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Anthony Lynn leads Chargers back to relevancy

The first black head coach in team history has guided his team from an 0-4 start to playoff contention

COSTA MESA, California — As wildfires raged about 60 miles northwest of here and beyond, menacing some of Los Angeles’ toniest neighborhoods, Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn remained on the grind. Suddenly, the Chargers have a lot to gain.

From an 0-4 start, the Chargers have stormed back to relevancy under their first-year leader and the first African-American to occupy the top coaching job in franchise history.

They’ve won three straight as part of a 6-2 turnaround that has, stunningly, propelled them to the top of the AFC West. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Chargers are in a three-way tie for first with the Oakland Raiders and the reeling Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chargers have overcome the logistical headaches of their move from San Diego to the Los Angeles area as well as an awful opening quarter of the season. Los Angeles is positioned for a strong kick to the finish behind Lynn, 48, who’s definitely single-minded in his pursuit of success.

After the Chargers returned to practice Wednesday to prepare for this week’s game against the Washington Redskins, Lynn expressed support for first responders and everyone displaced by the blazes, which shut down portions of Interstate 405. Lynn also acknowledged he probably wasn’t as in tune as others about the details of the difficult situation.

“I can get from my house to [the team’s complex]. You close the 405, I wouldn’t even know how to get to work,” Lynn said. “I get home, I’m sleeping. I get here, I’m working 18 hours. So it’s pretty insulated.”

Well, whatever he’s doing, it’s working.

Since losing four straight to open the season, the Chargers have been among the NFL’s hottest teams. Behind closed doors, Lynn never wavered on two key points: The Chargers had more than enough talent, as well as time to get back in the game.

“They never stopped working, listening to coaches and staying positive, and I made sure coaches were positive,” said Lynn, one of only seven black head coaches in the NFL. “The whole organization was positive. If you came here then and watched our practices, you would have thought we were 4-0. I give them a lot of credit for hanging in there.”

Running back Melvin Gordon never stopped believing. From Lynn’s first day on the job, Gordon figured things would be different for the Chargers, who have missed the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, including the past three. Although it took a minute, Gordon has seen what he expected to all along.

“Man, just the swagger he [Lynn] has. The confidence. What he shows when it’s just us. He brings it,” Gordon said. “You could tell when he came here it was just a different type of feel and confidence around here. There was a belief like, ‘Yeah, we can do it.’ He never sugarcoated it. He just told us we needed to fix it. That we could fix it.”

The Chargers weren’t finishing well. Three of the losses during their winless streak were by seven points combined. Still, Lynn’s message was simple.

“He didn’t tell us to take it one game at a time. He told us take it one quarter at a time,” Gordon said. “He said let’s just look at it like that and see where we wind up.”

Talk is fine. In dire circumstances, however, results provide the best reinforcement. For the Chargers, the first encouraging signs occurred during a 27-22 road win over the New York Giants on Oct. 8. The next week, the visiting Chargers won another close one, 17-16, over the Raiders. The seeds of a comeback were planted.

The Chargers have relied on one of the league’s top passing attacks and a much-better-than-one-may-realize defense to climb into the playoff race. With 3,238 yards passing, the Chargers rank second in the NFL. Wide receiver Keenan Allen is having a big year. Opponents average only 17.7 points per game against the Chargers. That’s the second-lowest total in the AFC and fourth-lowest in the league.

None of that comes as a surprise to Lynn. He knows what he’s got. Bringing everyone together before the season enabled the Chargers to eventually show their best during it.

During the offseason, Lynn initiated and led several team-building exercises. He sometimes canceled practice and took the entire team and coaching staff to play paintball, compete in other games and have fellowship over lunch, “which gave guys the chance to know a new coaching staff and know each other better. To me, stuff like that is underestimated in terms of building that bond.

“It all starts with having high-character men. Then when you’re going through something, you can encourage this guy a little bit. You can pick up that guy a little bit. You can tell them things because you’ve gotten to know them. You can provide a better example for the younger players. When you agree on something upfront, you set the standard that you have. I didn’t just make that up the other day and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Everybody in the room signed off on it.”

In particular, Lynn emphasized the importance of team-building events because he took over a team on the move.

Last season, the 5-11 Chargers finished last in the AFC West. Then they bolted from their longtime home in San Diego to return to Los Angeles, where the franchise began in 1960 in the now-defunct American Football League. Uprooting an entire organization, and the logistical issues that arise from moving, can adversely affect a team’s performance. Players are human beings. Moving, even with the high level of assistance provided by deep-pocketed NFL teams, rarely occurs without any bumps.

Lynn, though, believed the experience would actually help the Chargers.

“For sure, it was another element that we had to account for,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about moving into a temporary building here, a training camp hotel over there, all the buses … it was a lot of gymnastics.

“But I thought that if it didn’t kill us, it would make us tougher. I thought it would galvanize this organization. And I think it did. Sometimes you just have to deal with change and just work through it.”

Anyone who pursues a coaching career expects constant change while trying to climb the ladder. But even for coaches, Lynn’s last season with the Buffalo Bills was one of dizzying change. Because of multiple staff shake-ups, he was promoted twice during the season: from running backs coach to offensive coordinator to interim head coach after Rex Ryan was fired with one game to play.

Some NFL observers figured Buffalo would remove Lynn’s interim tag. The Bills went in a different direction, hiring Sean McDermott. Lynn moved on. For him, he’s in the right place.

“I don’t even count last year as any experience for what I’m doing now,” Lynn said of his one-game stint atop Buffalo’s coaching chart. “I was told I was getting the job on a Wednesday before a game. What I’m doing now is different. And until you actually do it, you don’t know what it’s like.”

Obviously, Lynn is getting familiar with things. And in the process, he just may lead the resurgent Chargers back to the playoffs.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.