"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
28 Aug 2012
by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said it best: "We have lost our respect in the league and our credibility in the league. We were an elite team. You miss one year in the playoffs? OK. You miss two? You deserve everything that’s being said about you." What’s being said about Smith’s team is: their window has closed; they’re too much of a tease; a lack of focus and desire has squandered a fine collection of talent.
Slow starts had become a specialty for the Chargers until last season, when they jumped out to a 4-1 record. They also went 4-1 in their last five games. The problem was, sandwiched between those two spurts was a six-game losing streak that was a showcase of turnovers, sloppy gaffes, and banal defense.
It would have been very easy for Chargers president Dean Spanos to cave under public pressure and fire Smith along with head coach Norv Turner this past January. But, to Spanos’s credit, he made the unpopular decision to do what was best from a football standpoint: bring both men back. A regime change probably could have helped ignite some much-needed excitement (i.e. ticket sales) for this somewhat struggling franchise. But, over the long haul, the best way to help a franchise’s bottom line is to win games. Smith and Turner give the Chargers the best chance for that this season.
Chargers fans might politely disagree. Smith is seen as cantankerous and, if not shrewd, then at least competent. That’s a fair assessment. Turner is viewed by many as a bumbler. True, the 60-year-old coach doesn’t have the most dynamic personality. But he does have one of the best offensive minds in the industry. It’s easy to see a talented team lose and immediately claim that the players aren’t being "inspired." The reality is that it’s professional football, and great "rah rah" pregame speeches only matter so much.
The Chargers are a difficult team to prepare for during the week and an even more difficult team to play chess against on Sunday. That’s a product of Turner. They’re also a veteran group that’s been together for several years now. With years’ worth of chemistry building already done, what is more important: having someone who can bring "fresh energy" to the locker room, or someone who can concoct smart game-plans and in-game strategic adjustments?
Instead of talking about momentum and the right attitude and turning things around and blah blah blah, let’s examine how this very solid team can simply be better in 2012.
It’s highly unlikely that quarterback Philip Rivers will be as up-and-down as he was last season. Though Rivers finished with respectable numbers –- 27 touchdowns, 4,624 passing yards, an 88.7 passer rating -– he never seemed to quite be himself during the course of 2011. Most of his mistakes (20 interceptions, nine total fumbles, including the botched snap against Kansas City on Monday night) were more about poor execution than bad luck or extenuating circumstances. Rivers was not as accurate or comfortable making throws from a crowded pocket. That made a big difference in the Chargers offense, as, generally, Rivers’ toughness and shot-put throwing style makes him one of the game’s best pocket passers under duress.
Some have speculated that injuries were to blame for his woes. Perhaps, but the more likely explanation is that Rivers lost confidence in the guys around him. His offensive line was riddled by health issues throughout the season, and three of his top four skill position weapons -– tight end Antonio Gates, wide receiver Malcom Floyd and running back Ryan Mathews –- missed extended time.
The only featured weapon who stayed healthy all season was Vincent Jackson. He, of course, has since left for greener pastures (i.e. greener money) in Tampa Bay. Jackson was the Chargers’ best wide receiver, but they can live without him. Not because their own free agent pickup, Robert Meachem, is anywhere close to as good, but because this offense is designed smartly enough to thrive even without quality receiving targets. As long as Rivers is protected up front, anyway. If you don’t believe this, recall the 2010 season when Jackson missed 11 games, Gates missed six games and Floyd missed five. The Chargers still finished second in the league in scoring and first in yardage.
Of course, the success in 2010 doesn’t mean talented ball-handlers are irrelevant in San Diego. After all, Turner’s philosophy is built around the concept of winning one-on-one matchups. These days, most coaches create one-on-one matchups through spread formations. Turner, however, has always run a vertical offense, which tends to operate out of base personnel and rely on keeping a lot of blockers back. With added blockers, Turner can dial up more seven-step drops, which enables all routes to stretch further. This approach is why the Chargers have always preferred big, downfield targets at wide receiver. They don’t need superstars to fill this role, just capable pros who can play the style. Case in point: the willowy Malcom Floyd was undrafted out of Wyoming seven years ago, but has been an excellent fit in a secondary role. Hence, rather than spend $26 million (guaranteed) to keep Jackson, A.J. Smith found it prudent to spend $14 million (guaranteed) on the less-accomplished but still speedy (and physically imposing) Meachem.
Granted, Turner’s system is aided by having a star like Antonio Gates inside. The eight-time Pro Bowler, with his much-publicized power forward skill set, was the first "mismatch creating" tight end of his era. The Chargers took full advantage of this. Now 32 and having battled serious foot problems the past few years, Gates may no longer be a top-five player at his position. San Diego is hoping that a return to health and offseason weight loss can help him recover some of the quickness and burst he’s lost. Even if it doesn’t, Gates can still be a viable force. He has a very good understanding of angles and positioning technique. The fact that San Diego’s top two backup tight ends are veteran Randy McMichael (a fine movement-based blocker and short-area receiver) and Dante Rosario (an impressive athlete but perpetual underachiever), rather than some new developmental prospect, tells you Smith and company still have plenty of confidence in the veteran.
