From the defenders he skipped past to the tackle he broke, the details of the single-most important play he made at StubHub Center on Sunday eluded his memory.
What Melvin Gordon was certain about his 34-yard rumble in the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ 29-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers was the thought that drove him.
“We have to find a way,” Gordon later recalled.
Early season defeats can derail the most promising of seasons. Gordon and the Chargers were taught that last season.
Here’s how Gordon derailed the defense: He bounced to the left, then cut back through a gap pushed open by receiver Tyrell Williams. Finding the arms of cornerback Greg Mabin wrapped around his torso, Gordon spun back toward the sideline Barry Sanders-style, broke free of the unwanted embrace and continued his gallop.
When Gordon was finally forced out of bounds, the Chargers had the football at the four-yard line, close enough to set up a go-ahead field goal by their frequently misfiring kicker, Caleb Sturgis, with 7:44 remaining.
The Chargers made plays when they had to make them and, in doing so, potentially saved their season.
This is a game the Chargers would have lost in their final season in San Diego. This is a game they could have dropped last year.
“I think my first couple of years here, we weren’t finding a way,” Gordon said. “We did today.”
The Chargers are now 2-2 instead of 1-3.
By claiming this victory, they did something they failed to do during last season’s 0-4 start. They are giving themselves a chance.
The postseason feels like something within reach. The Chargers know players will be returning to their defense in the coming weeks, starting with defensive tackle Corey Liuget, who will return in Week 5 from a suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance.
Pro Bowl defensive end Joey Bosa, who is sidelined with a foot injury, could be back in the second half of the season.
“I can’t wait until Bosa gets back, so they can’t double team and triple team Melvin Ingram,” Gordon said. “Those guys can go out there and make plays. It’s really going to get nasty for offenses once we get our two-headed monster back.”
The Chargers have to remain in contention until then.
Their game next week, a home date against the Oakland Raiders, is certainly winnable. Just as this game was.
The 49ers entered the contest without starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last week.
But Philip Rivers’ first pass was returned for a pick-six by Antone Exum, who flung the football into the sea of red in the stands behind the end zone. The crowd was 80% for the 49ers and the primal roar it unleashed was deafening. The game was less than a minute old and the atmosphere was more imposing than any the Chargers had encountered this season.
The 49ers scored again later in the quarter to double their lead to 14-0.
“We wait for teams to get up on us for us to tune in,” Gordon said. “Being the great team that we are, we have to come out here and be who were are. We can’t wait for something bad to happen to be special.”
But they were special. Gordon contributed 104 hard-earned yards rushing, plus another 55 receiving. His touchdown reception in the third quarter gave the Chargers their first lead at 23-17.
“We’ve been through so much adversity that being down 14, being down whatever, is nothing to us,” Gordon said. “We’ve been rock bottom. So it’s only up. We know how to respond when we go down. We never fold. We never turn the cheek. We never look back and are like, ‘Man, this game is over.’ We always feel like we have the players to be in the game, regardless of how much someone goes up. Until that clock hits zero, we got a chance.”
“It’s just a mindset that we’re starting to build around here that you have to find a way,” Gordon said. “Even if you don’t feel like you can, dig in and find it somewhere and pull it out the hat and try to come out on top. Sometimes, you come up short but believe you have a shot.”
The believed Sunday. Now they can believe in the season.