COSTA MESA — The lifeline came two days before Thanksgiving. After weeks of fruitless workouts, Chris McCain was flying back to California.
The past year had been a rollercoaster for the 25-year-old edge rusher. After two seasons as a little-used outside linebacker in Miami, McCain had been traded, cut, signed to two practice squads, and cut again. After playing just 269 regular-season snaps in the NFL, two-thirds of which came on special teams, he thought seriously about walking away.
And then, the Chargers called his agent. They wanted to sign McCain to their practice squad — sight unseen, no workout required.
“I was like, ‘This is going to be my last one right here,’” he said. “‘See how this goes.’”
Less than 10 months later, McCain is coming off his most significant NFL game yet. In Monday’s season-opening loss to Denver, he recorded a career-high 20 defensive snaps, and just his third-ever regular-season sack.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has helped unlock his potential. McCain is underweight for a defensive end at 6-5, 236 pounds — which is why he spent most of his career at outside linebacker. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage now, his responsibilities have been trimmed down, clearing his mind and freeing him to play fast.
“I’ve got to read the run, but the lineman is right in front of my face,” McCain said. “It’s easy to determine if it’s run or pass, and I can commit. Just do what I do.”
Still, he described his first sack as a Charger as “nothing special.” He had been able to drop quarterback Trevor Siemian because right tackle Menelik Watson was out of position. That defensive end Melvin Ingram was creating havoc on the other side didn’t hurt either.
McCain knows he has even better games ahead.
His next attempt comes Sunday (1:05 p.m., CBS) at StubHub Center against — who else? The same team that gave him his first shot, signing him after he went undrafted following a 2013 dismissal from Cal football. The same team that gave up on him, trading him to the Saints in August 2016 for a conditional seventh-round pick.
But he doesn’t want to give the Dolphins credit for fueling his unlikely journey back.
“They didn’t push me to get better,” McCain said. “My daughter did.”
Malayla is six weeks away from her second birthday, old enough to run around and string together half-sentences. But McCain doesn’t want to think in months. To him, his daughter is stuck at 1 year old until…