Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Apr 2013
Guest column by Mike Ridley
Just a few short years ago, the San Diego Chargers were a 13-win team, a perennial playoff contender boasting one of the most talented rosters in the league. Today, they’re a franchise hitting the reset button after (finally) parting ways with six-year head coach Norv Turner and longtime general manager A.J. Smith.
Since 2009, the Chargers have seen their win total steadily decline from 13 to eight. During this time, the team has regressed while the division has improved. They went from competing against the likes of Kyle Orton and JaMarcus Russell to facing off against Peyton Manning and Alex Smith (although Football Outsiders’ Andy Benoit calls the latter "just a guy"). A division that used to be won with anything resembling a .500 record now features one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, a successful head coach in Andy Reid, and, well, the Oakland Raiders. The Chargers are no longer the prohibitive favorite to win a weak division; they’re now a rebuilding project.
The quickest way for the Chargers to rebuild this offseason would be by improving their offensive line, which surrendered 49 sacks last season, fourth-worst in the league. The team also ranked 27th in the league in rushing last year with a paltry 91.3 yards per game. It comes as no surprise that the Chargers decided to either cut or not re-sign six of their offensive linemen from last season, with a seventh, in Jeromey Clary, likely to be cut, as Benoit noted. Those seven linemen were credited with 22 of the 49 sacks allowed last year, per Football Outsiders’ game charting project. The fact that Louis Vasquez, who was not credited with a sack allowed in 2012, was the only one to sign somewhere thus far should surprise no one.
|Offensive Lineman||Games Started||Sacks Allowed+|
Unfortunately for Chargers fans (and Philip Rivers’ health), the players brought in to fill these voids leave much to be desired. San Diego signed King Dunlap and Chad Rinehart to replace Clary and the departed Vazquez. Dunlap has notable flaws and, according to our game charting, was credited with 6.3 sacks allowed last season. He will team up with Mike Harris to provide one of the worst tackle tandems in the league. Rinehart, while serviceable, is a sizeable downgrade from what the Chargers lost in Vazquez.
Even with the lack of talent the Chargers have on their line, they still can see improved statistical play from their front five with better health and continuity. Last year, San Diego was tied for last in the league in Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line Continuity Score, with a score of 22 out of 48. The Chargers used nine different starters on their offensive line and never had the same starters for more than three games in a row. The line, already having a dearth of talent, was further burdened by never being able to become cohesive as a unit. This lack of synergy made a bad line even worse. While offensive line continuity score isn’t a definitive marker for offensive line play (the Jets scored a perfect 48 of 48, yet allowed 47 sacks), teams with a competent quarterback and a higher OLC score tend to have a more efficient offense. (Cut to Jets fans nodding their heads solemnly.)
This is why San Diego's main focus needs to be improved offensive line play. Rivers is still one of the more capable quarterbacks in the league, but because he moves like a Mack truck in Los Angeles traffic, he needs a sturdy line to help keep him upright. As the offensive line continuity score has eroded from 33 to 28 in the last four years, his sack numbers have increased from 25 to 49. This follows a steady decline in both his quarterback rating and ESPN’s Total QBR rating. Rivers’ 40.6 Total QBR for 2012 was easily the worst of his career since ESPN started tracking the stat in 2008 -- it placed him 31st in the league, one spot behind the beleaguered Blaine Gabbert. Let that sink in for a moment. A major reason for this low ranking was his sack EPA (expected points added), which was third-worst in the league. Having a better line will not only help lower his sack EPA, but should also reduce his interception total and lead to a decrease in his league-leading fifteen fumbles as well.
The benefits of improved play upfront would be three-fold for Rivers and the Chargers: improved play by Rivers, fewer turnovers, and more offensive opportunities. Rivers has a tendency to panic when constantly pressured. His mechanics falter and his accuracy drops, leading to more incomplete passes and turnovers. If Rivers could reduce his interceptions and fumbles by half, San Diego would be looking at an additional fifteen offensive opportunities to score some points, or about one per game. For a team that lost five games by seven points or less, that could easily be the difference between 7-9 and 10-6.
In the NFL today, quarterback play is the biggest key to success. Talented rosters are no longer able to overcome the woes of their quarterbacks. Take Reid's Chiefs. The talent level at many of the skill positions is among the league’s best -- Kansas City had six Pro Bowlers -- but flaky quarterback play plagued both their 2012 seasons. The Chargers may not have the overall talent level that they did four years ago, but they still have a roster and quarterback capable of competing for a Wild Card, if not challenge Denver for the AFC West crown. This will only happen if Rivers returns to prior form, and that can only be obtained by improving the offensive line.
Mike Ridley is an FO intern, and the co-host of the Simply Awesome Sports podcast on Oregon Sports News. He's also an author for the Hour of Power Show blog. You can follow him on Twitter @hourofpowershow.
If you have an idea for a guest column that takes a new look at something football-related, send us your idea at info-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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