For the second time this season, the Chargers lost a veteran offensive lineman to a significant and potentially life-altering ailment.
Center Mike Pouncey was placed on injured reserve after injuring his neck Sunday against Denver.
Coach Anthony Lynn said Pouncey is done for the season and will have surgery. He added that he “can’t say if it’s career-ending or not.”
“We’re going to miss him — his leadership and on the field,” Lynn said. “But we are tickled to death that he’s OK with the injury that he had.”
In June, left tackle Russell Okung suffered a pulmonary embolism caused by blood clots. Okung hasn’t publicly discussed his situation but, in a social media post at the start of training camp, called the episode a “near death type” experience.
He remains on the non-football illness list and, by rule, must miss at least the first six weeks of the regular season. The Chargers are unsure whether Okung will be able to play this season.
The loss of Pouncey means starting left guard Dan Feeney will move to center, with Forrest Lamp taking over Feeney’s vacated spot. That’s how the Chargers finished the game against the Broncos after Pouncey exited early in the second half.
Feeney also played extensively at center in the preseason when Pouncey, as a veteran entering his ninth year, was held out as a precaution.
“That’s what we drafted those guys for,” Lynn said of Feeney and Lamp. “Now it’s time for them to step up, and I know they will.”
Pouncey, 30, was a Pro Bowl selection three times with Miami before joining the Chargers as a free agent before last season. He earned Pro Bowl honors again in 2018 and, in September, signed a one-year extension to remain with the Chargers through the 2020 season.
“He’s one of the best ones going,” Feeney said. “He’s a really tough guy to replace. Our thoughts and prayers go out to him. It’s one of those things you don’t see coming. He’s gotta take care of himself at this point.”
Lynn said he did not think there was one specific play on which Pouncey was hurt against Denver. Instead, he said it was more likely an accumulation of hits over the years.
“He’s been playing football for a long time,” Lynn said. “So it’s probably something that’s been bothering him for a while and he’s just been playing through it.”
The Chargers had plans of moving Feeney to center before signing Pouncey. Lynn, citing Feeney’s style of play and body type, called center his more “natural position.”
Lamp was a second-round pick in 2017 and missed most of his first two seasons because of a knee injury so serious that it required two surgeries. When he was coming out of Western Kentucky, Lamp was considered by some observers to be the top offensive lineman in the draft.
On Sunday night against Pittsburgh, he’ll make his first NFL start after playing a little more than half the game Sunday.
“He’s a little rusty,” Lynn said. “But he’s going to get a lot of opportunities to work that rust off. … I have no doubt that his confidence will grow and Forrest will be a good fit.”
Along with Okung and Pouncey sidelined long term, the Chargers have safeties Derwin James and Adrian Phillips on injured reserve. The belief is both will return at some point in the second half of the season.
The Chargers also are minus starting defensive end Melvin Ingram, who has missed one game so far because of a hamstring problem. He did not practice Wednesday.
Kicker Michael Badgley has been out all season because of a groin injury suffered a couple days before the opener.
Tight end Hunter Henry has not been available since fracturing his knee in Week 1. He returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis.
“We’re just getting them in bunches,” Lynn said. “But it’s going to slow down. At some point when we start getting guys back, it’s going to slow down. But we just gotta go play our best ball, regardless of the injuries.”
The Chargers also have placed wide receiver Dontrelle Inman and tight end Sean Culkin on injured reserve. Former starting cornerback Trevor Williams began the season on IR before being released this week.
Running back Justin Jackson (calf), safety Nasir Adderley (hamstring) and wide receiver Andre Patton (quadriceps) all missed practice Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’re down,” Lynn said when asked about the possible mental toll of all the injuries. “We talked about it a little bit. Being down’s not going to help. Refocusing, learning, going out and practicing our tail off, that’s what’s going to help.”
With Pouncey out and depth needed, the Chargers signed veteran offensive lineman Ryan Groy, who spent the past four seasons with Buffalo. He has appeared in 55 NFL games, with 17 starts. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin in 2014.
When Lynn walked into the room for his regularly scheduled Wednesday session with reporters, he clapped his hands and referenced feeling some extra “juice” with a Sunday night game coming up.
He was then asked about so many things going wrong in a season that offered plenty of promise but has begun with three losses in five games.
Lynn mentioned Murphy’s Law.
“Well, hell, we gotta kick Murphy’s butt, you know,” he said. “That’s where we’re at.”