By John Gennaro, Bolts From The Blue
Although the Chargers come into 2010 with what looks to be a slightly less-talented team than in years past, this San Diego team is still being picked as a Super Bowl contender. The reasons for that are Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and an 11-game winning streak to close out the 2009 regular season. However, the biggest reason for optimism in San Diego this season is a renewed focus on balance over talent. This is a team that likes the comparisons it gets to the pre-2006 Indianapolis Colts squad that could never get it done, because they think this 2010 Chargers team is similar to that 2006 Super Bowl championship team in that it has become more balanced and complete on both sides of the ball to eliminate weaknesses like the ones the Jets found in the playoffs last season.
Significant Offseason Additions/Subtractions
The list of significant offseason subtractions is long for a team that still has Super Bowl aspirations. After being big parts of an embarrassing playoff loss to the Jets in 2009, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie have found themselves wearing green in New York. Pro Bowlers Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill should be included on this list for now, since it would appear that each is going to sit out the entire 2010 season. Brandon Manumaleuna left to sign a gigantic contract as the backup TE in Chicago. In total, the Chargers are down 4 Pro Bowlers and the best blocking TE in football. Tomlinson and Cromartie were let go because they were not as effective as they needed to be, and both were quietly seen as problems in the locker room. McNeill, Jackson and Manumaleuna won't be in blue and gold this season strictly due to money issues.
In what has become his modus operandi, A.J. Smith added to this team with one or two under-the-radar free agents and through the draft. Randy McMichael was picked up to help replace Manumaleuna, which provides a boost in receiving from that position but his blocking is not nearly as good. Nathan Vasher and Donald Strickland were signed to help replace the gap left by Antonio Cromatie in the secondary. The Bolts moved up in the first round to grab Ryan Mathews, who only has to replace maybe the greatest Chargers player of all time, and used their 4th round pick to grab SS Darrell Stuckey to replace the departed tandem of Clinton Hart and Kevin Ellison. DT Cam Thomas was drafted in the 5th to help replace Jamal Williams (who is now a Denver Bronco) in both the short and long-term, and QB Jonathan Crompton was selected 12 picks later to replace Charlie Whitehurst (now a Seattle Seahawk) as the 3rd string QB.
After fielding one of the most explosive passing offenses of all time (and one of the worst rushing offenses) in 2009, the Chargers are attempting to change their offensive philosophy in 2010. The two biggest reasons for the shift are consistency, as there were less than a handful of long offensive drives last year, and to make up for the players that aren't with the team. Whereas the 2009 Chargers team was confident they could make more big plays than their opponent and score more points that way, the 2010 Chargers want to be able to focus on the weakness of their opponent and be versatile in how they attack. They would also like to keep their mediocre defense off the field whenever possible. This team will run, quite a bit against teams that are not good at defending against it, with a mix of Ryan Mathews, Mike Tolbert (think Jerome Bettis) and Darren Sproles. Instead of relying on deep passes to tall and fast receivers, the passing game will revolve mostly around quick, intermediate passes to Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, Buster Davis, Antonio Gates, Randy McMichael and Kris Wilson. This offense, at least when they're throwing the ball, could remind people of the New England Patriots in that it will be based on quick passes to lots of different receivers.
Year two of the "Ron Rivera as a 3-4 Defensive Coordinator" experiment is a go. Things we learned in Year one include:
- The CBs need to be willing to tackle otherwise there will be gaping holes on the outside of the D for opposing running backs.
- The Safeties and the nickel CB will blitz frequently. They will almost be aiming for the QB as much as the OLBs.
- The depth behind Jamal Williams in 2009 was laughable.
Number one is a big reason Antonio Cromartie was sent packing to northern New Jersey. Antoine Cason, the 2008 first-round draft pick, has shown a similar skillset as a cover-corner and does not shy away from contact. This should be an improvement, and if it's not oft-injured Nathan Vasher will give it a shot on the outside instead. Donald Strickland has been pegged as Rivera's "prototype nickel CB" and....again, if he can stay healthy....he could be a big key to how good this defense is in 2010.
