After the latest Chargers debacle, after yet another fourth-quarter crash, after the predictable became reality, after the fat lady wailed a Wagnerian aria, a fan was walking out of a tunnel under Qualcomm Stadium and cried out: "Go get 'em, Nick!"
Even in powder blue pain, he couldn't help but laugh.
I smiled under my professional stoicism and couldn't help but think: Go get what?
This is a dead horse not worth stomping on. The ship has left port and hasn't the right papers for re-entry. If I wasn't such a rock, I might feel sorry for the entire lot of them. What other way is there to think about the pitiful?
They cannot win. As Sunday's 20-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals before an announced pre-stadium-expansion crowd of 54,980 and a blacked-out Southern California, the Chargers once again provided proof _ as though we needed any more _ that they aren't nearly good enough now to play a full game without screwing things up.
They have moxie. They have some skill. They even have some players. They just don't have enough of them. They get ahead almost every week _ as they did Sunday when for the most part they handled the Bengals _ and then blow it away like stink in the wind.
Coach Norv Turner, who has gone past beleaguered to bothered and bewildered, all but admitted it's basically become impossible for his team to win. Go ahead and blame Norv for Superstorm Sandy, but I thought he coached his brains out Sunday.
I thought he did everything he could to win the game. I believe he out-coached Marvin Lewis. But in a game of chess you still need all your pieces for checkmate. And Norv is missing too many _ so many it all but appears hopeless.
His quarterback, Philip Rivers, is playing in a foxhole with no protection.
The offensive line has been drawn, quartered and halved. He went into this one _ as he has in most _ without starting tackle Jared Gaither. His replacement, Mike Harris, obviously isn't as good. Early in Sunday's game, right tackle Jeromey Clary went out with a knee injury. He was replaced by another free agent, Kevin Haslam, who a month ago was on the practice squad. Left guard Tyronne Green, who has been battling a hamstring injury, tried to go but couldn't. He was replaced by Rex Hadnot.
That meant Norv was operating with just two starting offensive linemen, center Nick Hardwick and guard Louis Vasquez. You can't win this way. Norv likes to run. He couldn't run. Tailback Ryan Mathews carried nine times for 26 yards. Rivers, who is scheduled to meet Continental Drift in a match race at Del Mar next summer, gained just six fewer yards.
"Well, we struggled to run the ball today against that front," Turner would say, and he was right in that Cincinnati has a very stout front four.
In short, Norv can't coach football the way he wants to coach football. Without an offensive line, you're a bull without horns and reproductive organs. When given an instant of time, Rivers was rock solid, although the weakness of his line kept him from throwing the long ball. He was sacked four times and fumbled once. His interception was a desperate throw into the end zone that finished the game.
This is a coach who has to change his game plan, and not in a good way.
"Obviously, we are," Turner said. "We're a team that wants to run the ball. We're trying to do everything we can to generate some first downs and move the ball and keep our defense off the field.
"Again, the questions that get asked are pretty obvious. When you start moving people around in there _ you see Jeromey Clary get helped off the field in the first part, you've got a young guy in Michael Harris playing left tackle who has been outstanding in terms of what he's capable of doing, you see Tyronne come off _ then that probably would answer the question for you. If I need to spell it out better, that is probably a big part of it."
The Chargers did get some good play out of individuals. Demorrio Williams, subbing for injured Donald Butler at middle linebacker, intercepted an Andy Dalton pass and returned it for a touchdown (his second of the season). The defense, with the usual exception _ Cincy used 14 plays to go 55 yards and score a touchdown and take a 17-13 lead with 4:11 to play _ played well enough to win the game.
But the offense hasn't scored a touchdown for six consecutive quarters, and the Chargers aren't going to win many 9-6 affairs. That's not how they're built.
As Rivers put it: "Any time you go into a game and don't score a touchdown, it's hard to win."