(Robert Beck/SI)
(Robert Beck/SI)

Chargers Preview: Trial and Errors

As he learns a new offense, Philip Rivers must cut down on the turnovers and make a case to be the Chargers' QB of the future

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

For the last three years, the San Diego Chargers had been like the post-Michael Scott Office: disappointing, but not bad enough to dismantle and start over. That changed for both programs this past spring. A few months before the curtain closed on one of the great television comedies, Chargers president Dean Spanos finally fired head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith.

Their terminations seem like a referendum on Turner and Smith rather than a redirection of the franchise because the new leaders appear to share many of their predecessors’ philosophies. Head coach Mike McCoy is, like Turner, an offensive savant. And new general manager Tom Telesco comes from the Bill Polian school, which Smith got at least a taste of early in his career, as his former mentor, John Butler, worked under Polian in Buffalo. If Telesco subscribes to the mantra Polian taught in Indianapolis, he’ll be a strong proponent of building through the draft—just like Smith was.

So far, the Chargers’ roster remains largely the same. Many of San Diego’s key players, including 31-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers, are still in their prime. And this is a team that has posted mediocre but not deplorable win totals of nine, eight and seven over the past three years. The first-time GM may find that a simpler remodeling project here is more practical than an outright rebuilding project.

Unlike The Office, the Chargers’ decline has not resulted from their main character leaving. Instead, their main character has simply stumbled. Rivers has turned the ball over 47 times over the last two years (fourth most in the league) and seen his yards per attempt drop from 8.7 in 2010 to 7.9 and 6.8 in each of the past two seasons. These statistical black marks have largely stemmed from inaccurate throws and poor decision-making under pressure.

To be fair, Rivers’ transgressions are not the only reason for San Diego’s slide. And the quarterback still has made some of the extremely impressive, strong-armed pocket throws that originally defined him. Nevertheless, he is the one standing trial in 2013. If he plays well, he’ll stick around. If he doesn’t, he’ll be released, and Telesco will almost certainly hit Control-Alt-Delete twice on this roster.

OFFENSE

Many believe Philip Rivers was put on trial once Telesco decided not to restructure the remaining three years of the quarterback’s contract. A restructuring would have saved the Chargers some much-needed cap space in 2013, but it would have carried new bonus money, making Rivers far more expensive (in cap dollars) to cut moving forward. But an even more important development occurred when Mike McCoy installed a spread offense. The biggest gold stars on McCoy’s resume are his last two years as offensive coordinator in Denver. In 2011 he rewrote his entire playbook midseason to reflect a staunch run-first approach after Tim Tebow replaced Kyle Orton. In 2012 McCoy rewrote his playbook again to accommodate Peyton Manning.

Chargers coach Mike McCoy. (Gregory Bull/AP)
Chargers coach Mike McCoy. (Gregory Bull/AP)

The man who earned a head coaching job largely because of the masterly way he molds his system around his quarterback has inherited a classic deep-dropping, downfield pocket passer in Rivers. Yet he’s installing a quick, timing-based spread scheme that’s almost the opposite of what’s familiar to Rivers.

If McCoy thought Rivers had no shot in this system, he would not have introduced it. (Not all of it, anyway.) The coach has said he thinks Rivers can complete 70% of his passes in the new scheme. That might be a tad optimistic, but it’s plausible.

Of course, there’s always a learning curve when systems change. And McCoy will bend and accommodate Rivers in certain areas if need be. In the big picture, installing a spread offense is the right thing to do. Quick, timing-based horizontal passing attacks are cutting-edge in today’s NFL. And, looking at the rest of San Diego’s personnel, this is a much better fit than Turner’s vertical passing game, as respected as it was.

A big reason the Chargers offense faltered is they didn’t have enough quality linemen to block up the deeper drop-back timing that Turner’s system demanded (49 sacks allowed in 2012, second most in the AFC). As a franchise, they were completely unprepared in 2011 for the sudden declines of left tackle Marcus McNeil and left guard Kris Dielman. The Chargers still haven’t adjusted.

After suffering through the likes of Jared Gaither and the undrafted Mike Harris at left tackle last season, the Chargers signed aging ex-Steeler Max Starks, hoping he can hold up at least one year. If he can’t, they’ll roll the dice with King Dunlap, a lumbering 6-9 31-year-old who, in five years with the Eagles, never could hone his technique well enough to stay on the field. (Dunlap actually got a bulk of the first team reps early in camp.) Inside, Dielman’s spot will be filled by journeyman Chad Rinehart. But if they truly believed Rinehart was up to the task, the Chargers would have given the free-agent pickup more than a one-year contract.

Instead of trying to give Rivers more time to throw, the Chargers will, by design, give him less time but more options.