The gap left by Jamal Williams seems like it is better off now than it was when he went on IR a year ago. Antonio Garay, another injury-prone veteran, has won the starting job and looks like an absolute beast at the nose. Cam Thomas looks more like the first round pick he was projected to be and less like the fifth round pick he became, flashing a package of strength and speed that will make him one of the league's best if he can get more consistent.
As you can tell, this is a group that has some health issues. Vasher and Strickland have spent chunks of their career watching from the sidelines, as has Antonio Garay, ILB Kevin Burnett and now OLB Shawne Merriman. If this group can avoid major injuries, they will be somewhere between "good" and "dominant". If defensive linemen, cornerbacks and OLBs start getting banged up, this team will be just as unbalanced and reliant on the offense as they were in 2009.
There is at least 18 more weeks before Chargers fans have to worry about Nate Kaeding. During the regular season, he may be the greatest FG kicker in the history of the league. He makes about 90% of his kicks and can nail them from about 52 yards and in. As for what happens when he faces the Jets in the playoffs.....next question.
Mike Scifres punted the entire 2009 season with a torn abdomen and a bilateral hernia, yet still finished the season as one of the league's best punters in terms of distance and coffin kicks (punts landing inside the opponents' 20 yard line). This year he looks healthy and even better than he was in 2009, so there's no reason to expect anything but greatness from him again. Darren Sproles is still a dynamic punt and kick returner, but Charger fans are hoping that the "Darren Sproles Adventure" of trying to go the entire season without fair-catching a punt has gone by the wayside. So far nobody has gotten close enough to him in the preseason to see if that's true or not. Between Kaeding, Scifres and Sproles, this continues to be one of the league's best Special Teams unit.
Say what you want about Norv Turner, die-hard Chargers fans know how good he's been and what he's meant in the progression of Philip Rivers into one of the league's best QBs. We also remember the years he had calling plays for Frank Gore, Ricky Williams, Tomlinson (in his 1-year stint as Offensive Coordinator) and Emmitt Smith and know that as long as he's around the offense shouldn't be a concern. Considering the way Marty Schottenheimer left and the timing of Norv's hiring, it's been interesting to watch as Norv slowly win over "Marty's Guys", as well as Charger fans, a little bit more each year. The way his head coaching career started, with disastrous stops in Oakland (where he clashed with Al Davis) and Washington (where he clashed with Daniel Snyder), it looked as though Norv would always be a bit of a disaster on the sidelines. In San Diego, where he's had the full support of his front office, he has created a dominant offense, molded a star QB, and has the respect of his coaches and players. Also, his 3 playoff wins as the Chargers Head Coach are 3 more than Marty was able to win here.
Ron Rivera is still a bit of an unknown as a 3-4 Defensive Coordinator, since he spent the majority of his coaching career running the 4-3 in Chicago. Last year was his first full-year of calling the plays, and he seemed to switch back and forth from too aggressive and not aggressive enough. This year the fans are hoping to see a more balanced attack from him, and perhaps less zone (since our personnel isn't a great fit for zone usually). One thing is for sure though: When the defense was getting torn to shreds by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early part of 2009, Ron got in the face of every one of his players and let them know who was in charge and what he expected from them. After that, the defense got better and went from "horrific" to "good enough with a great offense". Guys like Strickland and Cason, who are better suited for the positions they're playing than the guys that were there last year, could hopefully get the defense to where Ron wants it to be.
Even with four lost Pro Bowlers, this team remains very similar to the 13-3 club from last season. As I mentioned before, there is a stronger emphasis this year on teamwork over talent than there has been in years past. One of the best things about the 2010 Chargers, for me and a few other San Diego fans, is that it would appear that the "Super Bowl" talk has finally gone away and is no longer something that needs to be talked about or even thought about. That's just one more headache removed from this squad as they try and find the right balance going forward.
My prediction for this team will remain in the regular season. With a talented squad, and going up against one of the easiest schedules in the league, they should win at least 12 games. With the AFC West still mostly-populated by "up and coming" teams, that should be more than enough to win the division and maybe even get a Bye week heading into the playoffs. Once they get to the playoffs though, all bets are off. This is a team that in the past few years has seen major injuries to Shawne Merriman, LaDainian Tomlinson (twice), Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates during postseason play. Not to mention their kicker has had more than one game where he freaked out and missed easy kicks.
Who knows which team will show up in January?