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Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has Chargers' offense running, and passing, on all cylinders

Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has Chargers' offense running, and passing, on all cylinders
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, left, and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, right, watch from sideline. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

He was so certain he was holding a winning hand that Virgil Green had to be careful to employ his best poker face, even though it already was obscured by a mask and this wasn’t a game of cards.

So the tight end approached the line of scrimmage in a humdrum manner he hoped suggested to the Oakland defense that the Chargers were about to run off tackle or do something even less exotic.

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“I knew the ball was coming to me,” he said of the Oct. 17 game. “I knew if I did everything I was supposed to do and the O-line blocked … I didn’t want to get too excited. I just walked to the line normal, got in my stance, tried not to act too cheesy.”

Seconds later, Green was accepting a screen from Philip Rivers and turning to find four of the Chargers’ five offensive linemen in front of him.

Fellow tight end Sean Culkin was near the goal line, about to bury a Raiders defender.

Green went untouched until a single enemy hand grazed his right hip 13 yards later upon reaching the end zone.

This season, Ken Whisenhunt’s Xs and O’s rarely have come to life in a way so deserving of oohs and aahs.

“I think he should get a lot of the credit,” running back Melvin Gordon said of the team’s offensive coordinator. “He’s the one up there drawing up plays and staying the long hours. Obviously, you need the players to make it all work. But there’s a reason he’s in that position.”

And it’s a position in which Whisenhunt will stay, at least for now. This week, he withdrew his name from consideration for the head coaching job at Georgia Tech, his alma mater.

With that decision, a team that has won eight of its past nine games won again, the Chargers retaining a football mind working on a 31st NFL season and orchestrating an offense that today is among the league’s elite.

The Chargers are fifth in the NFL in total yards and sixth in points per game. Their offensive efficiency has been such that only two teams have faced fewer third downs.

“Good coordinators are hot commodities,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “When you get a good one like Whiz, you better hang on to him. You can have all the talent, but if you can’t get them in the right scheme, it doesn’t mean much.”

The 2018 Chargers have weapons, this team boasting two versatile running backs averaging in excess of five yards per carry.

They have three wide receivers who have caught touchdown passes of at least 45 yards. And then they have Keenan Allen, their best wide receiver.

They have a quarterback who has passed for more than 30 miles of career offense and more touchdowns than all but five players all-time.

And they have a coordinator who has the whole outfit operating on schedule and in balance.

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Per game, the Chargers are eighth in passing yards and 10th in rushing yards league-wide. The Rams are the only other team in the top 10 in both.

“My first year, I wasn’t put in position to be successful, honestly,” Gordon said. “It was probably some other things too, including myself. I probably wasn’t ready. But I still don’t think I was put in the best position.

“Whiz does a great job putting players in places where they can be special. He understands what our strengths are and he exploits them. That comes with experience and being around the game for so long.”

In Gordon’s rookie year in 2015, the Chargers were coached by Mike McCoy. Their offensive coordinator was Frank Reich, who held that position last season for the champion Philadelphia Eagles and is now head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

That team ranked ninth in total yards but 26th in points and 31st in rushing yards. Gordon led the Chargers with 641 yards on the ground but didn’t score a touchdown.

Whisenhunt was hired the next year and the transition to a more balanced offense began.

When Anthony Lynn replaced McCoy before the 2017 season, he retained Whisenhunt, explaining simply, “I knew if I got this job, Ken Whisenhunt was going to be my offensive coordinator.”

The Chargers entered this season with a new veteran at center, free agent Mike Pouncey, his cohesive influence as indelible as the tattoos that cover his body.

Everything on offense has meshed over the past 13 weeks, the Chargers sitting at 9-3 and going into Sunday as two-touchdown favorites to beat Cincinnati at StubHub Center.

“He’s very flexible,” quarterback Philip Rivers said of Whisenhunt. “He asks a lot of the players but allows them to be themselves and add their touch to things as long as it fits within [the scheme].”

In four seasons under Whisenhunt, the Chargers always have finished in the top 10 in passing yards. But they’ve never been a top-10 rushing team until this year.

Twice, because of injury, they’ve played without Gordon, who has gained 53% of their rushing yards and scored 32% of their touchdowns. The Chargers won both times anyway.

“When our running game can get in rhythm with our passing game,” Lynn said, “our offense can move the ball with anybody.”

Whisenhunt, 56, was asked this week how proud he was of the way his offense has purred to this point.

He recalled a moment three weeks earlier when someone asked about the Chargers’ stellar performance in ball security and how, in the next game, Rivers threw two interceptions in a loss to Denver.

“I'm not going to touch that one,” Whisenhunt said, “because I got asked about turnovers a couple weeks ago, and you guys remember what happened there, right? So, no disrespect to you, I think I’ll just ignore that question.”

Fair enough. That’s the sort of response a coach can get away with when his offense keeps coming up with the answers.

Etc.

Gordon will miss his second consecutive game Sunday because of a ligament sprain in his right knee. He will continue to work out through the weekend in hopes of playing Thursday when the Chargers visit Kansas City. … Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane left the team to return to Nebraska to be with his ailing infant daughter, Makenna, in Omaha. He is officially listed as doubtful for the game. … Cornerback Trevor Williams (knee) won’t play Sunday and Culkin (back) is doubtful.

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