San Diego Chargers 2009 Preview
So often an NFL player will claim that his team’s season isn’t successful unless it ends with a Lombardi Trophy. The rigidity of this notion—a season’s value being measured only in the variable of victories, and true value not being recognized unless one of those victories happens to be of the rarest, most difficult form—would make a Buddhist shudder. Yet even the Dali Lama would admit that for the 2009 San Diego Chargers, it’s Super Bowl or bust.
The members of this organization aren’t going to find true peace or happiness with anything less than an AFC Championship victory. The Chargers have maxed out all other forms of success. They’ve won three straight AFC West titles: they went 14-2 and lost to the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2006; they reached the AFC Title Game the following season but again fell to New England; last year, San Diego extracted a subtle revenge on its Massachusetts foe by winning the final four games to finish 8-8 and, thanks to a technicality, snatch the last playoff spot from the 11-win Pats (who were not lucky enough to earn an automatic bid from the laughable AFC West). But the season still ended with a Divisional Round loss at Pittsburgh.
The only thing left for the Spanos Family’s team to do is reach a Super Bowl. Amazingly, for a fourth-straight year, San Diego’s window is wide open. (In today’s NFL, this is not unlike leaving your wallet on a park bench and finding it, still full, three days later.)
The Chargers have all the pieces and seem to have moved past the snags of previous years. It was once believed that this club’s shortcoming was at head coach. But after the way Norv Turner’s men have rallied down the stretch the past two seasons, it’s apparent that the venerable offensive playcaller can indeed sail his crew through turbulent waters.
Before Turner arrived, San Diego’s stigma was callow quarterbacking. That’s no longer the case, however, as Philip Rivers turns 28 in December and is coming off a season in which he led the league with a 105.5 passer rating. Rivers is also fully healthy for the first time since 2006. The fiery quarterback has weapons at his disposal. There is far and away the AFC’s best tight end, Antonio Gates. And there’s a budding star wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, who headlines a trio of athletic deep threats that includes Chris Chamber and Malcom Floyd. This, along with a stellar pass-blocking front five, gives the Chargers a more dangerous aerial assault than the one that ranked seventh in the league last season.
Of course, in an almost cruel twist of irony, the eruption of the passing game coincides with the waning of the once-hallowed rushing attack. LaDainian Tomlinson is 30 and coming off the worst season of his Hall of Fame career. Tomlinson’s decline is very real, though not yet paralyzing. That’s why general manager A.J. Smith––who identified the ground game as one of San Diego’s two major needs for improvement––opted to sign the ninth-year veteran to a renegotiated contract, rather than release him outright. Smith also slapped lightning-rod big-play extraordinaire Darren Sproles with a $6.62 million franchise tag.
Smith has acknowledged that San Diego’s other major need for improvement is in pass defense (the Chargers ranked 31st in this department a year ago). The hope is that a healthy Shawne Merriman, playing in a contract year, can revitalize the pass-rush and indirectly implore Luis Castillo, Shaun Phillips, Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie to play like the stars that they are. In case Merriman falters, Smith––always with one eye on the future––spent a first-round pick on hybrid end Larry English.
Unlike a year ago, just about every Charger enters the season fully healthy. Aside from Tomlinson and nose tackle Jamal Williams, the key veterans are all in the early stages of their prime. There’s familiarity with Norv Turner’s system and confidence in new defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who invigorated the D with a more aggressive scheme after passive Ted Cottrell was fired last October. The special teams are solid, the depth is good and San Diego plays in what might be the most pathetic division in the history of pro football.
In short, this team, which is without major flaws, is embarking on what should be the smoothest of paths to the postseason. Of course, this same team has traveled this path before and never reached the end.
There are two questions to answer. The first is, What do the Chargers need from LaDainian Tomlinson? The second is, How much can they actually get from Tomlinson? Clearly, LT is no longer the best running back in football. But he’s also by no means a wash-up. His 1,110 yards rushing last season were good for fourth in the AFC, and he still reached the end zone 11 times. Plus, he caught 52 passes at an average of 8.2 yards per pop.
Though Tomlinson has lost much of the lateral quickness and sudden burst that made him lethal, it’s no stretch to think he can post better numbers than he did in ’08. Of course, a much larger portion of his workload will go to the elusive Darren Sproles, giving San Diego more firepower (as well as an ostensibly fresher LT). Sproles’s diminutives makes him tough for defenders to spot, and his ability to change directions is ideal for this timing-based ground scheme. Should Tomlinson or Sproles be unavailable, the Chargers have excellent depth in veteran Michael Bennett (who has stellar agility between the tackles) and fourth-round rookie Gartrell Johnson (who was drafted for his potential).
It’s not all on the running backs, of course. The substantial drop-off in lead-blocking following the departure of veteran Lorenzo Neal must be rectified. Last year’s third-round pick, Jacob Hester, strived to add some direly-needed muscle mass over the offseason. But increased weight won’t matter if Hester doesn’t become more comfortable with the gameplan. He needs to step up because undrafted second-year man Mike Tolbert doesn’t show enough force at the point of attack.
San Diego’s offensive line is also looking to bounce back from a subpar run-blocking season. A large onus is on gifted left tackle Marcus McNeil, whom coaches hope can find his rhythm after offseason neck surgery. McNeil is quick out of his stance but inconsistent on contact. Considering left guard Kris Dielman is quite possibly the best in the business, McNeill’s development is San Diego’s ticket to having a domineering left side of the line.
