Run the damn ball up the middle

tomlinsonMarty Schottenheimer, head coach of the San Diego Charges, has a reputation for playing hard, tough, old fashioned, fight-in-the-trenches football. He scorns the West Coast Offense, likes to run the ball and win low-scoring games. With 158-104-1 career record coming into the 2002 season, you have to be impressed with Martyball.

That is, if there is anything such thing as Martyball.

In yesterday’s game, for example, with the Chargers trailing 13-7, and LaDainian Tomlinson apparently starting to wear down the Raider’s defense, the Chargers faced a 4th and 1 situation. The Chargers were deep enough into their own territory to make going for it a good but gutsy choice, especially with the pathetic efforts of their field goal unit of late.

Now, when you have a runner like Tomlinson on your team, and not much else offensively, you want to get the ball into his hands. Tomlinson now holds the Chargers’ single-season rushing record with more than 1,300 yards. He’s also scored 13 touchdowns and is the first Charger runner in history to have back-to-back double-digit TD seasons. In other words, the man can move the ball.

So, fourth and 1. You want to put the ball in LT’s hands, right?

Well, Schottenheimer did that. Unfortunately, instead of living up to his tried and true reputation he had LT run a sweep. Tomlinson was stuffed for a loss and the Raiders took over on down, starting a drive that would put them up 20-7.

That one play changed the complexion of the game and was probably the single most central factor in the Chargers’ disappointing loss. Trailing by two TDs with time running out in the third quarter, the ground game was some what marginalized and Drew Breese has not yet matured into the kind of QB who can marshall an effective air attack for an entire drive. The 4th and 1 play was the key to the game.

To me, Martyball means that even though it’s the obvious call, even though the Raiders would be looking for it — you send LT up the middle. Just like Randy Johnson facing Barry Bonds — you challenge the hitter. You throw fast balls. You say, if you’re going to beat me, you’re going to beat me with my best pitch (actually, the Big Unit’s best pitch is probably a slider, but indulge the metaphor, please). The proper play call yesterday would have been something that sent LT into the gut of the Raiders’ defense.

LT has proven to be an effective inside runner. He can squeeze out yards where none seem possible when he has just a minimum amount of blocking. On the other hand, put LT in the open flat with four Raiders charging at him without a blocker in sight, and he’s going to have no where to run.

This hasn’t been the only time I’ve been frustrated with Chargers play calling this year. Too many times I see the Chargers passing when they should be running. In their embarrassing loss to the New York Jets, the Chargers opened with three straight pass plays and the Jets scored first when they took over on downs. Against the Dolphins, the Chargers faced another fourth and 1, but rather than give it to LT, they tried a rather hopeless quarterback sneak.

This has been a great season for the Chargers, and Schottenheimer deserves a lot of credit for their 8-5 record, but with better play calling that record could easily be 10 and 3 or 11 and 2. On the other hand, it’s a young team with a lot of talent that just needs a season or two to mature. Even if San Diego doesn’t make the playoffs this year, it’s hard not to be optimistic. The Chargers are in a position to consolidate their successes and dominate the AFC West for several seasons to come, especailly with a man like LT in the backfield.

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