The other side of San Diego’s line has also been remade, though not necessarily upgraded. Telesco spent the 11th pick on Alabama road-grader D.J. Fluker. However, Fluker’s right tackle position was the one spot that was not overtly weak on this line. Incumbent Jeromey Clary had never been anything special, but he’s someone coaches could trust. Now, Clary has to slide to right guard, where he’ll almost surely be a step down from Louis Vasquez, who signed with the division-rival Broncos in free agency. At center, Nick Hardwick can still get by on craftiness and fundamentals, though if there were a more potent backup than Colin Baxter on the roster, the soon-to-be 32-year-old Hardwick would probably be looking at a competition in training camp.

It’s easy to criticize Telesco for pouring middling resources into the broken offensive line, but there’s a reason he did it this way. First, he did not inherit much cap space. Second, it was a weak veteran market for offensive linemen. Third, five offensive linemen were off the board before San Diego’s first pick. Fourth, Telesco might realize that the beauty of a quick, timing-based spread system like McCoy’s is that you don’t really need a good offensive line. You can save money and get by with an average front.

In a spread, the aim is often for the quarterback to get rid of the ball early in the down. Instead of trying to give Rivers more time to throw, the Chargers will, by design, give him less time but more options. Which means it’s less important that their line thrive and more important that their receivers win quickly off the line of scrimmage.

It will be interesting to see how Malcom Floyd does in this system. In Turner’s scheme, Floyd’s lankiness and verticality were great for winning jump balls on the outside. He isn’t quite a precision route runner, but he is extremely good at establishing initial separation in his release off the line (especially for someone his size). That will probably be enough.

Opposite Floyd, Danario Alexander was a precision route runner before suffering yet another major knee injury (ACL). The ex-Ram joined this squad last October and, in Weeks 9-15, scored five touchdowns and averaged 92.5 yards per game. Now, he leaves a void at the No. 2 spot. It’d be great if 2012 free agent bust Robert Meachem could somehow rise up and fill it.

Most likely, the inside receivers will ultimately determine the effectiveness of this spread. Vincent Brown should be completely healthy after missing essentially all of last season with a foot injury. He showed compelling all-around smoothness as a rookie in 2011. There’s also third-round rookie Keenan Allen, who fell in the draft in part due to injury concerns. Allen has reminded some, including Telesco, of Reggie Wayne coming out of Miami. He showed an uncommon ability to disguise routes at Cal.

Tight end Antonio Gates. (Peter Read Miller/SI)
Tight end Antonio Gates. (Peter Read Miller/SI)

Not to be forgotten is Antonio Gates. Foot problems and Father Time have drained a lot of the eight-time Pro Bowler’s juice, but Gates is still capable of winning most one-on-one matchups between the numbers. The Chargers are counting heavily on him; their backup tight ends are John Phillips, who had 30 total catches in his four years with the Cowboys, and Ladarius Green, who barely saw action as a fourth-round rookie last year.

A spread system won’t only affect the passing game—it will also allow running back Ryan Mathews to rely more on his outside speed and quick lateral agility. Obviously, Mathews must finally stay healthy and take care of the football. If he can’t, the Chargers will have to rely on newcomer Danny Woodhead, who is tailored for a spread system but can only handle a situational load. Ronnie Brown would be the other option. In fact, don’t be surprised if the methodical but reliable ninth-year veteran once again takes snaps away from even a healthy Mathews, as Brown is so much smarter in the passing game.

DEFENSE

Essentially, Telesco and McCoy are betting that the same defensive approach from last year can work as long as the secondary plays better. With this in mind, they chose to retain defensive coordinator John Pagano and bring in new cornerbacks. Gone are Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, whose struggles compelled Pagano to mostly stay with conservative Cover 3 concepts and eschew the creative man-based blitzes that make his hybrid 3-4/4-3 scheme unique. Ex-Jaguar Derek Cox and third-year pro Shareece Wright are now at the corner spots.

But there’s nothing impressive about this new cornerbacking duo. Cox was humiliated in one-on-one scenarios against elite receivers on multiple occasions last year. Wright, a former third-round pick, couldn’t even push his struggling predecessors for playing time.

Of equal concern is San Diego’s depth (or lack thereof) at this position. Disappointing Saints castoff Johnny Patrick will compete with fifth-round rookie Steve Williams for nickel duties. Don’t be surprised if neither wins the job and the Chargers instead slide new safety Marcus Gilchrist back to his original nickel slot. In that case, they’d bring either backup safety Darrell Stuckey or Brandon Taylor off the bench. This is probably the best scenario, though the problem is many of Pagano’s best nickel blitz designs require man coverage. Cox has the movement skills to play man, and Wright—in very limited samples—was solid in relying on his lankiness as a man-defender last year. But overall neither has consistently fulfilled his man-to-man potential. And what about Gilchrist? If the coaching staff was that confident in his man coverage, they would have let him compete for a starting outside corner job.

