For the last several years the San Diego Chargers have had tantalizingly good talent, but they just haven’t been able to get it done in the playoffs.
I was a believer in 2011. But a rough stretch by Philip Rivers and injuries to Antonio Gates, several offensive linemen and others led to a six-game slide that scuttled a promising 4-1 start.
The lack of a playoff berth raised questions about Head Coach Norv Turner’s job security and about the overall direction of the organization. But despite the disappointing season and the inevitable turnover, Turner will be back in 2012 and so will a talented core of players.
Zoneblitz: On paper this team looked good heading into 2011 and it had the second-highest scoring offense in the AFC. What happened to prevent the Chargers from making the playoffs?
John Gennaro: The defense was not good, and got significantly worse when Bob Sanders went down for the season early on and Shaun Phillips missed about a month and a half. Phillips’ injury also coincided with major injuries to left guard Kris Dielman, left tackle Marcus McNeill and right guard Louis Vasquez. Without much protection or a running game, the offense could no longer dominate. Without any star players besides Eric Weddle, the defense couldn’t get any sort of pass rush. This led to the famous 6 game losing streak
Once Phillips and Vasquez returned, the Chargers started winning every week (impressively) until getting blown out by a Lions team that built an early lead through the air and could take chances on defense.
Zoneblitz: Was keeping Norv Turner the right move?
Gennaro: Yes. The team remains close to being a contender, meaning blowing it up and starting over would’ve been a big step backwards. Unless there was a great coach out there looking for a job (the coaches that were hired should tell you that there was not), there’s no reason to just cut and run.
Zoneblitz: What caused Philip Rivers to struggle throughout the 2011 season?
Gennaro: This is still a mystery. Despite Rivers saying that it was just a rough patch that everyone goes through, many still believe that he was injured early in a game against the Patriots and only turned it on late in the season because he was finally healthy.
Zoneblitz: With an entire offensive line worth of players contemplating retirement, looking at being cut or already being free agents (McNeill, Dielman, Hardwick, Gaither, Mruczkowski), how are the Chargers poised to replace those guys?
Gennaro: Hardwick and Gaither can’t leave. They’re free agents, but the Chargers might offer them the most money because they’ll need them desperately. Gaither can serve as McNeill’s replacement if McNeill can’t pass a physical and is waived. Mruczkowski (“Mooch”) is nearly as valuable, but Colin Baxter is a young (read: cheap) player that the coaches really liked last year and could take over as the backup Center.
Zoneblitz: It looks like the Chargers will lose Vincent Jackson. Is there a replacement for him on the roster or will the team have to go outside the organization?
Gennaro: Technically, Malcom Floyd is Jackson’s equal in terms of talent. However, Floyd has a hard time staying healthy and has failed to replace Jackson in the past for that reason. Vincent Brown showed in his rookie season that he’s talented enough to be a starter in the league. If the team had any faith in Floyd to stay on the field, they could just go with that, but they don’t. If Jackson and the Chargers can’t come to an agreement on a long-term deal, they’ll need to replace him with a free agent of high draft pick.
Zoneblitz: Though Antonio Gates played alright when he returned from injury, he still didn’t look full strength to me. What do you think his future holds and how do the injury issues of the last couple years affect the team going forward?
Gennaro: I think his body is finally to a point where he can’t be relied on to play 16 games a year like he used to, but by the end of 2011 he seemed about as close to the old Gates as he’s going to get. He even felt good enough to play in the Pro Bowl, which is a fantastic sign. However, with the twilight of Gates’ career looming, the team will look to find someone this offseason that they can mold into being a 2nd TE over the next few seasons and eventually a starter.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of the development of Ryan Mathews? With Mike Tolbert potentially moving on, is Mathews ready to take on a larger role?
Gennaro: When healthy, Mathews was one of the top 5 RBs in the league last year. However, he played through injury for about a month in the middle of the season (which is not uncommon for him) and still has major issues holding on to the ball. If he can fix those two things, he’s a potential MVP candidate. Either way, he’s already the unquestioned starter for the team. They’re comfortable with the 25 or so touches (carries and catches) he gets per game, but will either retain Tolbert or bring in someone else to handle the other 10-15 to keep Mathews fresh.
Zoneblitz: It looks like there will be some potential shake-up of the defense as well with Takeo Spikes a rumored possible cut and Greg Manusky being let go. What went wrong in 2011, what do you expect in 2012 and how can San Diego get back to being elite on defense?
Gennaro: Easy answer: pass-rush. The biggest issue for the Chargers since 2007 has been a lack of a pass-rush. Shaun Phillips is an excellent complementary pass-rusher, mostly because he can do other things (like coverage), but is by no means a dominant pass-rusher. Antwan Barnes was used sporadically the last two seasons and was good at getting to the QB, but had too many other flaws to stay on the field. Expect the Chargers to go hard after a pass-rusher in free agency (Mario Williams and Robert Mathis are already being talked about) or the draft to try and fix the team’s most glaring weakness.
Zoneblitz: What is the status of the team’s pursuit of a new stadium?
Gennaro: In a bit of a holding pattern while important people try and figure out the money and legalities of it. The Chargers are expected to stick around at least long enough for a vote in November 2013, and it appears the city understands how valuable the team is to the city. I think a downtown stadium of some sort gets done.
Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Chargers do in free agency and the draft?
Gennaro: I’d like to see them land Mario Williams and also make a play for Tyvon Branch in free agency. If they can bring in a guard to replace Kris Dielman (who I’m assuming is retiring), that’d be great. In the draft, I’d like to see them pick a wide receiver in the first round. They can then use the following picks to try and find replacements for Mike Tolbert and Marcus McNeill (someone who can ride the bench for a year or two behind Gaither), then take the best player available when their selection rolls around.