San Diego Chargers 2010 Preview

July 5, 2010 by

It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable…the fact that, in this day and age, the San Diego Chargers have reached the postseason five of the past six years, or the fact that they have failed to reach the Super Bowl in those five years.

The Chargers are a perennial title contender. In each of those five playoff years, they’ve either won a postseason game or finished with 12-plus wins in the regular season. You rarely see this kind of sustained success in the NFL these days. Reason being, you rarely see owners and front offices put up with this kind of sustained failure.

0/5 in Super Bowl runs? Most general managers would have pressed the reset button by now. But A.J. Smith, one of football’s shrewdest executives, has only deepened his commitment to this core group. The day after the Jets eliminated the Chargers from the ’09 postseason, Smith signed head coach Norv Turner (who joined the team in ’07) to a three-year contract extension.

Four of the past five Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback that Smith passed on in favor of Philip Rivers (Ben Roethlisberger has two rings, Eli Manning and Drew Brees each have one). Yet Smith has not wandered from Rivers’s corner (the 28-year-old was awarded a six-year, $92 million extension last year, with nearly $40 million guaranteed). Smith has had no reason to waiver.

Rivers is one of the best young passers in the game, and his toughness and leadership are unquestioned. Rivers and his trio of receiving giants – 6’5” Vincent Jackson, 6’5” Malcom Floyd, 6’4” Antonio Gates – are the reason San Diego annually ranks near the top of the NFL in scoring. No offense has the ability to create matchup problems in the passing game like San Diego’s.

Smith actually made one change to the franchise’s foundation this past offseason: he released LaDainian Tomlinson. (The future first ballot Hall of Famer had lost the acceleration and burst that made him special.) But not only did the Chargers retain shifty third-down weapon Darren Sproles with a one-year, $7 million restricted free agent contract, they also traded up 16 spots in the draft to select Tomlinson’s long-term replacement, Ryan Mathews, at No. 12.

So let’s see….we have a superstar quarterback leading a prolific pass-oriented offense on a team that continually dominates the regular season but never emerges victorious at the end of the postseason. This team replaces its versatile but aging star running back with a young runner drafted in the first round. Sound like a certain other AFC team from a few years ago? Maybe the one that released Edgerrin James and drafted Joseph Addai in 2006?

Certainly, some of the parallels between the ’06 Colts and ’10 Chargers are striking. But those Super Bowl champion Colts had a better defense than these Chargers.

Many blocks in San Diego’s once-firm defensive foundation have eroded or vanished. Nonstop nagging injuries have made defensive end Luis Castillo very average. Serious knee problems have made linebacker Shawne Merriman below average. This has knocked outside linebacker Shaun Phillips down a tier or two. Voracious nose tackle Jamal Williams is gone. A replacement for sturdy defensive end Igor Olshansky (who departed last offseason) still hasn’t been found. Antonio Cromartie and his poor character got shipped out, but so did his playmaking presence. (Cromartie was dealt to the Jets for a third-round pick that could become a second-rounder.)

Thus, the Chargers have a very average defense. (Indeed, it ranked 16th in yards allowed last season.) But the special teams are solid. And, despite Turner’s critics, so is the coaching staff. And, of course, the offense is prolific, making for a Super Bowl formula. Perhaps not an ideal formula, but a very legit one nonetheless.

But the formula still needs to create a resolution. The Chargers are dangerously close to becoming football’s version of the early-2000s Atlanta Braves, or the late 2000’s Phoenix Suns. At least, unlike those teams, the Chargers have not run out of time…..yet.

Offense

You can’t overstate the significance of the favorable mismatches San Diego generates in the passing game. There are three factors in play here. We’ll start with the one that gets the most attention: the size and athleticism of the receivers. Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and Antonio Gates are not just tall, thick targets; they’re tall, thick targets who can stretch the field, pluck passes away from their bodies and run deceptive routes. Of the two wideouts, Floyd is more talented, but Jackson is more polished (and therefore better). Gates is San Diego’s most versatile weapon. No linebacker and few safeties can defend him from the tight end position, though he’s most lethal when lined up as a No. 3 receiver in the slot.