Normally the lone interior target in San Diego’s base personnel passing game, Gates this year may find himself sharing the middle of the field more. The Chargers seem anxious to use more three-receiver looks, which is in line with how the rest of the NFL is evolving. With Craig Davis turning out the be a dud and Legedu Naanee not fully materializing here, the Chargers have never had a veritable slot receiver under Turner. They’re hoping that can change after the signing of veterans Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish. Both are quick, shifty, lightning bug types. They have a history of injury and occasional inconsistency, but when right, they’ve also proven to be explosive. To buttress the competition in the slot (and possibly the return game, where Royal and Parrish both thrive), the Chargers also signed Micheal Spurlock, who offers more size but less speed than Royal and Parrish.
There’s little to no chance of all three pickups making the final roster. It might be tough for even two of them to stick. After all, the Chargers could decide to give third-year pro Richard Goodman one more year to polish up. Vincent Brown's fractured ankle has thrown the back end of the Chargers receiving corps into chaos. It’s easy to forget about the third-round pick from a year ago, but by season’s end, Brown was a consistent threat for Rivers. He has the quickness and agility to play the slot and the body control and leaping ability to win jump balls on the perimeter. The Chargers are hopeful that he can return this season.
An increase in three-receiver sets wouldn’t be aimed solely at helping the passing game. Ryan Mathews would be a much more rhythmic runner if he operated regularly out of spread formations. The 2010 first-round pick is a finesse player through and through. He’s shown this in a negative way by getting injured frequently, and in a positive way by making defenders miss with his lateral agility and smooth second-gear burst. Mathews has the talent to be an upper-echelon NFL back if he can develop better durability, ball security, vision and patience.
The Chargers, however, are a system-based team -– not a team that banks on gifted but fragile ballcarriers. That’s why they signed stalwart fullback Le’Ron McClain after Mike Tolbert left, brought back their own nimble fullback, Jacob Hester, and signed two power-based inside runners in Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle. If the Chargers want to stay in their traditional base sets and keep running the old fashioned way, they’ll have the backfield resources to do so.
But will they have the offensive line for it? In March, this group saw its two best players depart with injuries, as a chronic neck problem forced the release (and later retirement) of left tackle Marcus McNeill, and concussion issues also led Kris Dielman to hang them up. The Chargers found in-house replacements for both in Jared Gaither and Tyronne Green.
Gaither, signed late last season, is a major wild card. Dripping with elite left tackle talent early in his career, durability problems have made the 26-year-old a serious question mark. If healthy, he has the breathtaking size (6-foot-9, 335 pounds) and necessary athleticism to be a star. The Chargers better pray he can play; incumbent backup Brandyn Dombrowski is such a liability in pass protection that he’s been moved to guard, and free agent pickup Mario Henderson is one of those "gifted but unmotivated" players who is trying to bounce back after eating himself out of the league last season. It’s possible Henderson won’t beat out undrafted rookie Michael Harris.
Inside, Green is capable, but he's looked more comfortable in a backup role throughout his first three years in the league. He was originally drafted to play center, but Pro Bowl veteran Nick Hardwick is not ready to be unseated. Possessing the requisite mobility to execute the pull-blocks that define Turner’s power run game, Green should do just fine as the full-time starting guard. He must improve his lateral movement as a pass-blocker, though. If he can't do that, versatile veteran Rex Hadnot is on hand for San Diego to fall back on. The right side of the line returns intact. At guard, Louis Vasquez is mobile in all phases, including the short-passing game, which is critical given how much San Diego relies on screens and dump-offs to backs. Tackle Jeromey Clary is nothing special, though he has improved exponentially in this system and has good chemistry with his teammates in the run game.
Fans tend to blame San Diego’s inconsistency on the offense because offense is what we all associate with this team, but that association only exists because it’s such a prolific offense. In truth, it’s a mundane defense that has held the Chargers back the last few years.
Turner seemed to recognize this by replacing defensive coordinator Greg Manusky with John Pagano this past offseason. Manusky ran a very predictable, reactionary 3-4. That didn’t work because he had an insipid pass-rush. Pagano has been the linebackers coach here since 2005 and won’t dramatically alter the scheme, but the hope is he can be a little more creative in conducting it.
He’ll at least have more firepower than Manusky had. Not many pass-rushers have shown less imagination than the oft-injured 2009 first-round pick Larry English, who confirmed his bust status last year. With him out of their immediate plans, A.J. Smith spent another first-round pick on Melvin Ingram, who surprisingly fell to them at the 18th overall pick. Ingram is very intelligent and versatile. He’s learning the defensive end position, but will spend the vast majority of his time at outside linebacker.