Safety Eric Weddle. (John W. McDonough/SI)
Safety Eric Weddle. (John W. McDonough/SI)

The saving grace for this secondary is that safety Eric Weddle has the versatility, playmaking prowess and football IQ to erase other people’s mistakes. He can outwit offenses before and after the snap.

Weddle did not play in the box as much as usual last season, but he may be needed in more of Pagano’s blitz packages now that hybrid edge defender Melvin Ingram is possibly out for the season (ACL). Ingram had only one sack last season, but he showed a diverse assortment of explosive traits that undoubtedly would have been the fulcrum of San Diego’s attacks (especially with veteran Shaun Phillips now gone).

Because Larry English is fragile and unimaginative and Jarret Johnson, while great at setting the edge versus the run, is not necessarily feared as a pass-rusher, the Chargers had to go outside the organization to find Ingram’s replacement. They could have done much worse than Dwight Freeney. Yes, the longtime Colt is best cast as a 4-3 defensive end, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a decent situational pass-rusher out of a two-point stance. Freeney’s sacks dropped to five last season, but on most weeks he was still extremely disruptive in his transitions from speed to power off the edge.

The Chargers, overall, still don’t have enough pass-rushing firepower to simply line up and go after the quarterback on a down-by-down basis. Pagano will have to manufacture pressure through his schemes. But that chore could be easier than expected given the athleticism he has along his three-man front line. Corey Liuget, a 2011 first-round pick, is blossoming into a stellar all-around force. He moves well in every direction and will command at least semi-regular double teams this season. Partnering with Liuget is Kendall Reyes, a second-rounder last year who is quick and knows how to use his hands. The Chargers are relying heavily on both ends this season, as their only experienced backup at that position is Jarius Wynn.

The dearth of experienced depth at end is nothing given the utter absence of experienced depth at nosetackle. The release of 33-year-old Antonio Garay saved the Chargers $5 million in cap space, but it also put all of their eggs in Cam Thomas’s basket. The fourth-year pro has emerged as a respectable ground-holder against the run, but he’s averaged about 24 snaps per game over his career. Can he hold up if that number increases?

Rounding out this defense are inside linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te’o. Butler, when healthy, is an extremely underrated and instinctive hunter. Te’o will start right away and likely play all three downs. If his lack of speed becomes an issue against the pass, look for ex-Packer D.J. Smith, a forceful inside blitzer (at least before tearing his ACL last August), to get the nod.

TROTTER: Te’o Must Become His Own Man

SPECIAL TEAMS

Mike Scifres has not furthered his legacy since giving the greatest single postseason punting performance in history in the 2008 wild-card win versus Indianapolis. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t still been an upper-tier punter. Kicker Nick Novak was successful on 18 of his 20 attempts last season, with the only two misses coming from beyond 50 yards. In the return game, Richard Goodman and Eddie Royal will get looks, though both could have trouble making the final roster.

BOTTOM LINE

If Rivers gets things together, the Chargers offense can be good enough for this team to compete for a wild card. Of course, that’s assuming the rest of the players take well to McCoy’s new system. The real concern is whether the defense is still good enough in the secondary to be the creative unit Pagano wants. All in all, we’re probably looking at too many ifs here.

Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.

16 comments
vermillionx73
vermillionx73

Ah!  An in-depth article that appears on just one page without spam-clicking traps and screaming advertisements.  CNN made a mistake going to Bleacher Report.  I'm staying here.  Go Chargers!

DouglasThompson
DouglasThompson

I seem to remember the Chargers gave up on a guy by the name of Drew Brees a few years ago.  Since then, Drew led his new team to a Super Bowl Championship.  What has his replacement in SD done?  Diddly Squat!  I happen to think it's funny.  Karma can be like that sometimes.

B.T.
B.T.

@DouglasThompson Brees is coached by maybe the best offensive head coach in the game. He won one Super Bowl. Rivers came close to getting there. While both have put up major fantasy stats (until Rivers last year), Brees on the field still throws picks in the red zone a tad too often. It's hard to say one is better than the other based on the other factors.

NathanLangford
NathanLangford like.author.displayName 1 Like

@DouglasThompson Speaking of "Diddly Squat", what were Brees' stats before he broke his throwing arm and we released him for the first rounder who was sitting on our bench for 2 years...?

Hindsight is 20/20, but as a Chargers fan, who was living in that situation and not as some outsider relying on hindsight to make themselves feel like a genius, the Chargers made the right move.

drudown
drudown like.author.displayName 1 Like

@NathanLangford @DouglasThompson 

@Nathan 

Exactly. 

