Well, it’s been an excruciating season for the San Diego Chargers and their fans so far, hasn’t it?
The tone of the season was seemingly set by the ridiculous fourth quarter loss in Kansas City in week one. Not only did the season start with the loss of a game, but the Bolts lost Keenan Allen, the receiver who was going to be one of Philip Rivers‘ favorite targets this season.
Then, in week two against Jacksonville, the Chargers looked great, but lost red zone player extraordinaire, running back Danny Woodhead, for the season to an ACL tear. Week three against Indianapolis was a huge disappointment. Again, the Chargers couldn’t hold the lead in the fourth quarter, and following that game, the Chargers learned that they were losing defensive captain Manti Te’o, also for the season, with a torn Achilles.
Week four, another fourth quarter throwaway. This time against Drew Brees and the Saints, in his first return to Qualcomm since he donned the Bolts; which made it all the more painful. Mid-week following that game, all-pro corner Jason Verrett announced that a torn ACL was forcing him to end his season as well. Finally, week five, Raiders Week, turned out to be absolutely ridiculous. The Chargers were not leading in the fourth this time, but they had a pathway to victory. Coach Mike McCoy chose not to be aggressive by failing to go for it on fourth down, instead vying for a potentially game tying field goal. But no, holder Drew Kaser mishandled the snap, let the ball out of his hands, and the tie was no longer a possibility. The Raiders were handed a victory. May I also add that most of these games have been lost through turnovers on fumbles. This week there have been no season ending injuries reported, yet.
So that’s the bad stuff, in a nutshell. This team, that looked like it had a shot at taking the AFC West at the start of the season, is now sitting at 1-4, and many of the expected big producers are out for the season. So where’s the silver lining? In my estimation, Joey Bosa‘s two sack, five combined tackle debut last week was a sound success. If the Chargers had won the game, Bosa would be the big story this week, rather than the fallout from the loss. Also, Melvin Gordon has been a touchdown animal this season and is developing into the running back that everyone was hoping for. Yes, he is responsible for two of the game-killing fumbles over the past few weeks and he needs to work on protecting the ball, but there’s no denying that his production has improved by leaps and bounds this season. Finally, one of the brightest spots of this season so far, has been watching the development of rookie tight end Hunter Henry, and how he is stepping into an offensive impact role on a team that desperately needs it.
Henry, a consensus All-American at Arkansas, was drafted in the second round by the Chargers in the 2016 draft. He was the first tight end taken overall. At the start of the season the team was really big on Henry’s contribution as a blocker. In weeks one and two he really wasn’t getting many looks from Rivers but the team justified it by noting the impact of his blocking abilities on the field. Henry had one 20-yard reception against the Chiefs in week one, but nothing in week two. Many fans were beginning to wonder if and when they would see Henry spring into action. Suddenly, prior to playing Indianapolis in week three, it was announced that veteran tight end Antonio Gates would be out with a hamstring injury. This opened the door for Henry to see some real opportunity as the starting tight end going into the game.
In that game, Henry showed promise. He had five receptions for 76 yards on five targets against the Colts. He played all 60 offensive snaps with Gates out. Unfortunately, the game was capped off with a loss that Henry was partially responsible for. The Chargers were trailing by four points in the final two minutes of the game. Henry made an 18-yard catch but was stripped of the ball, which essentially ended the team’s chance of a comeback. He took it hard, showing emotion on the sideline afterward. It was reported that when Gates saw this, he went right over to Henry to encourage him and tell him about how he too had fumbled in a lost game as rookie, but then went 10 years before fumbling again. This shows what an amazing mentor and example, in Gates, Henry has sitting on the bench right beside him. It could be the valuable intangible that helps jettison Henry’s career into stardom. (Think of what Rivers and Brees have become after sharing their formidable NFL years with Doug Flutie).
In week four, Gates was still not available. Henry was again the starter and it was a good game for him. He caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Rivers with a little over a minute left in the first quarter. He finished with four receptions for 61 yards. By then, it was becoming clear that Henry was earning his place as one of Rivers’ favorite targets.
In week five, Gates was back from injury, but Henry still got a good share of looks from Rivers. While Gates came up big with a touchdown, Henry had one of his own. He set up his short, one-yard touchdown with a 59 yard reception in the third quarter. Henry had three receptions for 74 yards in the game. Like Bosa, Henry’s success thus far, but especially in week five, was overshadowed by the doom and gloom of the loss.
Looking at the numbers, Henry is shaping up to be a leader in the NFL at the tight end position. 11 of Henry’s 13 receptions have gone for first downs. This is an 84.6 percent clip, which leads all tight ends, and ranks fourth overall in the NFL among players with 10+ catches. His two touchdowns rank him fifth among NFL tight ends and his 17.5 yards per catch leads all tight ends with 10+ receptions. This really is something to get excited about. Yes, the Chargers are plagued with injuries, and yes, there is a mountain of an uphill battle before them, but there are players who can, and have, been stepping up. That is one of the coaching staff’s themes right? “Next man up.” Well here’s one credit to the coaches then; Hunter Henry stepped up while Gates was down and it looks like he’s staying up. Lets hope that he continues it against Denver. Maybe a victory can turn the tides and bring back some momentum moving forward. In my estimation, Hunter Henry has a bright future.