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Chargers’ dream of a spectacular SoFi Stadium debut was dashed. But 2021 holds hope

Chargers wide receiver Tyron Johnson is congratulated by teammates Hunter Henry and Justin Herbert.
Chargers receiver Tyron Johnson (83) is congratulated by Hunter Henry and Justin Herbert after catching a touchdown pass Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

No team in the NFL played in a home stadium that was, by percentage, more packed last season than the Chargers.

On Sunday, they will play their final home game of 2020 against Denver, bringing to a close a year in which they played in a venue 0% occupied — a disappointing debut for the $5-billion SoFi Stadium.

“It will be more special opening SoFi with the fans,” wide receiver Jalen Guyton said on a videoconference. “That’s when it’s going to be like, ‘Wow, this is a special moment here in L.A., with Chargers fans, the house packed.’ That’s the moment I’m looking forward to the most still.”

The Chargers are one of 14 teams playing this season without spectators because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A year ago, they averaged slightly more than 25,000 in seven games inside Dignity Health Sports Park, a facility built primarily for soccer. The Chargers’ eighth home game was staged in Mexico City, where they and the Kansas City Chiefs drew 76,252 to Azteca Stadium.

When the NFL tallied the numbers, the Chargers officially played home games in front of 117% of capacity, one of seven teams that reached at least 100%.

“We take it for granted — the amount of fans that come to the games and cheer us on — until they’re gone,” defensive tackle Justin Jones said. “I appreciate them coming out to all those games previously.”

Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert was not sure he would get on the field this season, but circumstance led to a record-breaking season.

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The Chargers this season have played four road games — Tampa, New Orleans, Denver and Miami — with fans. Those four drew a total of 25,114. Their final road game is set for Jan. 3 in Kansas City, which also has been hosting fans.

Guyton called it “more than an honor” to be on the first Chargers team to play in SoFi Stadium. “A pretty awesome experience” is how quarterback Justin Herbert described it.

“It was pretty special and pretty cool to play in it this year,” Herbert said. “When you get fans in it, I’m sure it’s going to be twice as good.”

Though there are no guarantees, the league-wide hope is that spectators will return to all NFL stadiums next season.

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“Just imagining the presence, hearing the echo of the pregame music, you know it’s going to be a pretty energetic place,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “It has been special.”

The Chargers are 3-4 at SoFi Stadium heading into Sunday and a game in which both teams are 5-9 and trying to avoid last place in the AFC West.

Lynn remembers Greene

The death this week of Pro Football Hall of Famer Kevin Greene had Chargers coach Anthony Lynn thinking back to his playing days.

He said Tuesday he remembered facing Greene during the 1996 season when Lynn was a running back for San Francisco and Greene a passer rusher for Carolina.

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“Kevin was my nemesis,” Lynn said. “I could not block him. He was unbelievable. At the same time ... he had such a respect for his opponent that you couldn’t help but like him.”

Greene was 58. No cause of death has been disclosed. He spent the first eight seasons of his career with the Rams.

“Just being in Kevin’s presence you felt like a better person because his enthusiasm for life, his passion, it was contagious,” Lynn said.

After their playing days ended, Lynn and Greene went into coaching. Lynn said the two talked regularly, including just before the start of this season. They had discussed the possibility of one day working together.

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“I hate that I missed out on that opportunity,” Lynn said.

Kelley is back

After being inactive for the Chargers’ victory over Atlanta on Dec. 13, rookie running back Josh Kelley returned last week against Las Vegas.

Although he carried only twice for eight yards, Kelley was used as a kick returner for the first time. His two kickoff returns netted 39 yards.

Michael Badgley’s two missed field-goal attempts against the Las Vegas Raiders nearly cost the Chargers a chance at victory.

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“He’s gone through a lot this year,” Lynn said. “I think what he’s gone through is going to help him be a better football player because of his attitude and his work ethic.”

Kelley has carried 111 times for 354 yards and two touchdowns. He also has 23 catches for 148 yards, Lynn acknowledging Kelley is a better receiver than he anticipated when the Chargers drafted him out of UCLA.

As for progress next year, Lynn suggested Kelley will need to improve on special teams.

“They have to understand how to create value in this league if you’re not the starter,” Lynn said. “The only person standing beside me with the clipboard has to be the backup quarterback. Everyone else has to have some type of play count.”

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Etc.

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned to practice Tuesday. He missed the game against the Raiders because he was in concussion protocol. Offensive lineman Trey Pipkins (COVID-19 reserve list) also returned. ... Tight end Hunter Henry and linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Kyzir White were among the Chargers not practicing during the portion open to the media.


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