He watched too many of the Chargers’ games this season the same way a lot of their fans did.
Only Derwin James saw each snap from a less fanatical, more complex perspective.
“I watched each play like I was playing the rep,” he explained. “I looked at my position. I looked at the formation and the set. Then it was, ‘OK, this is my job. This is what I need to do.’ Once I got that, then I watched the play like normal.”
For the first 11 games, James witnessed his team mostly from afar, a foot injury placing an unwanted bookmark in a career that launched brilliantly in 2018, his rookie season.
Ready to take that next significant step — coaches often say an NFL player’s improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 is the most dramatic — James instead was stuck in a walking boot.
Rather than continuing to develop and flourish in the system he owned a year ago, he was idled until early December, his sophomore season reduced to more of a sophomore sprint.
James’ 2019 will end abruptly on Sunday in Kansas City in the Chargers’ finale, just his fifth game of the season.
Still, James insisted that his second year in the NFL hasn’t been as lost as the Chargers’ season overall, a team expected to contend for a Super Bowl finishing last in the AFC West.
“I do feel like I’m a better player now because I know more,” he said. “I know more about how opposing teams are trying to attack me. I studied things. I know the playbook better, too.”
After getting injured, James desperately wanted to return this season in part to further develop but also because he loves football and his place in the sport so much that he spent last offseason promising to be more of an “enforcer” in 2019.
He was hurt in mid-August in a joint practice with New Orleans. The injury occurred during an otherwise routine play or perhaps during a celebration that followed him intercepting a pass.
Either way, it was the result of James exerting himself with a passion and spirit that can spread throughout an entire defense and elevate the 10 teammates out there with him.
“Some guys can help dictate the outcome of a game defensively [and] he’s one of those guys,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “If you use him right, he has that ability.”
James attended all the home games while he was injured. But the initial meeting with the Chiefs — in Mexico City during Week 11 — was his first road game.
Following the team’s subsequent bye week, James rejoined practice, was added to the active roster five days later and since has played 249 of 251 defensive snaps.
In trying to salvage what he can from his abbreviated season, he has been given nearly every opportunity available. James has been credited with 26 tackles, including three for loss.
“With Derwin, the more he plays, the more plays you see,” Bradley said. “It’s not like you look back and say, ‘Look at all these games and all the plays he’s made.’ He’s played a limited amount of plays. But we still see it as a coaching staff.”
Bradley, a former defensive coordinator for Seattle, likened James to Kam Chancellor in his ability to play near the line of scrimmage and to Earl Thomas in terms of covering ground.
James’ rookie year featured almost weekly comparisons to some of the NFL’s best current safeties as well as a few of the all-time greats at the position. That sort of hype is just another thing this team has been missing in 2019.
Last year, the Chargers emerged as a group as James emerged as a shocking steal with the No. 17 overall pick in the draft. Without him for so much of this season, the team simply wasn’t whole.
“He has the speed of a corner,” Bradley said. “He has the athleticism to make plays in space. He can play in the box. He’s a good rusher. ... The challenge for D.J. is how high can he take each one of those skill sets. That’s where I think he has a lot of room for improvement.”
The more immediate challenge for James is facing a Kansas City offense directed by reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes and featuring, among other qualities, the electric speed of Tyreek Hill and the constant threat of Travis Kelce.
Starting with their 24-17 victory over the Chargers on Nov. 18, the Chiefs have won five in a row by an average margin of 17 points. Mahomes was still dealing with a knee injury six weeks ago. He appears healthier now.
“They’ve got a 4x100 relay team over there,” James said. “You gotta get guys on the ground, especially in the open field. You can’t let the ball go over your head. Against the Chiefs, you have to limit the big plays.”
Big plays are what the Chargers expected from James this year. Instead, they were without him for far too long as they stumble into Sunday at 5-10.
In a season gone wrong, James has one more chance to assure the Chargers that their future is all right.