Brees was a shadow of his NO self while starting for the Chargers. Even Rivers' recent failings can be partially attributed to his lackluster O-Line. Besides. Everyone knows "defense wins championships" and the last time the Chargers had a great D was the last year we had Wade Phillips as D Coordinator.

The Chargers' problems are twofold: poor drafting (cf. SF during last 8 years) and a refusal of the Spanos family to pay $ for FA to fill holes. That and the fact we are arguably the worst tackling team in the NFL.


Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The biggest problem Rivers has is that he is a crybaby. He always has been. (For you NASCAR fans, think Denny Hamlin). His 'regression' the last couple of years may be due to that or Norv Turner (Norv f-ingTurner as my Washington fan wife calls him). I still think he can be a difference maker, despite all that. He just needs the right head coach/QB coach?/OC. We'll see.

NathanLangford
NathanLangford

@Rickapolis Crybaby because he b**ched out Cutler in one game...?  Trust me, we love that Rivers is a loud mouth, but his reputation as a crybaby is definitely unearned, especially in light of new evidence that Cutler is actually the crybaby.

drudown
drudown

As an unequivocal and unwavering supporter of the Chargers, it pains me to even consider the following hypothetical:

Assuming, arguendo, that Rivers does not return to "regular" form (a la 2008)  this next season- his 8/24/09 contract should be a prima facie example for (drumroll, please) NFL ownership to "demand to restructure" Rivers' contract because (the argument goes) "he underperformed his contract." Not even the San Diego Chicken can credibly contend that River's "performance" under his contract is "worth" the agreed-upon consideration paid by the Chargers. Tell me, if players assert they "outperform" THIER contracts...is it not a two way street? 

"I say a slippery slope!!" - Stephen A. Smith

What's that I buzzing we hear, NFLPA? Is that your Alligator Arms that "can't reach your cell phone" to field the owners' call?

"I can't do that- but T.O. is available....[long silence.]... to, uh, hold up signs... or pour popcorn on himself. He's...kinda tall." - flustered agent

Thus, it is equally inapt to assert that players such as the Titans' Chris Johnson "outperformed his contract" prior to him, well, "underperforming" the new one, i.e., thereby "warranting" or "requiring" his (ahem) now infamous 2011 "extension". 

Uh, excuse me? Ah, I think Lord Edward Coke just rolled over in his grave. 

Contracts distribute risk WHEN executed between the parties. It is asinine to even intimate there is some "we'll see, I mean, as we go- and if I play better than you pay me, yo- I will hold out for more dough" Revis-think.  Tell me, "why" are the NFL contracts "different" without some express language so stipulating? By analogy, how absurd is the notion that a homeowner (e.g., that sold his/her house for, say, $1mm) could knock on the door of the new owner two years later and say "gee, the home I sold you is worth $2.5mm- I mean, only two years later...so...the asset outperformed our contract." 

That is how unfounded this unfounded Contracts position is. Both sides AGREED on performances at the time agreement was consummated, i.e., at the time the risks were distributed to both the player [e.g., could earn more elsewhere if FA or if drafted higher] and the owner [e.g., player might get injured, underperform on the field, slack off or be a media distraction, et al.], respectively. 

Can a team try to "lock up" a player to a long term deal mid-stream? Sure. But "holding out" for more money because the parties misperceived the risks (or value) turns precedent on its head. Er, kind of like that Green Bay/Seattle call.

OK
OK

Manti Te'o (foot) out for week

Associated Press

Saturday, August 10, 2013

SAN DIEGO -- Chargers rookie linebacker Manti Te'o will sit out this week with a sprained right foot and miss San Diego's game at Chicago on Thursday.

Te'o wore a walking boot while watching Saturday morning's practice.

"Manti has a foot sprain and he will be out this week and I will give you any further updates as the week goes on, or next week," coach Mike McCoy said. "But he will be out for the week."

The team refused to make Te'o available to reporters, saying he would speak Monday.

#####

Word has it, Manti Ze'ro tripped over his new imaginary girlfriend's shoe.

Don't look for the AP story on MMQB. Peter King has his staffed focused on NFL spin stories - not news.

rhynohead
rhynohead like.author.displayName 1 Like

@OK so original. Still talking about the imaginary GF? Get over it. And the MMQB is a fresh of breath air with terrrific writing and relevant football news

OK
OK

@rhynohead

Yeah, rhyno, MMQB gives us such insight into Reverend Tebow. Brings a tear to the eye.

westcoastbias
westcoastbias like.author.displayName 1 Like

I don't know enough about San Diego to debate this analysis, but what I love about it is that it doesn't pull any punches.  The guy has an explicit reason for every finding.  Check back at season's end to see if his player evaluations held up.

Jean
Jean

Te'o will have phantom help.

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