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The Chargers Are Unprecedented Late-Game Failures

Mike McCoy was in a mood when he stepped to the podium and addressed the media after his team blew a 13-point fourth-quarter lead against the New Orleans Saints Sunday.

“[I’m] furious,” the San Diego Chargers coach told reporters. “It’s a major disappointment. You get the lead we had, and to fall apart — [it’s] a major disappointment. Frustration is an understatement. I can’t say right now in this microphone how I really, truly feel.”

McCoy’s reaction was understandable, because his Chargers are currently in a historic stretch of late-game failure. Last season — McCoy’s third in San Diego as head coach — the Chargers lost 2.6 games’ worth of win probability added (WPA) in the fourth quarter or overtime, trailing only the New York Giants (-2.8) and tied with the Dallas Cowboys. (WPA measures the swing in each team’s chances of winning a game with each play, and it can be added up to isolate how — and when — a team helped or hurt its chances of winning.)

This goes beyond simple “if the game ended after three quarters”-type stuff to encompass many types of bungling that can make a game closer than it had previously been. If a team has a 75 percent chance of winning with six minutes left but then throws a pick-six to put its odds at 20 percent, that’s 0.55 games’ worth of lost win probability. So 2.6 games is a lot. And the team has nearly matched that total already this year, losing 2.1 games of WPA in the first four games of the season. Added together, that two-year total of -4.7 WPA in the fourth quarter or overtime ranks 19th-worst by any team in a two-season span since the Super Bowl era began in 1966.

YEAR 1 YEAR 2 TOTAL
YEAR TEAM GAMES 4Q/OT WPA GAMES 4Q/OT WPA 4Q/OT WPA
1 1996-97 Oakland 16 -2.7 16 -4.1 -6.8
2 2000-01 San Diego 16 -3.8 16 -2.5 -6.3
3 1999-00 Dallas 17 -3.6 16 -2.1 -5.7
4 1993-94 Washington 16 -1.8 16 -3.9 -5.6
5 2011-12 Philadelphia 16 -3.7 16 -1.7 -5.4
6 1985-86 Buffalo 16 -2.5 16 -2.9 -5.4
7 1979-80 St. Louis 16 -2.0 16 -3.2 -5.2
8 2014-15 Tennessee 16 -3.2 16 -1.9 -5.1
9 2011-12 San Diego 16 -1.5 16 -3.6 -5.1
10 1995-96 New York 16 -2.7 16 -2.3 -5.0
11 1997-98 Indianapolis 16 -1.8 16 -3.2 -5.0
12 2007-08 St. Louis 16 -2.4 16 -2.6 -5.0
13 2000-01 Carolina 16 -1.6 16 -3.2 -4.9
14 1995-96 Baltimore 16 -2.4 16 -2.4 -4.8
15 1970-71 Cincinnati 16 -1.0 14 -3.8 -4.8
16 1988-89 Dallas 16 -2.3 16 -2.4 -4.7
17 1994-95 Washington 16 -3.9 16 -0.9 -4.7
18 1989-90 Minnesota 17 -2.1 16 -2.6 -4.7
19 2015-16 San Diego 16 -2.6 4 -2.1 -4.7
20 1994-95 Houston 16 -3.0 16 -1.6 -4.6
Worst 2-year stretches by WPA in 4th quarter/OT since 1966

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

And again, that’s comparing this season’s Chargers, four games into their schedule, with teams that had many more opportunities to blow games. On a per-game basis, the 2015-16 Chargers have lost more WPA in the fourth quarter or OT than any other team of the Super Bowl era did over a two-year stretch:

YEARS TEAM CHANGE IN WIN PROB. AFTER 3Q
1 2015-16* San Diego -23.3
2 1996-97 Oakland -21.2
3 2000-01 San Diego -19.7
4 1993-94 Washington -17.6
5 1999-00 Dallas -17.4
6 2011-12 Philadelphia -16.9
7 1981-82 Pittsburgh -16.8
8 1985-86 Buffalo -16.7
9 1979-80 St. Louis -16.2
10 1970-71 Cincinnati -16.0
Worst 2-year WPA-per-game runs in 4Q/OT since 1966

Includes playoff games.
*Only includes the first four games of the 2016 season.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of course, McCoy and the Chargers also have more opportunities to reverse this trend. Since 1978 (the advent of the NFL’s 16-game schedule),1 fourth-quarter and OT performance by WPA over a team’s first four games hasn’t really been indicative of how the team would perform for the rest of the season.2 This suggests that teams who begin the year by bleeding points and WPA late in games aren’t inherently doomed to choke forever (though the Chargers’ two-year trend might be more damning than usual).

But the damage of these first four weeks has already been done. Now the only question for the embattled McCoy is whether he can keep his job long enough to be at the helm when San Diego’s WPA problems eventually work themselves out.

Footnotes

  1. And excluding the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons.

  2. The correlation between a team’s per-game WPA in the fourth quarter or OT through the season’s first four games and the same figure over the rest of the season was effectively zero.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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