This leads us to the second factor: the creativity of Norv Turner’s offense. Few coaches are on Turner’s level when it comes to manufacturing chunk yardage through play-design. Last season, the Chargers led the league with 67 passes of 20 yards or more. The fulcrum of their attack is Gates’s ability to influence safeties with a variety of inside routes.

The third factor is Philip Rivers. His willingness to stand in the pocket and make stick throws under pressure makes the whole thing go. Rivers has also developed an innate understanding of this system and chemistry with his three targets. There could be an opportunity for that chemistry to expand to other members of the passing game in 2010. Jackson, unhappy with being a restricted free agent as part of the consequences of the uncapped season, stayed away during the offseason and appears destined to holdout (plus he’s suspended the first three games for multiple DUI’s). His absence likely won’t extend too long into the regular season (it does him no good to miss time), but it will still open the door for San Diego’s ancillary receivers, Buster Davis, Josh Reed and Legedu Naanee.

Davis, a former first-round pick, has never stayed healthy long enough to walk through any open doors. He had his chances this offseason when Jackson and Floyd – who’s also a restricted free agent – were absent, but various ailments landed him on the sideline. In response, the Chargers signed a crisp route running possession receiver, Josh Reed. Davis’s quickness underneath could be relevant in a slot role, though in recent years, those duties have been handled by the versatile Naanee.

If the big wideouts are unavailable, expect the Chargers to modify their offense by incorporating more short passing. Third-down running back Darren Sproles is an electrifying catch-and-run weapon in the flats. Fullbacks Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert are both admirable lead-blockers who are even better at catching the ball. (If you ever want to be mildly surprised and thoroughly impressed, pay close attention to the refined route running of the squatty 5’9”, 243-pound Tolbert when he goes in motion or splits out.) Also, No. 2 tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, a pure blocker, is gone. In his place is Randy McMichael, a pure receiver.

McMichael however, may not play ahead of reliable blocking H-back Kris Wilson, given that the Chargers are likely to run more in 2010. Part of the reason they have stretched the field so often in recent years is because their eroding rushing attack has left them no choice. The hope is that LaDainian Tomlinson’s replacement, Ryan Mathews (who, by the way, wore number 21 at Fresno State because his favorite player was L.T.), can grasp enough NFL nuances to handle 20 carries a game right away. If Mathews is on the field, he’ll spark new life into the ground game if for no other reason than he offers at least some of the burst that Tomlinson once had but lost.

Regardless of who’s carrying the ball, San Diego’s front five must improve. This unit is well-sized but often sacrifices power for grace. Left tackle Marcus McNeill can be dominant when playing with strength (and, of course, when not holding out for a new contract). But when McNeill gets reactionary, his mechanics suffer, especially against quicker opponents in pass protection. Kris Dielman is one of the premier left guards in the game. With the quicker backfield, expect San Diego to feature Dielman’s mobility more in 2010.

Center Nick Hardwick was a Pro Bowler before various foot and leg injuries started hounding him in 2007. Because Hardwick has missed 20 games over the past three seasons, fairly mobile backup center Scott Mruczkowski has had a chance to grow.

Right guard Louis Vasquez did a noble job adjusting from Texas Tech’s spread offense to the NFL as a third-round rookie last year. Initial quickness and mobility, especially as a playside run-blocker, serve him well. Right tackle Jeromey Clary is a survivor at best.

Defense

The plight of two young former stars – outside linebacker Shawne Merriman and defensive end Luis Castillo – has been the driving force behind this defense’s fall to mediocrity. Both were impressive as high-drafted rookies in ’05. Both were stars in ’06 and ’07 but have been virtual non-factors from there. Poor health has played a part. Knee problems seem destined to ruin what could have been a spectacular career for Merriman. And Castillo has always attracted injuries the way Jennifer Aniston attracts noncommittal men (ankle injuries, especially). But, oddly, during these past two underwhelming seasons, Castillo has stayed relatively healthy for the first time in his career.

