The San Diego Chargers have bottomed out. The six-year period of decline where they fired Marty Schottenheimer for his failure to get to the Super Bowl have predictably ended with a franchise that can no longer even make the playoffs, and a regime change. Mike McCoy is the new head coach entrusted with clearing out the manure left by former GM A.J. Smith and his puppet coach Norv Turner, and McCoy is going to need time.
Philip Rivers looked like he had a dead arm throughout last season, and the 31-year-old quarterback averaged less than seven yards per pass. In fairness to Rivers, he hasn’t had any real help at receiver in recent seasons, and with tight end Antonio Gates now 33-years-old, I don’t know that we should expect that to change.
Nor will the running game provide any relief. San Diego ran the ball more than any team in the NFL last season, but was second-worst in yards-per-play, and there have been no significant personnel additions. McCoy was the offensive coordinator in Denver and likely will be more committed to the running game than was Turner, but expectations for an immediate turnaround will be modest.
The Charger defense was at least tolerable in the 2012 season, ranking in the middle of the NFL. They did a particularly good job defending the run, and this has the chance to be a real strength this year.
First-round draft pick Manti Te’o will be at one inside linebacker spot, and the other ILB is young Donald Butler, a good player who was hit with nagging injuries last season. Butler and Te’o are a nice duo that will help San Diego plug the middle.
But the secondary is a problem, and for a 3-4 defensive scheme, there is precious little hope of pressure coming from the outside linebackers. Melvin Ingram, last year’s first-round draft pick, is on the PUP list and there’s little else available in the way of help.
TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis measures teams against their Over/Under win prop in Las Vegas, and the Chargers are posted at 7.5. After everything I’ve just written about this team, is there any reason to think I would pick them to go .500? No way, San Diego goes Under.
The San Diego Chargers haven’t had a sub-.500 season since 2003. In the eight seasons since they’ve had six winning campaigns and of the two 8-8 seasons one of them still picked up a cheap AFC West title (2008). But the one thing the 2004-11 run has not included is a Super Bowl appearance. The franchise has never won the biggest game of them all, and has only made one appearance, back in 1994. TheSportsNotebook breaks down their chances of doing it in 2012…
OFFENSE: Philip Rivers is where all discussion begins and eventually circles back around to on this offense. Rivers’ interceptions were up last season, as he threw 20 INTs against 27 TD passes. But in fairness to Rivers, there’s a heavy burden on him. He does not have a gifted wide receivers’ corps—Malcolm Floyd is his best target and I think it speaks volumes that Floyd is not a 1,000 yard receiver in spite of having a quarterback who throws for 4,600-plus yards and is desperate for a consistent target. Head coach Norv Turner will have to continue to his excellent offensive strategic skills to get receivers open and Rivers will have to be pinpoint in getting them the ball.
The offensive front is anchored by Nick Hardwick at center, a steady veteran presence and left tackle Jared Gaither is stable in protecting the blind side. But the guards are a big problem and right tackle Jeromey Clary is nothing to write home about. Then let’s add in that running back Ryan Mathews is hurt and questionable for the start of the regular season and this is the second significant injury of his young career. San Diego is hoping the fragile Mathews, the possibly washed up Ronnie Brown and the pedestrian Jackie Battle can produce a running game behind an offensive line that can’t get a good interior push.
What the Chargers do have is tight end Antonio Gates at full health, and when he’s rolling Gates is the one player on this offense who’s worthy of the quarterback he plays with. If Gates can open things up over the middle, the pressure will come off the receivers and create the downfield possibilities San Diego has to have if they’re to win in a competitive division.
DEFENSE: The Chargers are very deep at linebacker, both in terms of quantity and potential impact players and on a 3-4 defense that can’t be understated. Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes are listed 1-2 on the left side. Barnes had 11 sacks a year ago and Phillips is capable of doing serious damage on the pass rush. Jarrett Johnson, at age 31 is a solid veteran on the other side, but how long rookie Melvin Ingram will stay on the bench remains to be seen. I thought the South Carolina pass-rusher was one of the really good selections in the first round this past April.
On the inside of the linebacking quartet you have 35-year-old Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler. Spikes can still make plays and Butler is a solid run defender. Where the problem lies is that neither is all that good defending the pass and that’s exacerbated by the fact strong safety Atari Bigby is terrible. San Diego can be beaten in the air over the middle. If nothing else, the fact the tight end best suited to do it is on their own team at least removes one problem.
And outside of the pass defense is in competent hands so long as corner Quentin Jammer can keep it going at age 33 and Antoine Cason is pretty good on the opposite side. Free safety Eric Weddle is one of the best in the business.
The defensive line probably won’t get noticed much, for better or for worse. Antonio Gary is steady on the nose, at least able to do the minimum task of tying up blockers and freeing the linebackers to make the plays. The ends are a problem, but that’s not a vital position in the 3-4, and at the very least 22-year-old Cory Liuget has potential for improvement.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9—Wow, this is what we would call a tight number, given that 9-7 is about what I’d forecast for San Diego. Now the question becomes if you want to go optimistic or pessimistic. Some feel San Diego’s window has closed. Others feel like it’s still open a crack. A lot of observers feel like any team with Norv Turner as its coach should never have a window to begin with. I think Turner’s critics can be a little tough on him—while the lack of discipline and special teams play can be disturbing, the man can coach an offense and I’ve never bought the conventional line about how enormously talented the Chargers are. General manager A.J. Smith plays the media about as well as anyone and a look at this team’s offensive personnel should tell you the Bolts are hardly bursting at the seams.
Anyway, I think I’m going to go over. I could see the Chargers getting as high as 11-5, and I don’t see them going much lower than 8-8. If that range holds it gives me a little more room on the Over side.