Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

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.

[ad placeholder 3]

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.

[ad placeholder 4]

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.

Game Rewind. Relive every NFL moment…subscribe to Game Rewind.

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

1 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

How the mighty have fallen. Rooting for the Chargers is like rooting for your drunk uncle, he has flashes of clarity followed by weeks of stupor. I hope they don't fall off the wagon this year, but Norv's track record is against them.

2 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

I don't think the problem is that Norv lacks a "dynamic personality." I think the reason the fans dislike him is that he always seems to botch decisions at the critical moment.

3 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

"The reality is that it’s professional football, and great "rah rah" pregame speeches only matter so much."

Benoit continues to plumb the depths of absurdity in these columns. I have NEVER heard this knock on Turner. The reason Turner is ridiculed is because he's a lousy in-game manager and his teams don't correct tactical mistakes week to week. His offensive x's and o's are not in question, but his teams often fail because of lack of attention to detail. They make boneheaded mistakes at the worst possible moments, and they make the same mistakes over and over before adjusting. The Chargers were probably the most talented team in the league in 2006, and Turner managed to not F that up too badly in 2007, righting the ship in time to close out at 11 wins and make it to the AFC Championship game. Since then though, they've had only one season where they didn't drastically underperform expectations, and their streakiness attests to the poor coaching. Things snowball on them terribly before Turner makes adjustments...

4 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

Eh, it seems to be a valid critism of Norv if one subscribes to the premise that he's more of a "teaching" coach as opposed to a "motivating" coach. Every year the Chargers don't seem to get started until week 8. Their inate Chargerness might not be for mortal men to understand. Perhaps it is a result of their Earth qi/chi or that of Heaven.

10 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

It's also consistent with the premise that the Head Coach's job is more about delegation than it is about teaching. Norv seems brilliant at running an offense, but seems to lose sight of the big picture when in charge of the whole team. I've worked with managers like this - brilliant at one particular aspect of the job (which is what gets them promoted in the first place), very personable and easy to work with, but horrible at delegating responsibilities and following up and cracking the whip to make sure things are on schedule.

Actually, I'm a lot like this.

17 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

Is that you, Wade Phillips?

I'm always amusing by Norv and Wade being assistants in SD at the same time. They're like the football coach equivalent of a AAAA player. So good at being a coordinator that they consistently get promoted, but underwhelm once they do.

27 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

It's like the poor man's version of the Lombardi/Landry New York Giants.

It actually makes me wonder if there are is the opposite type of coach anywhere - someone who wasn't great with X's & O's, but is an extraordinary administrator who can spot & nurture coaching talent, and then delegate appropriately. Somehow I doubt it - those types tend to be GMs, and those administrative skills are useless at the entry levels of coaching.

5 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

"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."

Well said. I completely agree (Charger fan). I think that the fans who want them both gone, A) have short memories, and don't remember (or weren't fans of the team) prior to 2001; and B) Don't really understand what they bring to the team.

People point to how good this team has looked "on paper" and said that that is a reason both need to be gone. In reality? That may be a decent argument for Norv (though he has consistently kept this team as a top Offense despite a ton of turnover), but as for AJ, that's his job: To bring talent to the team.

Norv is also the Winningest coach in Chargers history. Yes, more than Coryell. Sometimes a Front Office that supports you is all you need. The places where Norv failed before, were Washington and Oakland. I haven't seen anybody yet who has absolutely succeeded in either place yet (though both look to be finally moving in the right direction, both under GMs that are different from the ones that Turner worked under).

6 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

Appreciating the vapidity of this quote on some level, I'm still going to drop in a selection from TMQ on this subject, because it makes me laugh:

"In 2010, the Chargers performed the seemingly impossible feat of finishing first in offense, first in defense, and missing the playoffs. In 2011, ...the Chargers were sixth in offense, had a spectacular 49 percent third-down conversion rate, yet again missed the playoffs. How does Turner manage to keep this team out of the postseason?"

9 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

holy god their special teams were horrid in 2010. not looking at any game logs, but i recall leon washington returning 2 kickoffs for TDs in the same game.

one of the reasons they had the #1 defense ( yards allowed ) was because their coverage teams gave up yards in giant chunks.

12 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

The 2010 Chargers Special Teams managed to lose games in many different ways. Against the Raiders they lost in spite of Rivers passing for the best part of 500 yards thanks to the unholy trinity of a punt blocked for a safety, a punt blocked for a TD and a kickoff fumble returned for a TD.

7 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

I always joke that Norv regresses any team to the mean--he can take a 4-12 team and make it into an 8-8 team, but he can also take a 14-2 team and make it into an 8-8 team. Great for rebuilding projects; bad for championship contenders.

25 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

I always joked that Marty Shottenheimer could make any 6-10 talent team play like a 10-6 team in the regular season, but then in the playoffs their actual talent level would be exposed. Great for rebuilding projects; bad for championship contenders.

26 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

While one can legitimately ding Marty for his conservatism in playoff games, he's also the victim of some positively horrible luck. The Marlon McCree fumble was especially egregious because (1) that was probably the best overall team he's ever coached, (2) there's NFL Films footage of him, before the game addressing his DBs and telling them to just fall down on the ball if they get a late interception with the lead.

11 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

I would say Gronk, Graham, Witten, Vernon Davis, Finley, Gonzalez, then maybe one or two of Aaron Hernandez, Pettigrew, Gresham, Moeaki (sp?), Celek, Keller, Olsen (CAR), Fred Davis, Heath Miller. Three years ago, Gonzalez & Gates were 1 & 1A, depending on your team preference, while Witten and Dallas Clark were right below them. Now, I don't see how anyone could rank Gates higher than #6, just ahead of Gonzalez.

13 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

Reason I ask is that in yards per game, he was still #5 last year (playing gimpy). The #6 no longer has a spleen. #7 is even older than Gates is.

I could argue there are guys who are more talented or more explosive, but I don't think I can easily dismiss Gates as a top-5 TE. (Not next year, not over the course of his contract, not if he suddenly figures out how to catch the ball -- I mean this year)

14 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

#6 still has a spleen, but it's a ticking time bomb that could explode with the next big hit and cause immediate, life-threatening, exsanguination. Which is why I think the Dallas team doctors are nuts for even considering letting him play this year.

-I'm not Billy Bad-Ass.

23 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

Yeah, that's not really true. Assuming a low grade injury (he was not hospitalized long and there was no surgery), and that all following blood work and imaging is negative, a return to full contact activity in about 2 months is fairly reasonable. Studies show that 80% of uncomplicated low grade splenic injuries heal within 8 weeks.

If he's back for week one, then that would seem to be pretty reckless.

16 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

You don't have much faith in the statistics produced by this site if you hold that opinion on Gates.

Gates was #1 in DYAR and #2 in DVOA in 2009
Gates was #1 in DYAR and #1 in DVOA in 2010
Gates was #3 in DYAR and #3 in DVOA in 2011

Gonzalez may have been at one point a valid comparison to Gates. Those days are long passed. Jason Witten and Vernon Davis were/are definitely above-average TEs; they never approached the performance of Gates.

Sure, maybe Gates hit the downside of his career last year, and it'll be freefall from here. I agree Gronk and Graham have passed him. The others you've listed? I don't what you're basing that on; I don't see it on the field and I don't see it in the stats.

19 Re: Andy Benoit Previews the Chargers

It's a minor nitpick, but wouldn't Tony Gonzalez be the 'first "mismatch creating" tight end of his era' and not Gates?