Merriman, a shell of his former self, can’t be counted on. If not for the uncapped year, he would have almost certainly been allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent. The Chargers drafted his replacement, Larry English, in the first round last year.

There’s no heir for Castillo, though. With non-impact ends Jacques Cesaire and Travis Johnson sharing duties on the left side, San Diego desperately needs Castillo to go back to attracting double teams and consistently getting penetration. As last year attested, that won’t be easy with nose tackle Jamal Williams no longer clogging the middle. Williams’s replacement at the nose, Ogemdi Nwagbuo doesn’t offer great size, which is why fifth-round rookie Cam Thomas (330 pounds) could see meaningful snaps right away.

English was drafted to replace Merriman, but that doesn’t mean he’ll ever be Merriman. The Chargers should be alarmed about the lack of quickness and awareness the first-rounder showed last season. At this point, undrafted fourth-year pros Jyles Tucker and Antwan Applewhite are both more dynamic pass-rushers than English.

Outside linebacker Shaun Phillips is a solid No. 2 pass-rusher (seven sacks, seven forced fumbles in ’09) but his greatest strength is actually stopping the run. Firm as Phillips is on the playside, he can’t compare to inside linebackers Stephen Cooper and Brandon Siler. Cooper is an aggressive, instinctive veteran who leads by example. Siler is emerging as one of the stronger north/south run-stoppers in the game.

The depth inside is stellar. Cooper is serviceable in coverage but Siler will be replaced in nickel by fluid Kevin Burnett. Also, third-round rookie Donald Butler, another run-stuffer, will be learning a new 3-4 scheme on the bench but priming for an opportunity to steal someone’s starting job down the road.

The Chargers are lucky to have quality thumpers like Cooper and Siler inside; Kevin Ellison got released after an arrest for possession of a controlled substance (Vicodin); Ellison was the only safety who was halfway stout against the run. Eric Weddle is more of a versatile space player. Steve Gregory is so pass-defense oriented that he actually saw snaps as a slot corner last season. Paul Oliver predominantly plays as a dime back in obvious passing situations. Rookie Darrell Stuckey was drafted for his intelligence as a run-defender. He’ll likely start immediately at strong safety, though he’ll be given a short leash.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie played with such poor effort that his presence in the starting lineup will hardly be missed. But Cromartie’s absence will impact San Diego’s depth. Recent first-round pick Antoine Cason is getting a crack at the starting job even though he failed to maintain his role as the nickelback last season. If Cason flounders, the Chargers could turn to former Bear Nathan Vasher, who is trying to recover the confidence and quickness that once sent him to a Pro Bowl. If Vasher’s fall from grace continues (or, better stated, if his attempted climb back to grace fails), physical journeyman Donald Strickland will get a look. The only cornerback position not in flux is Quentin Jammer’s spot on the left side.

Special Teams

The men booting the ball in San Diego have made names for themselves in recent postseasons, though for very different reasons. People remember punter Mike Scifres’s brilliant ’08 Wild Card performance against the Colts (6/6 punts downed inside the 20, net average of 51.2 yards on the night). They also remember kicker Nate Kaeding’s 0/3 disaster against the Jets in the Divisional Round last year. The fear is that Kaeding will become the next Mike Vanderjagt and never be the same again. Kaeding is the anti-Vanderjagt in terms of class, so most fans are rooting for him. Darren Sproles is electrifying in the return game. Also worth noting is that San Diego’s punt coverage unit ranked next-to-last in 2009 and now must cope without its star gunner, Kassim Osgood.

Bottom Line

Consider a sixth-straight division title in the bag. To capture that elusive AFC title, San Diego’s offense must stay healthy enough to post 30 points a game in January. That’s what it will take to compensate for a very average defense.

Predicted Finish: 1st AFC West

Andy Benoit is the founder of www.NFLTouchdown.com and writer for CBSSports.com’s NFL Blog. He can be contacted at andy.benoit –at – NFLTouchdown.com.

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