They can’t say they weren’t warned.
The Chargers represented Los Angeles in a regular-season home game for the first time in 57 years Sunday, yet the grand homecoming occurred in front of scattered empty seats amid various empty moments.
The Chargers played a team from the other side of the country, yet at least half of the fans at StubHub Center were cheering for the Miami Dolphins.
The Spanos family that brought the team here from San Diego was publicly thanked during LaDainian Tomlinson’s brief but emotional halftime speech, and the place erupted in boos.
Twice referee Tony Corrente referred to the Chargers by the wrong home — “Timeout San Diego … excuse me, Los Angeles’’ — and everyone laughed and jeered.
And, oh yeah, in the final seconds, the building shook with a roar that one might think meant a Chargers victory … but instead it represented a Chargers loss after a 44-yard field-goal attempt from Younghoe Koo was wide right and loudly celebrated by the visitors.
All of which officially made it seem like both teams were visitors, two college squads playing in a neutral-site bowl game, not a billion-dollar NFL team forging its first step in what it thought would be a glamorous new home.
The Dolphins won the game 19-17 while the Chargers suffered yet another loss in a string of organizational defeats that has followed them since they made the unpopular decision eight months ago to leave their loyal San Diego fans and move to a town that neither wanted nor needed them.
“It was perfect, it was perfect for us,’’ said Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry late Sunday afternoon. “It’s always good to take over somebody else’s stadium.”
They didn’t really own the entire stadium, Chargers fans were just as loud, just as often, but should it even be a contest? Landry’s words were not a rap on Los Angeles fans, but a rip of the Chargers, who, despite their best marketing efforts, have to face a simple truth.
They just don’t belong here yet. They stormed the town last winter without warning and, just as many predicted, the town has mostly sighed and shrugged and turned its back.
They play in an absolutely magnificent place to watch football, the most intimate stadium in the NFL in many years. Yet they didn’t sell out the 27,000-seat soccer palace on Sunday, and haven’t sold it out since they began playing exhibition games here in August.
They play an exciting style of football, with their future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates setting an NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end Sunday with his 112th scoring grab. But they’ve lost both of their first two games, with both losses coming in the final seconds on failed field-goal plays. Since 2006, only 10 of 87 teams that started 0-2 have made the playoffs.
“If we can get going and put some wins together — we’ve got to get one first — then we’ll see more and more of our fans,” said Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
They needed to win quickly, and that’s not happening. They needed to connect with skeptical locals, and that’s really not happening.
There was a particularly uncomfortable moment before Sunday’s game when, on the giant video board, new Hall of Famer Tomlinson was conducting what should have been a humorous interview with two other former Chargers stars. Yet the building grew so quiet, it was easy to imagine fans looking at Quentin Jammer and Kris Dielman and whispering, “Who?”
The Chargers have a past, but it’s not ours. Witness their insistence on continuing to fire up the crowd with a blasting cannon and a warbling bugler. Taken out of San Diego, both traditions just seem weird.
The Chargers are hemmed in by anger from the south and apathy from the north. Before Sunday’s game, a plane flew above the neighborhood with an attached banner reading, “Worst owner in sports? Dean Spanos, pay your rent.” Nearby, there was a digital billboard purchased by a San Diego fan that displays messages ripping the NFL and Spanos. Meanwhile, a couple of hours before the game, all the roads coming down to Carson from Los Angeles were clear.
And, oh, by the way, they really need to update their game program. In the biography of team vice-chairman Michael Spanos, brother of Chairman Dean Spanos, it reads, “Michael joins his brother … in steering the direction of the organization, including the on-going effort to bring a new stadium to the San Diego region.’’
What the heck? They’re moving back?
Even though most of their fans appear to be driving up from San Diego, here’s guessing those folks wouldn’t want the Spanos family back. Yet most folks in Los Angeles haven’t embraced them yet either.
On the first official Sunday in their new home, this left the Chargers stuck in an unsettling debut that ended with an incredibly awkward moment just as Koo was missing that kick.
Rivers heard a loud noise before he saw the completion of the kick but, believe it or not, he wasn’t sure which team was being cheered.
“I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal,” Rivers said. “I wasn’t sure which roar it was.”
The noise came from fans of the Miami Dolphins. The strained silence continues for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Plaschke writes for the Los Angeles Times.
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