INGLEWOOD – Players and coaches won’t bite when asked such questions, as creatures who live in the moment and prefer not to dwell on the past. But this one is intriguing enough that it has to be asked: As well as the Chargers are playing now, and as much as they’ve risen in the AFC standings in the last month, how much better would their position be if Mike Williams and Keenan Allen had been available all year?
Sunday, in their 31-10 victory over the Rams, the effect was easy to see on an offense that produced 431 yards total, 192 on the ground (122 by Austin Ekeler) and 239 through the air and scored a third-quarter touchdown for the first time since Week 5 in Cleveland (and the first points of any sort in the third quarter in five weeks).
Williams had 10 catches for 94 yards, but just reciting that number doesn’t do his day justice. He had receptions of 26 and 19 yards in the Chargers’ first touchdown drive of the day, a leaping one-handed catch at the sideline for 18 yards late in the first half that set up a field goal and was guaranteed to make every highlight show with access to it, and a back-shoulder catch for 14 yards down the sideline early in the second half that might have been the epitome of making something out of nothing. That also set up a touchdown.
Allen had his own sensational moments while catching five of six thrown his way for 60 yards, including a 28-yard scamper after catching a pass in the left flat toward the end of the third quarter.
Together, they provide a dimension that could have changed the outcome of two losses at midseason had they been available. Williams missed four games with an ankle injury, while Allen missed seven and was limited in another because of knee issues. Neither played in the Nov 13 loss at San Francisco, a 22-16 49ers victory. Williams was unavailable in the 27-20 loss to the Raiders Dec. 4 in Las Vegas, while Allen was inactive in the 27-24 loss at Kansas City (and the 38-10 home loss to Jacksonville) in September, and in a reduced role caught just two balls in the 37-23 loss at home to Seattle in October.
Could their dual presence and potential have changed that 49ers’ loss, the KC loss early in the season or the Raiders’ loss last month? Could they even be looking at a 13-3 record and top-three seed, the potential some had predicted for this team before the season, instead of 10-6?
Or are we maybe looking at this backward?
Maybe this is the perfect scenario. The Chargers have won four straight – judge the quality of their opposition at your own peril – they will at worst be the No. 6 seed and could finish No. 5, and they’re as healthy as they’ve been all season. And regardless of who you’re beating, if you’re winning at the end of the regular season, it can carry over into the postseason.
“That’s what we trying to do,” Williams said, when reminded that this was the way the Rams, then a No. 4 seed at 12-5, handled their business at the end of last season. “Obviously, you know, you don’t want to look too far ahead. We just gotta make the next one the best one and keep going from there.”
The one-hander will assuredly get everyone’s attention, as a highlight reel special. It even amazed Justin Herbert, who threw the pass and who has witnessed plenty of previous spectacular plays by the 6-foot-4 Williams.
“I don’t know how anyone else does anything with that,” Herbert said. “He’s about as special as it gets. And I didn’t – I wasn’t able to watch the replay on the video board. We got up to the line of scrimmage just to get a play off, just to make sure. Maybe he was inbounds, maybe he wasn’t. But I’m definitely gonna have to watch that one again.”
(Incidentally, he did get both feet inbounds.)
Best catch so far in the year 2023 @darealmike_dub
: #LARvsLAC on CBS
: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/bfMzApyEr4 pic.twitter.com/PraeXydfDA
— NFL (@NFL) January 1, 2023
Maybe it’s Williams’ basketball background, which calls to mind another Chargers pass-catcher of the recent past, future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates.
“I mean, basketball’s my favorite sport,” Williams said. “I try to put it in my football game, boxing out the defender, using my body to go up and attack the ball. So yeah, I try to add that in my game.”
What is the cumulative effect of having those weapons available?
Chargers’ Kyle Van Noy gives Coach Brandon Staley vote of confidence
Chargers’ Brandon Staley gets the better of Rams and Sean McVay
Chargers dispatch Rams easily, extend winning streak to 4 in a row
Rams vs. Chargers: Live updates from SoFi Stadium
Chargers face challenges as regular season winds down
“I think it’s huge knowing that you got those guys out there,” Herbert said. “They’re two of the best receivers in the game and to have those guys out there on the field, it opens up so much more for our offense. And we know that, hey, on third down, we’ve got to find those guys. They’re gonna beat man coverage, they’re going to understand where to sit in zone coverage. And they’re really smart, they’re athletic, talented. Having those guys on the field really helps us.”
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams (81) makes a one-handed catch during an NFL football game against the Rams, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
And no, Brandon Staley would not take the bait when I asked the question at the top of this column.
“You can’t go back in time, for sure,” he said. “I think what I’d like to do is stay in the moment, because you guys are all seeing that catch like I did. I mean, you’re not going to see two catches like that by any wideout in the league. And he’s playing with so much confidence.
“… I think that’s what we’ve seen for the last two years, (that) Mike Williams is one of the premier players in the league. We certainly play a lot better when he touches the ball and touches the ball in the key part of the field, and so he was able to make a bunch of big plays for us today. And I think Keenan’s really come on. He made a bunch of big plays for us today, too. And I think you’re seeing that vintage Keenan Allen the last couple of weeks, high volume of production and those two guys kind of playing off each other. They give us a really good tandem.”
Just imagine the possibilities.