How Anthony Lynn molded a team — and a case for Coach of the Year

Anthony Lynn’s Coach of the Year candidacy is enjoying a strong couple of weeks. Within the span of 11 days, his Los Angeles Chargers came back from 16 points down to beat the first-place Steelers in Pittsburgh and from 14 points down to beat the first-place Chiefs in Kansas City. They’re 11-3 and locked into a playoff spot with a chance to earn the AFC’s top seed if the next two weeks go well.

I caught up with Lynn by phone Friday, the day after that comeback in Kansas City, and asked him what he liked about his team. The way things are going right now, he could have said almost anything. He said this: “The way the guys feel about one another. Our locker room is very selfless. You see it on the sidelines, too. The defense believes in the offense. The offense believes in the special teams. They play for each other, so when they get into these situations, they don’t flinch. That stuff starts in the offseason.”

This year’s Coach of the Year race is crowded. The two Seans, Payton and McVay of the Saints and Rams. Andy Reid in Kansas City. Matt Nagy in Chicago. Frank Reich, if he can lug the Colts into the playoffs. Bill O’Brien for the recovery from Houston’s 0-3 start. Maybe Pete Carroll leading the not-dead-yet Seahawks?

But if the Chargers finish this off — if they win their last two games, the Chiefs lose one more and Lynn’s bunch ends up with the top seed in the AFC — how can he not sit at the top of the list? This team played the first half of the season without top pass-rusher Joey Bosa, the whole season so far without starting tight end Hunter Henry, the past three games without starting running back Melvin Gordon, the past one without Gordon backup Austin Ekeler, and the final three quarters of the Kansas City game without top wideout Keenan Allen.

“I think he’s the Coach of the Year and I don’t even think it should be close,” said ESPN NFL analyst Rex Ryan, who’s surely a bit biased as the coach who employed Lynn as an assistant with the Jets from 2009 to ’14 and the Bills in 2015 and ’16. “Is he a great coach as far as X’s and O’s? Yeah, he is. But part of the job is to push the right buttons and to be a connector — to connect with the fans, with the community and with your football team. And he’s absolutely done that.”

The most important coaching isn’t the stuff you see on TV. It’s just not. If you want to judge an NFL coach by watching a game and deciding whether he should or shouldn’t have gone for two, or challenged a call, or called that particular timeout at that particular time, go right ahead. But you’re not getting the whole picture.

The most important job an NFL coach has, by far, is getting his team prepared to play on Sundays. And you need more than one week to do that. Speaking Friday after his biggest win of the year, Lynn thought back to the offseason and the “team-building workshops” he and team psychologist Herb Martin designed for the players. These are small-group sessions, each with a different, somewhat broad topic such as “leadership” or “accountability.” They ask the players to brainstorm on their topics and then get back together and discuss what they came up with. The sessions happen during the season, too — once a month — and Lynn does similar ones with his coaches.

“It’s all over the place,” Lynn said. “All geared toward developing that sense of trust and dependence on each other. They’re not mandatory, but I’m really proud of how many guys show up and take it seriously. We get together in the offseason and meet, we don’t talk about football. We talk about life, about finishing education, about tying your identity to something other than football. You get to the point where you can get the best out of people, you can hold people accountable. I don’t think it happens organically.”

The coach-hiring season is around the corner, and you’re going to hear a lot about teams looking for offensive- or defensive-minded head coaches. Lynn’s background is on offense — he was a running back and a running backs coach, then very briefly an offensive coordinator that final year under Ryan in Buffalo. But more than that, Lynn is the kind of coach for whom teams should be looking next month — one who’s looking not necessarily to call plays or design innovative offensive or defensive schemes, but one who’s focused on doing what he can do to build and lead a team.

“You want to get a leader, and he’s got all the traits,” Ryan said. “I can’t take credit for him. Bill Parcells recommended him to me. But as soon as I got him, I thought, ‘Man, this guy is awesome.’ He’s tough as hell, first of all — he was a running back. But a guy who can get the best out of every player. Our first year with the Jets, we had Thomas Jones run for over 1,300 yards, then in the playoffs, Shonn Greene was our starter. He had both guys ready to go, no complaining. Had his guys in the right frame of mind to get the most out of them.”

It’s a little bit funny that the Chargers’ current training facility is perfect for small-group workshopping. They operate out of an abandoned office park in Costa Mesa, California, that has been renovated to provide them with a locker room and practice fields but is still mainly a collection of cubicles, coffee shops and indoor and outdoor meeting areas. Kobe Bryant’s offices are in the next building.

The place is a temporary home while the Chargers, two years removed from playing in San Diego, search the sprawling Los Angeles area for a permanent residence. And that’s a reminder of the unique situation in which Lynn finds himself. Last year was all about relocating and dealing with the weird circumstances of the move. This year is more settled, but they still practice at an office park, have training camp at a high school and play their home games in a 30,000-seat soccer stadium where the visiting teams’ fans routinely outnumber their own.

“They play every game on the road, basically,” Ryan said. “How many teams could handle that?”

So far, Lynn’s team has. He took over in 2017 for Mike McCoy, who was fired after the Chargers won just nine games combined in his last two seasons. The Chargers went 9-7 in Lynn’s first season and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker that still drives him crazy. (The Bills got in even after the Chargers beat the Bills 54-24 in their head-to-head meeting.) His record as Chargers coach is 20-10. The team’s nomad act may be a rallying point, but you still need the right guy to rally you.

“My college coach, Spike Dykes, used to tell me, ‘Don’t you ever forget: Football is a relationship business,'” Lynn said. “I’ve always tried very hard to remember that, and I believe in it. If you build a team like that, you have something solid you can lean on when things are going well and when they aren’t.”

Lynn knows these Chargers aren’t home yet. They want more than a playoff spot. They’d love to shed their organizational reputation as a team that falls apart in big moments. They’d love to get Philip Rivers a Super Bowl title to finish off his Hall of Fame résumé. They have big goals, and doing things like coming back to win in Pittsburgh and Kansas City makes them believe they can accomplish them. It’s one thing to design and execute an offseason team-building plan. It’s another to see it come to fruition the way Lynn’s has so far.

“In the offseason, I used the metaphor of a river and a flood,” Lynn said. “I think about how destructive a flood can be — just a mass of water moving on its own without any purpose. But a river is much more efficient, flowing in one direction, and it’s powerful. And that’s how I feel about this team right now. We’re like the river. That’s what we want to be.”

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