Saturday, January 26, 2013

Off-Season Diagnosis: San Diego Chargers

The San Diego Chargers fired a coach after a 14-2 season just six years ago.

Think about that last sentence and think about where San Diego is now.

The Chargers have always seemed to have a talented team. This year seemed like it was no different. As a person who picked San Diego to snatch one of the two wild card spots before the season started, things looked good. The Chargers, traditionally a slow-starting team, came out guns a’ blazing to a 3-1 record, with the wins coming against the top NFL prizefighters in Oakland, Tennessee, and Kansas City.

Things went downhill from there.

San Diego lost close, critical games in the latter part of the season at Denver (by seven) in week eleven, to Baltimore (in overtime) week twelve, and to Cincinnati (by seven) week 13. Winning three out of their last four couldn’t save the Chargers en route to a 7-9 season. I wouldn’t fault Chargers fans for going all Ron Burgandy on the franchise, but at least owner Alex Spanos understands there’s a problem and has been progressive in fixing it.

In my opinion, Spanos has led the best off-season front office and coaching search, landing former Colts vice president of football operations Tom Telesco as general manager, former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy head coach, and former Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. All of those guys are winners and I think the McCoy-Whisenhunt combo could lead to San Diego being the most dynamic offense in football. Whisenhunt was flat-out awesome as OC of the Steelers and led Arizona to a super bowl. He can do wonders when someone who resembles a quarterback is under center. McCoy was OC of Denver when Kyle Orton was looking like a pro bowler and has overseen Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning led-offenses.

I can’t say this enough: Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt were meant for each other. They’re the Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson of football. Both are awesome at adapting to their circumstances (See McCoy with Tebow, Tim) and base their offensive identity off the pieces they have and the team they’re playing. With some simple offensive upgrades (we’ll get to that in a minute), we could see some fireworks.

San Diego is picking eleventh in the upcoming draft. Ideally, they would grab an offensive lineman to help keep quarterback Phillip Rivers upright. Rivers was sacked an astounding 49 times last season. In comparison, Tom Brady was sacked 25 times. You need a great offensive line in this league to win. The chargers offensive line isn’t good in pass protection and is even worse in rushing offense, ranking 27th total with a paltry 92 yards per game. Part of that has to do with the talent at running back, but we’ve seen running backs who aren’t very talented yet still put together good seasons (Vick Ballard anyone?).

San Diego needs to keep Philip Rivers upright. 
It’s well known San Diego really likes Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher. Fisher has dominated at the senior bowl practices and is drawing a lot of comparisons to former Chippewa tackle Joe Staley. Fisher has a big frame, nimble feet, and is one of the most athletic lineman in the draft. The Chargers also wouldn’t be upset with nabbing Alabama guard Chance Warmack, who is a slight notch ahead of David DeCastro (taken 24th by Pittsburgh last year) in my opinion. Here’s the problem: I’m not sure both of those players will be available. If I’m San Diego, I’m hoping Geno Smith is not taken before Arizona at seven because he would be hard to pass up. Don’t be surprised if Warmack is off the board at nine to New York too. In the case that Fisher is taken at seven and Warmack at nine, cornerback Dee Milliner would be a nice fit as would defensive end Ezekiel Ansah out BYU. Cornerback definitely needs to be addressed early in the draft or in free agency. 

San Diego is going to have lots of room to play with in cap space (I’ve heard estimates in the $40-50 million range). Both starting guards are free agents and they should make an effort to sign right guard Louis Vasquez who recorded a +12.7 season according to Tyrone Green is also a free agent, but you can let him walk and fill his shoes by drafting Warmack or signing a stop-gap like Matt Slauson for about $1.5 million a year. Don’t be surprised if Bills guard Andy Levitre is also on the Chargers radar.

Time for the Chargers to get serious about finding a replacement for Antonio Gates. Gates hasn’t played a full season since 2009 and is 32. Even if Gates was still putting up 65-80 catches a season, we’re seeing more and more teams with two really good tight ends creating match up problems. The Chargers second tight end? Future hall of famer Career backup Randy McMichael, who put up a stunning nine receptions for 51 yards. Go after Dennis Pitta or Dustin Keller, who has been generally misused as a Jet.

Things get interesting at wide receiver. Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem were huge underachievers in San Diego and a lot of people would like to see them gone. I’m definitely no genius when it comes to understanding the salary cap and all the terms that go with it, but it sounds as if cutting both of those guys would only result in a hit of $2.25 million. If that’s really the case, then I’d just be done with both of them and focus on working out a deal with Danario Alexander after this season, who should get a first round tender. The duo of Malcom Floyd (who’s a beast) and Alexander is better than a majority of NFL teams. I’m not a big Ryan Mathews guy at the running back position and apparently San Diego isn’t either. Mathew lost reps to Jackie Battle and could not stay healthy… again. I’m in favor of doing whatever it takes to get bruiser Eddie Lacy in the draft, but if that can’t happen I would like the signing of Jonathon Dwyer or Rashard Mendenhall in free agency.

When you're talking about the best safties in the league,
make sure you mention Eric Weddle. 
I’m not going to get too specific on the Chargers defense because overall it’s pretty good. The pass defense needs some work, but they have a solid cornerstone to build off of with Eric Weddle, who might be the best safety in the league. I would try and re-sign Corey Lynch and Chris Carr but would be done with Quinton Jammer, who was porous this year. The pass defense will improve if Melvin Ingram develops into a top-tier pass rusher like he’s projected too. Last year’s first round pick had only one sack and 41 tackles in his rookie campaign. Shaun Phillips did his part with 9.5 sacks on the right side, but outside of him and defensive end Corey Liuget, that was it. Takeo Spikes is the leader of the defense but he’s also in his 15th year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see San Diego take a flyer on Michael Mauti in the third round (who will be there because of injury concerns) and try and develop him into a starter.

Chargers fans would be happy if they saw less of this in 2013.
Lets be clear though: none of this matters if Philip Rivers doesn’t stop turning the ball over. The last two seasons Rivers has had 64 interceptions and fumbles. Sixty-freaking-four. Your in Mark Sanchez territory with numbers like that. Look at thisinterception in a game at Tampa (fast forward to the 2:55 mark). If you’re ever having a bad day, just put this on a loop. Always know you never did that. You can’t win games when a) you quarterback is a terrible decision maker, b) your quarterback is a terrible decision maker who gets sacked nearly 50 times a year, and c) (not related) your special teams are terrible.

The talent is still there. Rivers has a 64% completion percentage and threw for over 3,600 yards. To me, it's no coincidence that when Rivers lost Darren Sproles his turnovers went up. Every quarterback needs a safety valve, whether it's a running back or possession receiver. Brady had Kevin Faulk and now has Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead. Flacco has Ray Rice. Ben Roethlisberger has Heath Miller, Matt Ryan has Tony Gonzalez, Rodgers has James Jones (among others), etc. Who is Rivers guy? Ryan Mathews? Yikes. I think Rivers has plenty left in the tank. His game in Pittsburgh was vintage Phillip Rivers: on the road, dropping dimes all over the place, talking smack, etc. San Diego needs more of that. That’s the guy who’s won playoff games and that’s a guy who can win you a super bowl. 

--Chris Cappella

a super bowl. Don’t forget that. 

1 comment:

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