They won the first nine times they left Southern California to play.
They won seven of eight games decided by one score.
They won with late offense, later defense and a field goal that came with no time remaining.
With each dramatic success the 2018 Chargers seemed to bond even more, reaching a point where they appeared to be tighter than the laces on a football.
Now, they return largely intact as one of the AFC favorites and not a single thing they achieved last season matters the tiniest of bits.
“Little by little, day by day, we’ve got to re-create the camaraderie, re-create the whole deal that we had last year and then be even better,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “That doesn’t just happen.”
No, it most certainly does not.
The 2015 Carolina Panthers went 15-1 and reached Super Bowl L, where they lost to Denver.
The next season, just months after entering the NFL’s championship game as 5.5-point favorites, Carolina started 1-5 and finished 6-10.
“I can definitely speak to that,” said linebacker Thomas Davis, who was a Panther back then. “It’s all about what you do the next year. That’s the mindset.”
That’s also one of the themes coach Anthony Lynn has been preaching since the start of the Chargers’ offseason program.
Two days into training camp, the message has remained consistent, Lynn trying to forge in the Costa Mesa heat a togetherness that could be the difference six months from now in, say, the New England chill.
“I’m not worried about the Raiders, the Broncos, the Chiefs,” Lynn began. “I’m concerned about the Chargers, the mindset and approach to practice every day …
“What we did last year, we can’t carry that over to this year. This is a different football team. I want to make sure that everyone understands that, and I believe we do.
“We have a good-character group of hardworking guys. We kept our core together the best that we could. I expect these guys to show up, work hard, help one another and continue to get better.”
Lynn said he has dissected last season “a thousand times” and concluded that the 12-4 Chargers just as easily could have finished 7-9.
The late plays made to secure victory brought a belief that built as fall stretched into winter.
Before everything crumbled in the first half against the Patriots in mid-January, the Chargers had constructed something special. And unusual.
“Last year’s team was unbelievable,” general manager Tom Telesco said. “I haven’t seen a team that close in a long time. That culture will carry over. But it’s not the exact same team this year.
“I think that helps. Every year’s a little different. Every team comes together at a different rate. Now this team has to come together as one.”
And the Chargers will be forced to do so, for now at least, with one giant piece missing. Running back Melvin Gordon is holding out in a contract dispute.
From Telesco on down, they have insisted Gordon’s situation, no matter how long it lasts, will not be a distraction. They are convinced this team is committed enough, veteran enough, to remain focused.
So, even if Gordon still isn’t around as the regular season is opening, the Chargers must find a way to rebuild what they had a year ago and then improve some more.
“We were a good team last year, but it was also last year,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We need to figure out a way to get over the hump and be a great team. … We have to figure out how to get this year’s team better than what we were last year.”
Among his teammates, one of Gordon’s best friends is Keenan Allen. The veteran wide receiver called Gordon “my road dog” and said he understands the business side of the game.
“It’s bittersweet,” Allen said. “For him, he has to be selfish about it. For me, I just gotta come out here and do my job. … We wish he was here. But, at the same time, he has to get things done too.”
Drafted two years ahead of Gordon, Allen signed a four-year extension worth $45 million ($20.6 million guaranteed) in June of 2016.
Linebacker Kyzir White, whose 2018 season ended after three games because of a knee injury, was given the day off. Rookie defensive tackle Jerry Tillery also remains limited coming back from shoulder surgery.
Tillery, a first-round pick in April, is expected to contribute immediately given his size — 6-foot-6, 295 pounds — and athleticism.
“We’re in no rush to throw him out there before he’s ready,” Lynn said. “When he’s ready, we want him out there, trust me.”