the IVs and the ice packs, offered a little more practical insight.

“We’ve always done a great job of stopping the top target and trying to make the weak links beat us,” said free safety Earl Thomas. “We didn’t do that today. We didn’t have enough awareness of situation football, like we normally do. A couple penalties hurt us…we didn’t do a good job on third down. That’s the meat and potatoes of it, for me.”

“We were allowing them enough movement that they were getting the third-and-shorts,” said strong safety Kim Chancellor, who also had his problems handling Gates. “They didn’t run the ball real effectively. It wasn’t a tough day on the running game, but it was enough.”

“They were getting ones and twos – short, manageable situations, said Carroll. “[Rivers] is really good at figuring out how to get you a three or four-yard pass.”

“Completions,” said Gates. “Completions is kind of our thing. As long as we get completions and move the ball, it puts us in a better position to score touchdowns.

That’s what this upset felt like, a day of three-and-four yard completions. Hey, just as good a run, as Bill Walsh used to say. So in the end it was Gates and Rivers and a mysterious game of keep away that brought down the defending champs.

A last check of the stat book reveals 26 Charger first downs. Only three third-down conversions in the second half. Barely 100 yards of rushing. And still 42 minutes of game clock consumed? Nah, I’m still not buying it. It’s all an illusion, right Phillip? Right, Antonio? Right, Woodhead? All you get back are Cheshire grins.

Then I guess it really is like Houdini said – What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.

Tom Danyluk joins NFL Spin Zone after nine years as a columnist with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of “The Super ‘70s,” which you can purchase on Questions or gripes? Please contact Tom at