The Chargers did not attempt a trick play in their first nine games. That doesn’t mean they’re incapable of an occasional sleight-of-hand. Their struggling offense, in fact, has found ways to make a 6-foot-5, 253-pound tight end disappear.
Hunter Henry, the second-year pro out of Arkansas and one of the team’s most dangerous weapons, has played a big part in what little success the Chargers’ offense has had. When he has been targeted more than three times, the Chargers are 3-1. When he’s not, they’re 0-5.
“I want to get him the ball,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “I like it when he’s involved, because our offense seems to flow better.”
The offense purred in a loss to Miami in Week 2, when Philip Rivers completed 31 of 39 passes for 331 yards (seven of them to Henry for 80 yards), and in a loss to Philadelphia in Week 4, when the Chargers racked up 400 yards and Henry made a one-handed, sliding catch in the back of the end zone for a fourth-quarter score.
But Henry, who has 24 catches for 319 yards and two touchdowns entering Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills, was not targeted once in two of the first three games, a season-opening loss at Denver and a Week 3 loss to Kansas City.
His role increased during a three-game win streak in October. He was targeted eight times and caught three passes for 42 yards in a 27-22 win over the New York Giants in Week 5, including a lunging catch of a 25-yard pass in the back corner of the end zone that gave the Chargers a 17-16 lead late in the third quarter.
The following week at Oakland, Henry caught five of seven targets for 90 yards in a 17-16 victory. Two receptions — for 34 and 23 yards — came on deep out patterns during an 11-play, 78-yard drive that ended with Nick Novak’s 32-yard deciding field goal as time expired.
Henry was targeted five times in 21-0 victory over Denver in Week 7, catching four passes for 73 yards.
Then, No. 86 was all but 86’d from the playbook. Henry was targeted twice, catching two passes for 11 yards, in a 21-13 loss at New England on Oct. 29, and twice in last Sunday’s 20-17 overtime loss at Jacksonville, catching one pass for seven yards on the first play of the game.
“Shoot, anybody would be frustrated,” Henry said. “Obviously, I think I can make an impact, and I think our [tight ends] can make an impact as a whole. We all know that. But we’re trying to find the positives.
“We do a lot of other things besides catching balls that people may not notice — the pass-blocking, the run-fits … This is the ultimate team sport. We wouldn’t be talking about this as much if we won [last Sunday], but we didn’t, so it kind of adds to it a little bit.”
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said Henry’s targets are a little deceiving. He counted at least four plays that were designed to go to Henry against the Jaguars but for various reasons — a holding penalty, a breakdown in protection, an audible, a batted-down pass — did not.
“Don’t think we’re not trying to get Hunter the ball,” Whisenhunt said. “We put in plays designed for Hunter, but in this league, you have to be a read-progression offense, and sometimes they take that away.”
Henry said he’s been double-teamed only a few times, so it’s not as if opponents are going to extreme lengths to stop him. But several plays for which Henry is the primary target have been changed by Rivers at the line.
“That’s happened a good amount of times, where they run a defense that we can’t really run the play against, so we check to another play,” Henry said. “That’s just how it goes. You don’t want to keep banging your head into the wall with a bad play.”
The return of wide receiver Keenan Allen, who has a team-leading 44 catches for 696 yards after missing most of 2016 because of knee surgery, has affected Hunter, as has Rivers’ heavy reliance on short passes to Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, who have combined for 54 catches out of the backfield.
“When you put the emphasis on getting one guy the ball, you’re taking it away from Keenan,” Lynn said. “And sometimes, you’ve got to take what the defense gives you. We do that a lot, especially in the red zone, where you see more things targeted for certain players.
“We didn’t get in the red zone [against Jacksonville]. We had a lot of things for Hunter in the red zone yesterday, but we’ve got to get there first.”
Henry is trying to remain patient and stay sharp.
“You don’t know when your name is gonna be called, so you have to always stay ready,” Henry said. “And if a play is called for me, I have to run a good route, set it up, carry over what I’ve done in practice to the game and execute it. I have to keep getting better, continue to work, to push. It will come.”