Chargers’ opener against the Bengals will be a collision of question marks

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn on the sideline during a game.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn says he’ll know exactly where his team stands after Sunday’s season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

The Chargers have had six weeks to figure out themselves.

Six weeks of testing, conditioning and then practicing. Over and over. Day after day. Six weeks of pretty much everything but the one thing that matters most: playing football.

“You can speculate all you want,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “But you really don’t know until you get in live situations. ... We’ll see exactly what type of team we are on Sunday. If it’s the team I think we’re going to be, we’ll be all right.”

And if not? Lynn and the Chargers harbored lofty expectations one year ago, too, and they ended up 5-11.

The 2020 Chargers have a new quarterback, a new offense, a new stadium and even new uniforms.

But the goal they have is as old as the organization itself, the Chargers being one of 12 NFL franchises to never win a Super Bowl.


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Ending that streak this season is a particularly daunting challenge coming off a year in which the Chargers failed to win as much as one game in their own division.

And the AFC West is still home to the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions.

“I like this football team,” Lynn said. “I like the personalities that we have. I like the character that we have on this team. I’m excited about this team.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL canceled all preseason games and joint practices. The Chargers conducted only a single scrimmage, which lasted roughly 75 minutes.

What they gained from that intensified workout late last month will be on display Sunday when they open at Cincinnati.

What they lost also will be in plain view: All-Pro safety Derwin James, who is out for the season because of a knee injury suffered near the end of the scrimmage.

Also missing against the Bengals will be four-time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, who again is dealing with a chronic hip problem.

Mike Pouncey warms up before a game.
Hip problems will keep center Mike Pouncey sidelined Sunday against the Bengals.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

Failing health limited James and Pouncey to five starts apiece in 2019, and those significant absences were factors in everything the Chargers failed to accomplish.

Now, they’re being forced to overcome the same two losses while transitioning at quarterback from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor, a move expected to emphasize Taylor’s mobility in both the run and pass games.

“Definitely different from what you guys have seen in the past,” tight end Hunter Henry promised of the offense’s new look. “It’s different. But it’s a good different.”

Taylor will be the first player other than Rivers to start at quarterback for this franchise since Week 1 of 2006, a streak of 224 regular-season games.

To illustrate how monumental that is, consider that of Keenan Allen’s 524 career receptions, 520 have come from Rivers. The other four occurred on one 2015 drive led by reserve Kellen Clemens.

“It definitely will be different,” Allen said of not seeing Rivers in the huddle. “But we’ve been working all offseason. Me and Tyrod have been creating the chemistry.”

The Chargers’ status as a playoff contender complicated decisions on breaking in rookie QB Justin Herbert. The coronavirus-altered calendar added other variables.

This game against the Bengals will be odd in another obvious way. Paul Brown Stadium has slightly more than 65,000 seats and none will be occupied by human beings.

Instead, there will be only cardboard cutouts of Cincinnati fans, mixed with piped-in crowd noise, another concession to the pandemic.

“We’ve got to make our own noise throughout the game,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “When we make plays, we’re going to act like the fans are there and celebrate with each other.”

Defensive end Joey Bosa said the peace and quiet might even be helpful — to a point.

“I wonder if, for me, it’s going to be relaxing in a way because game day in a way presents a lot of extra stress,” he said. “You’re showing up to the game and you’re driving through traffic and you have thousands of fans yelling at you.

“I’m kind of looking forward to being able to go out on the field, do my stretch warmup, be in my zone and not have any outside noise or distractions. But I think it will get old fast because [the crowd] definitely adds excitement.”

While the Chargers can’t be certain what to expect from themselves, they know even less about the Bengals, who were 2-14 in 2019 and made the changes that typically follow such a finish.

Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow throws in practice.
Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft.
(Aaron Doster / Associated Press)

Cincinnati will start rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in April. With no preseason, the Chargers have been searching for clues by watching tape of Burrow at LSU.

So, this matchup will be something of a mystery, a collision of question marks in a league where so little usually separates teams by the time the answers are found. The Chargers activated guard Ryan Groy and fullback Gabe Nabers from the practice squad Saturday.

“These games boil down to a score or less for the most part,” Taylor said. “Winning those close games is differently big for your season. ... That’s what we have to do, week in and week out, find a way to win.”

And it starts Sunday, when the Chargers will begin finding out about a lot of things, including the Chargers.