Offseason Breakdown: San Diego Chargers
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Norv Turner received a stay of execution after last season — the second straight in which San Diego missed the playoffs. Turner has managed just a 17-15 record over the past two years, and the Chargers have not won a playoff game since 2008, despite rosters rife with talent.
Though we seem to say it every summer, this feels like a make-or-break year for the embattled coach. It’s also a key year for quarterback Philip Rivers, who will be 31 by the end of the season.
San Diego has undergone a decent amount of turnover this offseason, but the new pieces look like critical ones. Will they be enough to get the Chargers over the top in what figures to be a competitive AFC West?
2011 Record: 8-8 (t-first in AFC West)
Key Additions: S Atari Bigby, RB Ronnie Brown, DE/OLB Melvin Ingram, LB Jarrett Johnson, FB Le’Ron McClain, WR Robert Meachem, WR Roscoe Parrish, WR Eddie Royal, S Brandon Taylor
Key Subtractions: G Kris Dielman, S Steve Gregory, WR Vincent Jackson, DE/OLB Travis LaBoy, OT Marcus McNeill, RB Mike Tolbert
Team Strengths: TE, QB, RB, WR, OLB, S
Team Weaknesses: G, RT, CB
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Rivers pick up where he left off?: The Chargers have made an almost-comical habit of starting seasons off in neutral, then punching the gas late in the year. They were 4-8 in 2008 before winning four straight to make the playoffs; 2-3 in 2009 prior to an 11-game win streak; 2-5 in 2010 en route to 9-7; and 4-7 last year (though they started 4-1) before closing with a 4-1 stretch.
Rivers’ play at quarterback has been far from the only factor in that routine roller coaster ride, but San Diego tends to go as he does. To wit: Last season, Rivers posted four games with a QB rating better than 120 — and all four came in the closing 4-1 run.
The Chargers need Rivers to be on his game from the get-go and, despite losing Jackson to Tampa Bay, have put more than enough weapons around Rivers to make that happen. In Jackson’s place, San Diego snatched up free-agent Meachem, who is coming off a 40-catch season in New Orleans. Also new on the depth chart are Royal (Denver), Parrish (Buffalo) and Michael Spurlock (Tampa Bay), who will join Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown to give San Diego a loaded receiving corps.
Rivers also has Ryan Mathews behind him (we’ll get to him in a bit), and Antonio Gates running routes at tight end. Even with Dielman’s retirement and McNeill’s along the offensive line, the Chargers have a potentially elite offense on paper.
But Rivers can’t wait until November to find his groove this year.
2. Can someone get to the quarterback?: Antwan Barnes turned in an 11-sack 2011 season, but the Chargers as a team wound up with just 32 sacks — less than 22 other teams. San Diego struggled all year to stop the pass in key spots, and the lack of a consistent pass rush was part of the reason. (The ineffectiveness of Antoine Cason and an aging Quintin Jammer at cornerback didn’t help, either.)
The Chargers used the No. 18 overall pick in April’s draft on DE/OLB Ingram out of South Carolina, with the hope that he can be a dynamic playmaker on the outside from day one. In Ingram, Barnes and Shaun Phillips, San Diego feels like it has three solid pass-rushing options at linebacker. The Chargers could get all three on the field at the same time if Ingram can slide up to DE on occasion.
The addition of Johnson, a stellar run defender and mediocre pass-rusher, also gives the Chargers the luxury to pick and choose when to bring the heat with the Barnes-Ingram-Phillips trio. San Diego also drafted Kendall Reyes to help its 3-4 front generate a better push, and Antonio Garay at NT provides a steadying presence as well.
3. Is Mathews about to become an elite running back?: I promised you we’d get to Mathews, and here we are…
Last season, San Diego’s No. 1 running back carried the ball 222 times and hauled in 50 receptions while racking up more than 1,500 total yards. Turner has talked this offseason like he wants to get the ball in Mathews’ hands even more in 2012 — possibly in the neighborhood of 300 carries.
Mathews’ supporting player from last season, Tolbert, moved on in free agency, leaving San Diego to replace him with Brown. That swap looks like a step down, adding weight to the “Get Mathews the ball” argument. Mathews has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons, and he has a veteran offensive line in front of him, with only Dielman’s vacated left guard spot still up for grabs.
With Rivers whipping the ball all over the field to his stable of receivers, Mathews should have ample opportunity to ratchet up his game.
Perhaps none of San Diego’s recent flops have stung as much as last year’s, when a record above .500 would have allowed the Chargers to walk away with division crown. Even a Week 17 victory over rival Oakland did nothing but hand the AFC West to Denver.
The Raiders are a bit of an enigma, but Denver has made a Tim Tebow-for-Peyton Manning swap at quarterback and the Chiefs, barring another season of catastrophic injuries, could be on the verge of a breakthrough. Which means San Diego’s window in the division might be closing.
If the Chargers can’t put it together and make a playoff run this year, then the franchise will have to consider some drastic changes. The good news: There is more than enough talent here to be competitive, both in the AFC West and in the Super Bowl picture. The bad news: Talent has not been the issue in recent years.