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The LiveBall Sports San Diego Chargers Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Chargers prior to the 2012 season

2012 was the first season in which LiveBall Sports really predicted a true decline for the Chargers.  This prediction was only kind of correct.  If we rewind to five years ago, the San Diego Chargers had as much talent as any organization in pro football.  It’s one of the reasons that they fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 record in the 2006 season.  The Chargers knew they had a nice window opening to capitalize on that talent.

So we posed the question last year: why hadn’t the Chargers been to the postseason since 2009?  This is the AFC West, for crying out loud.  Lots of things happened while the Chargers were inventing new ways to miss the playoffs.  The Raiders climbed out of the JaMarcus Russell era, put together 2 non losing seasons in a row, then fell back to the bottom of the NFL.  The entire Tim Tebow saga in Denver: from draft pick, to ridiculed preseason performances, to winning the division and a playoff game, to being shipped out of town in favor of Peyton Manning.  The Chiefs actually won the AFC West during Scott Pioli’s tenure, somehow.  Every one of these crazy twists happened while the Chargers were a strong pre-season favorite in the AFC West every year.

The 2012 Chargers did not have the talent of the 2008, 2009, or 2010 Chargers, and their were holes all over the roster.  Denver appeared to have a lot of the same talent issues, though, and that meant that the 2012 AFC West race was going to come down to Peyton Manning’s performance off of career-threatening neck surgery against Philip Rivers’ performance in the prime of his career.  Both teams would have to deal with a playoff-level Chiefs defense, but it was fair to reason that the Broncos and Chargers would fight it out for the division title last year.

What should we have known with hindsight?

The Chargers got off to a good start in 2012, winning three of their first four games, although they did not outscore their opponents over the first quarter of the season.  They did take a 24-0 lead over the Broncos to the locker room at half time, and were poised to take a two game lead in the AFC West race in October.  The Chargers would not have exactly been a lock for the playoffs at that point, but even an average team can hold a two game lead in the division over a great team if they can handle their business.  But the Chargers did not hold the lead, the Broncos came back to win by 10 (!) points, and would not lose again the rest of the regular season.

The Norv Turner era effectively ended at that point, as for the first time since he was head coach, the team simply wasn’t good enough to keep things interesting in the division race (something that really isn’t Norv’s fault, to be fair).  Philip Rivers had a true decline season at the worst possible time, to the point where it is fair to wonder if the $100 million dollar quarterback is still a quality NFL starter as he heads into his 30’s.  The arm strength is declining, and even his most outstanding traits such as his ability to effectively use the pocket are now in question as his offensive line has struggled to keep him upright.

The Chargers are going to try to salvage Rivers’ career in 2013, but with a new regime in town, he’s not necessarily going to get 16 full games to prove himself worthy of the most expensive years of a massive contract.

Where does the organization appear to think it is at?

The new front office is headed by GM Tom Telasco, formerly of the Colts organization.  He replaces AJ Smith as general manager.  Smith deserves much of the blame for the decline of the San Diego roster, but Smith also put the talent in place via the draft.  Smith was not a consistently good drafter, and that’s what did him in.  Under Telasco, the Chargers will attempt to get back to building through the draft.

The Chargers did not show a clear plan to tear down and rebuild the roster, nor did they go all out on the free agent market trying to turn their cap dollars into quality players.  They appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach with their roster.  Given how talent-deficient the roster is, such a path appears to simply be wasting a year.  Only two players on the Chargers roster have giant contracts: safety Eric Weddle, and Rivers.  Weddle is one of the very best players at his position.  Rivers still might be good, but he just isn’t the elite player he was two or three years ago.  The extremely passive approach taken by the Chargers seems to feel a bit formulaic, not dissimilar to the patience being shown by the new front offices in Jacksonville and New York (Jets).

But the challenges for the Chargers are different than what the Jets are facing.  Telasco isn’t taking over a disaster zone with tons of guaranteed dollars tied up in young-ish talent like Reggie McKenzie in Oakland or John Idzyk in New York, and trying to fit a new scheme to his talent.  He would have come in knowing whether or not Rivers was a good fit for what he was trying to build, so this approach seems like a bit of a waste of time, or at least a compromise based on a lack of strong QB options out there.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Chargers targeted accomplished college players at premium positions: they grabbed right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round from Alabama, MLB Manti Te’o from Notre Dame in the second, and Keenan Allen from Cal at receiver in the third.  All three players have strong pedigrees, but are below average athletically for the position.  It’s not a bad idea to grab low upside franchise cornerstones in your first draft so that you have something to build on, but if Telasco were to proceed systematically drafting based on BPA, the entire roster would be made up of low-upside talent.  For every low upside player that AJ Smith grabbed, he also got his fair share of high-risk athletes such as Shawne Merriman and Antonio Cromartie.  This is something to keep an eye on with the new Chargers regime.

San Diego also let both of its cornerbacks — Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason — walk in free agency.  Although the Chargers did sign Derek Cox from Jacksonville, who has no. 2 CB type upside, the position is a total war zone.  Also; this team plays Peyton Manning twice this season.  The pass rush is also a major question mark, as 33 year old Dwight Freeney takes the place of injured 2012 first round pick Melvin Ingram in the lineup.

The offense upgraded in the offseason.  The Chargers picked up Danny Woodhead from the Patriots, who will fit into HC Mike McCoy’s scheme of position versatile talent: Woodhead might be both the best RB and slot reciever/third down back on the roster.  Either Max Starks or King Dunlap should improve the Chargers LT situation over Mike Harris, who started last year as an undrafted rookie, but the line is still a cause for concern.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The Chargers enter 2013 with an incomplete and lacking roster, and given how little help Philip Rivers has, the Chargers might have been better off just moving him in the offseason.  But you can look out there and see Antonio Gates in the twilight of his career, Malcom Floyd at the end of his run with the Chargers, Eddie Royal and Ryan Mathews fighting relevance, and just accept that the Chargers veterans are going to decide how far they can go this season.

San Diego has been passed by the Kansas City Chiefs.  They aren’t quite as lacking in talent as the Oakland Raiders, but they are also a year further behind in rebuilding.  They still play Peyton Manning twice a year.  The Chargers are an interesting darkhorse to pick first or second in the NFL draft next season.  While an awful season might be in the best long term interest of the franchise, Philip Rivers is probably not as bad as he showed last year, Mike McCoy is probably going to improve the team’s coaching, and Antonio Gates may very well have another good season left in him for the Chargers to be truly awful next season.

This is likely going to be a bad defensive team in 2013, but it will not be a terrible offense, and the Chargers should be able to win 5 or 6 games and be relevant into early December.  Again, every qualification about being an AFC team applies here: 8 wins makes a playoff contender, and Philip Rivers has directed 8-win (above replacement) passing games in the past.  There’s enough receiving talent for the Chargers to trend towards the top of most offensive categories if everything breaks right and Rivers plays up to his contract.

The Chargers playoff odds are under 20%, but that’s probably true of teams like the Steelers, Jets, and Colts as well, and those teams have tasted the postseason more recently.  It’s not that the Chiefs or even Broncos are a juggernaut that the Chargers simply can not beat, but those franchises are better positioned to handle the Chargers in the present…and in the future as well.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland BrownsArizona CardinalsBuffalo BillsNew York Jets, Tennessee Titans,

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