It took much longer than most fans would have wanted, but Norv Turner finally parted ways with the San Diego Chargers this off-season. Turner had repeatedly irked his fan-base because of his team’s perceived inability to reach their potential on an annual basis. After finishing the 2009 season with a 13-3 record and trip to the playoffs, Turner’s team gradually declined from 9-7 the next season, to 8-8 in 2011 and 7-9 this past year.
Not since the 2003 season had the Chargers had a losing season. Of course, Turner had been in charge of the team since the 2007 season and kept them on track early on. However he inherited a very talented team and the franchise appeared to worsen the further away it got from the Marty Schottenheimer era. In a sense, the more Turner put his mark on the franchise, the further it moved away from the playoffs.
Excuses could have been made for Turner, but ultimately, the right move was made when they brought in Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt to join John Pagano as the leaders on the coaching staff.
One excuse could be the rapid decline of Philip Rivers. Rivers has been considered an elite, franchise quarterback for much of his career, but his past two seasons have been underwhelming at best. He hasn’t had much help, but not so long ago a legitimate argument could have been made for Rivers as the league’s MVP because of his ability to produce without a stellar supporting cast.
Back in 2010, Rivers threw for 4,710 with a career high 66 percent completion rating and 30 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Gaudy numbers for any quarterback, but surpassed any superlatives when you consider the turnover of his targets and the state of his offense as a whole. Darren Sproles may not be an ordinary running-back, but he is still a running-back nonentheless. A running-back who led the 2010 Chargers in receptions with 59. Second to Sproles was another atypical positional player, Antonio Gates, who had 50 receptions and led the team in receiving yards with 782.
After those two relative pillars of consistency, Rivers completed at least 13 passes to 11 other offensive teammates, with Malcom Floyd leading all wide receivers with just 37 receptions.
Rivers’ best receiver, Vincent Jackson, was involved in a heated contract dispute with the franchise so he didn’t show up until after the first 10 games of the regular season. His replacement atop the wide receiver depth chart, Malcom Floyd, would battle hamstring issues all season and miss the final two games of the regular season. Legedu Naanee was a relatively young receiver who had some promise at the time, but promise that was never realized, while Patrick Crayton was a proven veteran but a limited player. Craig ‘Buster’ Davis, Kelley Washington and Seyi Ajirotutu also contributed, but any positive displays were always only celebrated in relative terms.
Instead of throwing to dynamic receivers who could beat defenders deep consistently or make plays in the open field, Rivers was getting the best out of lesser receivers, running-backs, tight ends and fullbacks. Players such as Mike Tolbert, Jacob Hester, Ryan Mathews and Randy McMichael are all good players, but none should be heavy presences in an adequate passing offense.
That toll on Rivers eventually broke him. Maybe not past repair, but definitely passed the point that he could help his team win over the past two seasons. For McCoy and Whisenhunt, their primary focus on offense will be to bring Rivers back to his previous standing in the league.
Rivers himself is a question mark, it’s possible that he will never recover from his recent decline. He could suffer in a similar fashion to David Carr, although Carr never reached his levels throughout his career. Coaching could help Rivers, but the best way to rejuvenate the offense is to build up the offense around him.
During the 2013 off-season, the new regime in San Diego has focused on doing that very thing.
The offensive unit in San Diego is littered with question marks, but there is also an incredible amount of potential if all the pieces fall the right way this year.
The Running Game
Ryan Mathews is an enigmatic figure at the running-back position. Many have given him a pass for his first three years in the league because of Turner’s approach and the offensive line, but for a first-round running-back, he hasn’t done enough individually to this point.
After struggling as a rookie, he showed more consistency in his second season. A broken right clavicle stalled the start of his 2012 season and limited the impact he was going to have throughout the year. He has earned somewhat of a fragile label because of his constant presence on the injury report.
His history somewhat vindicates Turner’s usage of him, but moving forward, he is still only 25 and developing into his role. Only fantasy fans need Mathews to be a feature back, the Chargers would be happy with consistency in a prominent role. He doesn’t need to do everything, LeRon McClain can be the team’s goalline back, while Danny Woodhead has arrived to replace Sproles as a star receiving back, even if he is three years too late for Norv.
The question marks with Mathews are obvious, can he stay on the field and can he finally reach his potential. The question marks for Woodhead are less obvious, but almost as prominent.
Woodhead was a cult hero in New England and starred in his specific role on offense, however, before then he couldn’t make the New York Jets’ roster and was a division II college player. His talent is undeniable, but moving him out of the New England offense could move him away from his strengths. The Chargers should run a passing-offense, but no offense in the league makes use of a player’s skill-set like the Patriots.
At worst he will be a contributor, but the Chargers will be hoping his limitations aren’t exposed the way BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ were with the Cincinnati Bengals last year.
With any team, the offensive line is going to be crucial for the passing and rushing attacks. Look no further than last year’s Super Bowl. The 49ers’ offensive line is probably the best in the NFL, while the Ravens only made their run when they solved their issues at left tackle.