The right side is far more tenuous. Tackle Jeromey Clary is a mudder who survives. Guard Kynan Forney is taking over for Mike Goff despite not having played a snap in 2008. Forney, however, started 88 games in his seven years with the Falcons. If he does have trouble sustaining blocks (as he did in ’07) or playing on the move (which this scheme demands out of the right guard) then either veteran tackle L.J. Shelton or third-round rookie Louis Vasquez could get a look. Vasquez figures to have this job fulltime at some point, but he’s transitioning to the NFL from Texas Tech’s spread offense, which means he’s green as a run-blocker. At center, Nick Hardwick is healthy and eager to recapture his Pro Bowl stature.
Regardless of whether the ground game regains its bite, Norv Turner is still going to construct a pass-first offense in 2009. That’s what Turner’s personnel demands. Philip Rivers is not a top echelon quarterback, but he’s firmly entrenched in the second tier. His toughness has propagated his leadership, and he’s shown the ability to carry the offense in critical stretches. Should Rivers be unavailable for whatever reason, backup Billy Volek is battle tested.
Rivers can thrive with unconventional throwing mechanics in large part because he enjoys some of the best receiving targets in football. Tight end Antonio Gates is the fulcrum of the passing game and should earn a record-setting contract after this season. Because No. 2 tight end Brandon Manumaleuna is a 288-pound blocking specialist, the Chargers are frequently able to employ Gates as a slot receiver. Soft hands and a sturdy frame make him a mismatch against linebackers and safeties alike.
Vincent Jackson has emerged as a star deep threat. Chris Chambers once filled this role as a Dolphin, though in San Diego, the ninth-year veteran’s work is done primarily in the 13-21-yard range. Chambers disappears for long stretches of time, but that’s partly due to the vast number of options this offense has. One of those options is Malcolm Floyd, a Vincent Jackson clone who could break out in ’09. Both are big, fast, athletic field-stretchers. Third-year pro Legedu Naanee is incredibly versatile but hasn’t been a reliable enough decision-maker to stay on the field. But he’s been far more productive than former first-round pick Buster Davis.
Ron Rivera’s attacking style can only maximize success if it features two prominent pass-rushers. The Chargers learned last year that if they don’t have two pass-rushers, they don’t have one, as athletic outside linebacker Shaun Phillips struggled with opposing offenses dialing in on him. Shawne Merriman, with his surgically-repaired left knee, worked out but did not practice all offseason. If the three-time Pro Bowler doesn’t regain his form, explosive first-round rookie Larry English will be the guy.
In what is an obtainable perfect scenario, the Chargers could use Phillips, Merriman and English simultaneously, meaning the team would no longer have to count on Jyles Tucker or Antwan Applewhite, both athletic but unrefined former undrafted free agents. Unlike most 3-4 teams, San Diego also relies on getting a pass-rush from its defensive ends, which they missed from Luis Castillo last season. Merriman plays on the right side behind Castillo and should draw enough attention to enable his fellow fifth-year pro to face the single-blocking that his strength and initial quickness have historically devoured.
Castillo’s prime impact is still against the run. In this realm, San Diego will remain vociferous as long as nose tackle Jamal Williams is holding down the interior trenches. Wear and tear are taking a toll on the 33-year-old man of 348 pounds. But even in advanced age, elite nose tackles––like Tony Siragusa, Ted Washington, Keith Traylor or Sam Adams––seem to find a way to be destructive on game days. Williams is no exception.
Ryon Bingham rounds out the starting line. Neither he nor oft-used backup Jacques Cesaire offer the strength that predecessor Igor Olshansky did, which is why 331-pound Vaughn Martin was drafted in Round Four. More important to the run-stopping efforts is inside linebacker Stephen Cooper. The seventh-year veteran has superb strength at the point of attack and does a masterful job keeping the front seven in order. His presence vastly overshadows the other inside linebacking spot, which is why no one is too concerned about whether it will be Tim Dobbins (who is decent in the flats but underwhelming overall) or Kevin Burnett (a superb pass-defending ex-Cowboy) starting there.
An improved front seven should equate to an improved back four, though with the struggles that San Diego endured here last year, who knows? A fractured hip exposed athletic dynamo Antonio Cromartie’s crude cornerbacking technique. After picking off 10 passes in somewhat limited action in ’07, Cromartie got outright picked on every week in ’08 (he finished with just two interceptions). If he doesn’t improve, cautious yet impressive young nickelback Antoine Cason, a first-rounder a year ago, will take over. Stifling press corner Quentin Jammer holds down the left side.
The other area of concern is strong safety. Clinton Hart was awful in 2008. He battled a broken hand, though that doesn’t explain his ineptitude in coverage. Paul Oliver is a better athlete and could get a look here. Or, the Chargers could refer back to Steve Gregory (who stepped in temporarily when Hart was benched down the stretch). Whoever starts at strong safety––and it could still be Hart––must be sound in coverage, because it’s time for San Diego to further exploit the versatility of fine-tackling free safety Eric Weddle by moving the third-year pro around.
Kicker Nate Kaeding is not ultra-reliable, but he’s close enough. Punter Mike Scifres became a household name after his remarkable performance against Indy this past postseason. Scifres has a big leg and can land a ball up against a goal-line as well as any punter in the game. Darren Sproles is an electrifying return artist.
This could very well be San Diego’s best shot at a Super Bowl. The team is healthy. Quarterback Philip Rivers has matured into a respected field-general, and the rest of the offense is star-studded. The rushing attack will likely be better. Defensively, there’s an enticing domino effect from an improved pass-rush that should spell more big plays for this talented group.
Predicted: 1st AFC West
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