Branden Oliver had a goal — he wanted to beat Kobe Bryant in a game of one-on-one.
After Oliver tore his Achilles tendon in the 2016 preseason, he set out to beat Bryant in a way where it wouldn’t matter that he was 10 or so inches shorter, where he wouldn’t have to out-shoot, out-dunk or out-defend Bryant.
Bryant, like Oliver, felt that tendon snap up the back of his foot like a roller shade. And like Oliver planned, Bryant exceeded expectations in his recovery.
“I wanted to be healthy before Kobe got back,” he said. “I think it took him eight months and it took me seven months and three weeks or something like that. That was my goal.”
Oliver watched “Muse,” the documentary about Bryant’s career multiple times as he worked out on beaches in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, racing against the clock set by one of his favorite basketball players.
Now fully healthy, Oliver could get a chance for his own signature Los Angeles sports moment Sunday when the Chargers host the Raiders at StubHub Center.
Starting running back Melvin Gordon could miss the week with an ankle injury, and if he can’t get on the field against the Raiders, Oliver would become a very important part of the plan in a game the Chargers must win if they hope to sneak into the postseason.
“He hasn’t played a lot since 2014, but he was a starter in 2014 for some games,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “So he’s done it before. So I feel comfortable in a sense that he’s done it before. And so if we have to do it again, he’ll do it again.”
In 2014, his rookie season, Oliver had back-to-back 100-yard games. But injuries and a diminished role slowed him in 2015 before the Achilles injury cost him an entire season. This year, a hamstring injury opened the door for undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler to jump him on the depth chart.
But with Ekeler trying to play with his broken hand wrapped in a cast and Gordon’s status iffy, Oliver is suddenly the Chargers No. 1 running back.
Oliver’s carried the ball just 28 times for 70 yards this season, rushing eight times for just nine yards last week.
“You could tell there was a little rust after not having played in a while,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said, “but he did some good things for us.”
If Gordon can’t go, the Chargers will need Oliver to come up in the clutch against Oakland’s above-average run defense.
And with an increased workload, Oliver is hoping to emulate Bryant and come up big in the clutch.
“It felt good to get my feet back wet [last week]. I’ve got some work to do but it was good to get some reps in,” he said. “I know for me, it’s personally more of a rhythm thing. The more reps, the more I tend to get better.”
Perryman on track to play
The Chargers, statistically, own the worst run defense in the NFL. It’s something the Kansas City Chiefs, the last team to beat them, exploited in their meeting two weeks ago.
In that game, linebacker Denzel Perryman had to be carted into the locker room with an injury, leaving the Chargers without one of their best weapons against the run.
The injury, which was to his hamstring, looked like it could cost him the rest of the year, but the Chargers’ linebacker has recovered and should be on the field against the Raiders.
“Denzel is fine,” Lynn said. “…He may be limited today, but we feel by the end of the week he’ll be good to go.”
Lynn said Perryman’s return would be a nice boost to his team’s defense.
“He’s our starting middle linebacker for a reason. He brings physicality. He’s a sure tackler,” Lynn said. “He runs that defense and that front seven when he’s in there.”
Out of sight, mind
The Chargers know the scenarios in which they become the second team in league history to start 0-4 and make the playoffs.
If they win and Tennessee loses to or ties with Jacksonville, the Chargers make the playoffs with a Baltimore win or tie against Cincinnati or a Buffalo loss or tie in its game with Miami. The Chargers can also tie the Raiders and make the playoffs if Tennessee loses and the Bills either lose or tie.
All of those games will be played at the same time as the Chargers’ game with the Raiders, and Lynn said the team will limit how frequently those scores will show up on the scoreboard in at the StubHub Center.
“There’s no reason for us to [watch] what the other teams are doing,” he said. “Our hands are going to be full.”