The Ravens brought in a veteran left tackle, Bryant McKinnie, who’s promotion to the starting lineup had a knock-on effect on the rest of the unit. Somewhat similarly, the Chargers brought in veteran Max Starks late in the off-season to potentially have the same impact on their unit.
Starks isn’t the only new addition, as King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart, Rich Ohrnberger and DJ Fluker all arrived to varying levels of excitement. Fluker was the only real investment of the group. The rookie was selected in the top half of the first round of the draft and immediately became a starting option at right tackle, if not a potential candidate to take over the left tackle position sooner rather than later.
Despite some sections of the scouting world thinking that Fluker would be best suited to play guard, at the time of drafting he was immediately expected to be the starting right tackle with Dunlap protecting Philip Rivers’ blindside. Once Starks arrived, the offensive line was afforded a huge amount of flexibility that previously didn’t exist. Starks can play both left tackle and right tackle. He played the former very well for the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, but played right tackle on Whisenhunt’s 2005 Super Bowl winning offense.
If Starks plays left tackle, then the Chargers will have the option of starting Fluker at right tackle, while keeping Dunlap as a backup swing tackle. This move likely hinges on how well Jeromey Clary projects to playing right guard. If the coaching staff trusts Dunlap to protect Rivers’ blindside, then Starks could start on the right side, while Fluker would kick inside to right or left guard depending on how he develops his fit. That would then allow the Chargers to have a training camp battle between Rinehart, Ohrnberger and Clary for the final starting spot alongside Nick Hardwick.
Statistically, Starks doesn’t stand out because he protected Ben Roethlisberger, who enjoyed extending plays and over-stressing his offensive line on a regular basis, but in comparison to who has manned the position since Marcus McNeil left, his consistency will feel like having an all-pro tackle for Philip Rivers.
Rivers doesn’t need superstars upfront or a dominant unit, he just needs a level of consistency that is higher than he has endured in recent seasons. With time in the pocket, he has proven himself capable of getting the best out of young, inexperienced or average receivers.
The Chargers’ offensive line has many question marks to answer, but they also have the potential to be a starting unit worthy of their place in the NFL. For the Chargers, that is a tantalising prospect.
Vincent Jackson is long gone and he’s not gone quietly. Jackson is starring for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and making Josh Freeman’s job very easy. You can forgive every single Chargers fan and even their quarterback for looking towards Tampa with the greatest levels of envy.
However, if they spend too much time longing after their lost receiver, they will forget about the very talented options that are on the roster. No, I’m not talking about Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal or Malcom Floyd. Instead it’s Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown and Danario Alexander who the Chargers need to carry the passing attack this coming season.
Back in 2008, the Chargers had the second highest scoring offense in the NFL. This wasn’t when Ladanian Tomlinson was setting records or Philip Rivers was working miracles. Tomlinson ran for 1,110 yards and Rivers just eclipsed 4,000 through the air. No, the Chargers were at their best back then because they had towering receivers littered through their depth chart, Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates, with dynamic receiving threats in the backfield, Tomlinson and Sproles.
For the first time in his career, Rivers averaged over 8.0 yards per attempt and threw for over 30 touchdowns. The Chargers’ offense was so difficult to match up to because they had so many big, athletic bodies who could play the football in the air, with a quarterback who would push it downfield repeatedly.
Gates led the unit in receptions, while Jackson averaged a ridiculous 18.6 yards per reception with just one less catch than his teammate. Although Malcom Floyd caught only 27 passes, he still finished the season with 465 yards because of a 17.2 average per catch. Throw in Chambers’ 14.0, Sproles 11.8, Gates’ 11.7 and it’s clear to see that the Chargers were a big play offense with the potential to go deep on every snap in any situation.
This is the type of offense the Chargers need to replicate in San Diego this season and they definitely have the pieces.
At 32 years of age, Gates is no longer the player he once was, but if healthy he can still dominate a game and will draw double-teams from defenses consistently. To counter that loss, Floyd is now a much more experienced and overall better player than he was back then. He has emerged from Jackson’s shadow to have more than 800 receiving yards the past two seasons. Third round pick Keenan Allen will be raw coming out of college and fell in the draft because of health concerns, but he is not too dissimilar in style to Chris Chambers at his peak and he has the talent to instantly excel on the next level.
That just leaves a replacement for Jackson. Replacing a player like Jackson is not easy. Finding someone with his physical makeup is difficult enough, but finding someone who has that and any kind of football talent is almost impossible. With Vincent Brown, the Chargers haven’t achieved the ‘almost impossible’ because Brown is significantly shorter than Jackson, but they may have found someone who can replace his production and playing style.