Ingram won’t start at outside linebacker, though. The Chargers still have sinewy star Shaun Phillips on the left side, and they signed arguably the best edge-setting run-defender in the league, Jarret Johnson, to man the right. Johnson himself is rather versatile, and probably has the strength to play defensive end on passing downs. That would allow him to stay on the field with Ingram in nickel packages, which would give the Chargers more flexibility in their sub package looks. It’s worth noting that there’s a fourth outside linebacker who could make noise in 2012: Antwan Barnes. For whatever reason, the sixth-year pro did not stick in Baltimore or Philadelphia. But, in an ancillary role, Barnes can excel as a one-trick pony. That trick? Instant speed off the snap of the ball.
A stronger pass rush is vital for improving a defense that ranked 32nd on third down and 28th in yards per pass attempt last season. However, no meaningful improvements will be sustained if the secondary doesn’t sharpen up. Once-rising first-round cornerback Antoine Cason was not comfortable in the off-coverage concepts that this scheme demanded last season and got removed from the starting lineup. This season represents a make-or-break opportunity for Cason, as his original rookie contract is expiring. Cason is lanky while keeping plenty of athleticism –- it’s just a matter of execution.
Opposite Cason, 11th-year veteran Quentin Jammer is out to prove that his awful 2011 campaign was an aberration brought on by off-field distractions (he got divorced) and not just a case of old age setting in. Jammer, though not an aggressive tackler, has always been a physical cover artist. He, too, is a free agent after this season, which is why it’s surprising that A.J. Smith did not draft at least one cornerback this past April.
Smith did, however, select two cornerbacks in the 2011 Draft: Marcus Gilchrist in the second round and Shareece Wright in the third. Gilchrist looked relatively comfortable in 11 games (four starts) as a rookie last season, showing good assertiveness when he understood his safety help. Wright battled a hamstring injury early and never saw the field. Both will play significant roles in 2013. As for this season, one of them will assume the nickel job, as incumbent Dante Hughes was not re-signed. Expect that to be Gilchrist.
The cornerbacks aren’t solely to blame for last year’s mediocre secondary. The strong safety position has been a revolving door in San Diego since Rodney Harrison left. In hopes of changing this, Smith spent a third-round pick on Brandon Taylor. Taylor was a highly-regarded leader at LSU and brings intriguing read-and-react skills to the NFL, though scouts say he needs to become a better tackler in space.
Taylor doesn’t have to start right away; the Chargers signed Seahawks castoff Atari Bigby for that. The subtly explosive, hard-hitting, seventh-year veteran once flashed star potential in a young Packers secondary. However, injuries stunted his growth. He’ll have a chance to frequently play in the box this season, as free safety Eric Weddle has gotten more comfortable in centerfield coverage the past few years. Weddle is no superstar (talks of him becoming the next Troy Polamalu coming out of Utah now seem laughable), but he tied for the league lead with seven interceptions last season, earning first team All-Pro honors.
In run defense, things should be a little more stable. It starts with nose tackle Antonio Garay, who was re-signed to a two-year contract this past spring. The 32-year-old journeyman has found a home here, showing the strength to play two gaps but the limberness to make individual stops inside.
Expect the Chargers to be more diverse in their front-line looks over the next few years. They've made sizeable investments at defensive end in 2011 first-round pick Corey Liuget and 2012 second-rounder Kendall Reyes. Liuget started 13 games as a rookie, but did very little to stand out. It’s too early to judge his career, of course, and it’s encouraging that one of his top attributes coming out of Illinois is shared by Reyes: the ability to play both the five-technique (directly over the offensive tackle) and the three-technique (between the guard and tackle). If the callow ends progress properly, their flexibility should variegate the Chargers’ front seven down the road.
There is experienced depth behind the youth outside. Fourth-year end Vaughn Martin continues to improve in all facets; he’ll likely start ahead of Reyes early in the season. Ceaseless grinder Jacques Cesaire will also get a few snaps. The depth is not constricted to just defensive end: nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin was brought in to spell Garay. Franklin can plug gaps in a 3-4 or a 4-3. It’s a little surprising that he was signed given that the Chargers already had 2010 fifth-round pick Cam Thomas, who has shown hints of potential through his first two seasons.
The men tasked with making most of the run stops behind the trench-clogging line are inside linebackers Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler. Spikes is 35 but still going strong, though the Chargers did see it fit to draft his heir, Jonas Mouton, in the second round. Butler is more speed-based, which is why he plays the weak side. He’s a good downhill attacker, particularly when blitzing, but he could stand to be a stauncher tackler. It will be interesting to see who the Chargers keep in on nickel. Both starters are serviceable in pass defense, but newly signed backup Demorrio Williams specializes in coverage.
Kicker Nate Kaeding should be able to win back his job from Nick Novak after missing all of 2011 with a torn ACL. Punter Mike Scifres is excellent in ball placement. In the return game, Richard Goodman is coming off a big year on kicks, while Eddie Royal, Roscoe Parrish or Micheal Spurlock all have experience handling punts.
If Philip Rivers plays up to his ability (and there’s no reason to think he won’t) and Ryan Mathews can have the breakout year some think he could, this offense will finish in the top five in scoring for the ninth straight time. Ultimately, though, the team’s fate will be determined by how reliable and dynamic the defense can become. Expect at least modest improvements.
27 comments, Last at 29 Aug 2012, 10:50pm by Independent George