The State of the Chargers: The Running Game
Anyone who has followed the Chargers over the last few years has been scratching their heads wondering what happened to the good old days. While the Chargers have made playoff appearances year after year, the team has continued to change, sometimes in unsettling ways.
One of these unsettling changes happens to be what happened to the running game.
There was a time when the NFL feared the Chargers’ running game. When the Chargers drafted LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001, things changed, and it was scary for everyone else. Look at the change the Chargers’ running game went through from 2001 to 2006:
2001: 1695 yards, 3.9 yards per carry
2002: 2137 yards, 4.6 yards per carry
2003: 2146 yards, 5.1 yards per carry
2004: 2185 yards, 4.2 yards per carry
2005: 2072 yards, 4.5 yards per carry
2006: 2578 yards, 4.9 yards per carry
LaDainian Tomlinson helped usher in an era of rushing dominance, capping it off with a legendary performance in 2006.
Consider also that, with the exception of 2001, those numbers were put up under the auspices of Marty Schottenheimer.
Then something changed. 2007 warped the way the Chargers played ball. The incredible numbers put up in 2006 were followed by some very pedestrian efforts:
2007: 2039 yards, 4.2 yards per carry
2008: 1726 yards, 4.1 yards per carry
2009: 1423 yards, 3.3 yards per carry
What makes those numbers worse is the amount of money the Chargers threw away trying to solve the problem. In 2009, the worst of the last three seasons, the Chargers payed out over 6.7 million dollars in base salary to LaDainian Tomlinson, plus the high RFA tender amount to Darren Sproles.
Clearly something is wrong, and the Chargers think that Ryan Mathews is the answer. While Mathews certainly will help the team, there are some things outside of running back talent that need to change in order to put San Diego back on the map.
Offensive Line Blocking
When Marty Schottenheimer was unceremoniously fired at the end of the 2006 season, the Chargers brought in Norv Turner, a coach who was successful as an offensive coordinator but not as a head coach. Turner changed something a lot of things about the team. The most detrimental, in my opinion, was the change to the way the offensive line blocks.
Previous to 2007, the Chargers had a true power running game, and one of the keys to that was the aggressiveness of the blocking. The offensive line was taught a style of blocking that was about pushing out and really powering open the running lanes.
Now, on the other hand, the offensive line blocks in a very passive, pass blocking sort of fashion. They try to form pockets more by positioning and trying to direct the rushing players away from the hole.
While this can work, it takes a lot of talent and chemistry, something the Chargers’ offensive line was strapped for last year in the midst of several injuries.
The Lack of a True Fullback
The loss of Lorenzo Neal hurt. His backup, Andrew Pinnock, was quickly cut as well as Norv Turner’s regime moved more towards a favoritism of a hybrid fullback/running back.
Now, for the record, Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester are great players, and great offensive weapons. However, they lack the true, gritty blocking ability of Lorenzo Neal.
A true blocking fullback cannot be underestimated. An offensive line can open up a hole at the point of attack, but a fullback provides a point for the running back to cut off of in the middle of the defense. A good fullback will blow up a linebacker closing in on the hole, and will thus allow the running back a chance to cut off that block and head for the defensive backfield.
Whether on account of injury or player replacement, the Chargers have not had a single season since 2006 where the starting five offensive linemen remained active throughout the whole season. In 2009 the line was riddled with injury. In 2008 injury took out Nick Hardwick, and Mike Goff was replaced by Kynan Forney. In 2007, Shane Olivea was replaced by Jeromey Clary.
Inconsistency kills. Without good chemistry and simultaneous development, the offensive linemen will all be playing at different levels.
What Needs to be Done
What needs to be done is plain and simple:
1. Get Aggressive: The Chargers’ running game needs fire. If they’re not going to go out there and get in the faces of the opposing defense, nothing will change.
2. Get a Blocking Fullback: Mike Tolbert is learning, but there needs to be a stop gap for a year or two. Power running is very difficult without a mauler at the FB position.
3. Get everyone on the same page: If trying to keep everyone healthy fails, it is important for the backups to know what they’re doing and to have experience playing against top flight players. The best thing to do here would probably be to give the backups some reps against the first string defense during practice. That way they are all familiar with the system and with each other in the context of game difficulty.
For the most part this stems from coaching, and so expecting a major change is irrational. However, if the Chargers really want to return to the glory days of 2006, they need to do something, or they could end up at the bottom of the tank again in 2010, despite the price payed for rookie Ryan Mathews.| Lorenzo Neal, Nick Hardwick, Ryan Mathews