Brown is listed as a 5’11 receiver, but his sheer physical makeup alters his appearance on the field. He plays physical football and showed off some ability when it comes to high-pointing passes and coming away with footballs in traffic during his limited time on the field so far. He was drafted in the third round of the 2011 draft and found the field during his rookie season after Malcom Floyd was injured. During his rookie season he showed off some flashes of brilliance and some rookie errors that come with being an inexperienced receiver in the NFL.
Although any optimism for his role was somewhat quenched by the Chargers’ off-season moves in 2012, the excitement for what Brown could do with an opportunity in his second season was still palpable. Alas, when catching a touchdown pass in the second game of the preseason against the Dallas Cowboys, Brown broke his ankle and would miss the whole season.
Question marks are clouding what Brown can do this year. How healthy is he? Do the new regime like him? Were his previous displays marred by too much inconsistency? Was that inconsistency because of experience or talent? Why did they draft Keenan Allen and keep Robert Meachem? Does he fit in the new offense?
Even if Brown does fail, the Chargers still have their chances with Danario Alexander. Alexander has had an injury riddled career that dates back to his days playing for Missouri. He went undrafted because of injury and never really established himself with the St. Louis Rams. After leaving the Rams, Alexander played well for the Chargers last season catching seven touchdowns in 10 games.
But was that just a temporary spell of good health or is Alexander actually passed his health issues and moving forward into a permanent career of a dominant receiver? At a very athletic 6’5 220 lbs, Alexander has all the potential to be a dominant receiver and is a perfect fit with the Chargers offense. He can get deep. He can outjump defenders and he can score points.
If any three of Alexander, Gates, Floyd, Brown and Allen are both on the field together, Rivers can feel confident in every single pass that he makes. That is not something we could have said in recent years.
A Closer Look at Vincent Brown
We can examine his handful of dropped passes, his wrong route or his bad routes to the point that they are overblown, but it would be foolish to focus on the less significant aspects of his game when you can see the potential more often.
On just 38 targets during his rookie season, Brown tallied 19 receptions for 329 yards, a 17.3 average, two touchdowns with two dropped passes and three missed tackles. However, those statistics don’t account for the ridiculous referee decision that took away a 33 yard touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. If you include that play, Brown’s stat-line reads 38 targets, 20 receptions, 362 yards, an 18.1 average, three touchdowns, one dropped pass and three missed tackles.
You can decide for yourself whether you want to count this play or not:
Brown is lined up at the bottom of the formation, split wide with one receiver inside of him. Lito Sheppard is responsible for Brown as he runs straight down the sideline at the snap. Sheppard has better position on him, because of the 10 yard cushion he starts the play off with.
By the time the play develops, Brown has closed the cushion on Sheppard and is tight to him when Rivers throws a jump-ball in his direction. Sheppard is slightly shorter than Brown, but he fully extends trying to catch the ball at it’s highest point. Brown does what all receivers are supposed to do, but not all receivers are comfortable doing. He fully extends, leaves his feet and catches the ball at a point that is outside of the defensive back’s radius.
He makes a catch with his hands fully extended, instead of trying to work it into his chest, before maintaining possession of the ball in the endzone.
Much like the infamous Calvin Johnson reception against the Chicago Bears, this play is negated because of a nonsensical catching rule. Essentially, because the defensive back is out of bounds and touching the football(not possessing it) then the play is ruled dead despite the fact that Brown doesn’t go out of bounds and has control of the football.
This would have been Brown’s second touchdown of the same game and the first wasn’t too dissimilar.
Brown lines up outside with Stanford Routt over him. The Raiders are playing zone coverage, but as Brown runs a varied post route, he draws both Routt and safety Matt Giordano into his vicinity. Brown is bracketed by both receivers as the ball arrives and Routt appears to be in the best position to make a play on it. However, again Brown uses his athleticism and understanding of the ball’s flight to get above Routt and make the play in traffic.
He may never be an all-around, polished receiver, but because of his incredible athleticism and very impressive ball-skills, he should be able to consistently make big plays regardless of any curtailed development. Much like a Demaryius Thomas in Denver, Brown should be able to put up big numbers with that skill-set also.
On this play Brown quickly reacts to an underthrown Philip Rivers pass before swivelling in space and sprinting down the seam for a 30 yard gain.
Maybe the most telling play about Brown’s potential is actually one of his most understated ones. Against the Detroit Lions he made this reception, that at first looks like a bad play on the ball by the receiver…
The first viewing makes this look like a simple reception that Brown bobbled into the air before corralling. However, the replay showed us that the defensive back actually tipped the ball so that it was wobbling and hit Brown on the shoulder and his helmet before it went into the air. Brown did very well to use one hand and bring the ball in before absorbing the hit from behind.
His concentration levels on this play were outstanding and it was a great example of why he should be able to be a successful receiver in this league.
Every franchise has question marks and every team has talent. However, even though few offenses have the same number of question marks as the Chargers, even fewer have the same levels of potential from top to bottom. It’s either going to be an excellent year or a terrible year for the San Diego Chargers offense, there appears to be no real middle ground with this team.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf