Strong finish leads to big expectations in L.A.
The Chargers’ self-proclaimed “Fight for LA” might be a lost cause, at least for the time being, because the Rams have proven to be much more popular in Los Angeles. After all, they made the playoffs last season while the Chargers didn’t. However, there appears to be legitimate hope for the Bolts after they painfully missed the playoffs by one game last year, their first after moving north from San Diego.
The Chargers’ high expectations come in the context of the changing dynamic in the AFC West, where the defending champion Chiefs have lost quarterback Alex Smith and cornerback Marcus Peters, and the Raiders and Broncos tumbled to losing records. The X-factor, of course, is whether Jon Gruden can get the Raiders in shape for a run to the division title. The law of averages might finally be on the side of the Chargers, who haven’t reached the playoffs since 2013 and haven’t won the division since 2009. If they finally get a home playoff game, it would be a remarkable sight considering that their temporary home is a 27,000-seat soccer pitch in suburban Carson.
The inevitable finally happened. Star tight end Antonio Gates, who had been a fixture with the Chargers since his remarkable breakthrough rookie season of 2003, was allowed to leave as a free agent after his contract expired.
Gates’ departure leaves quarterback Philip Rivers as the senior statesman on the squad, and Rivers remains driven to earn a long-sought Super Bowl title. The team’s small base of L.A. fans believes the Chargers can go as far as the Pro Bowl tandem of Rivers and wide receiver Keenan Allen will take them.
Rivers has two more years left on his contract. By all accounts, he wasn’t affected by his daily commute from his home in northern San Diego to the team’s training base in Costa Mesa in Orange County last season. He threw for 4,515 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions. If the Chargers can get off to a good start, they could be dangerous. But that’s been a problem over the years, and last year was no exception. The Chargers looked lost in starting 0-4 before winning nine of their last 12 games. As has been the case in many seasons, it was too little, too late.
Allen returned to form after missing almost all of 2016 and was rewarded with his first selection to the Pro Bowl. He once again showed a remarkable knack for getting open and had 102 catches for 1,393 yards and six touchdowns. He played in all 16 games for the first time in his five NFL seasons after injuries limited him to only nine games combined the previous two seasons.
Gates, who turns 38 in June, wants to keep playing, but it won’t be with the Chargers. His role had been diminishing, and he caught only 30 passes for 316 yards and three scores. The Chargers were going to rely more on Hunter Henry, who had 45 catches for 579 yards and four touchdowns last season, but he tore his ACL in OTAs in late May and is out for the season. Veteran Virgil Green will take Henry's place in the starting lineup, but Rivers will look for more production from receivers Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams. The Chargers hope -- and need -- to have last year’s first-round draft pick, Mike Williams, healthy. Williams had only 11 catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns. He played in 10 games, with just one start. He missed training camp with a back injury and then suffered a knee injury late in the season.
The Chargers’ running game ranked only 24th in the league. They picked up Melvin Gordon’s fifth-year option and signed center Mike Pouncey in free agency. Guard Forrest Lamp is due back after missing his rookie season with a knee injury suffered in training camp.
One look at the Chargers’ top four draft picks tells you general manager Tom Telesco wants his defense to go from pretty good to playoff-caliber. He took safety Derwin James, edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu, defensive tackle Justin Jones and linebacker Kyzir White with his first four selections in an attempt to beef up a unit that has star power up front and in the secondary but still finished in the middle of the league in overall defensive rankings. The Chargers had one of the best pass defenses in the NFL but were dreadful against the run.
Pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will once again be the focus of the defense. Bosa followed up his stellar rookie season, when he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, by being named to his first Pro Bowl team, although he didn’t play due to a finger injury. He finished with 12.5 sacks in 16 games, as well as 70 tackles, one fumble recovery and four forced fumbles. In his rookie season, he had 10.5 sacks in 12 games. Ingram had 10.5 sacks and 56 tackles. The Chargers are always looking for more production from the interior line. Corey Liuget was one of those guys who needed to step up, and now he’s suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on PEDs.
The secondary is loaded, at least on paper. James joins a group anchored by two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward, who was rewarded for his stellar play with a three-year, $36 million contract ($20 million guaranteed). Hayward had seven pickoffs in the team’s last season in San Diego, and he added four more last season. He’ll line up opposite Jason Verrett, who is a nice player when healthy. After his 2016 season was cut short by a knee injury, Verrett was hurt in the 2017 season opener and missed the rest of the year. The team’s top draft pick in 2014 has yet to play a full season. Desmond King stepped into Verrett’s spot last year and responded with four sacks and one interception.
The Chargers haven’t been able to get out of their own way on special teams, something that’s going to have to change. With the kicking nightmare of 2017 still fresh in their minds, the Chargers signed Caleb Sturgis in free agency. He is a five-year veteran who kicked in only one game last year, for Philadelphia, and has made 81 percent of his career field goal attempts. But at least he has experience. The Chargers hurt themselves badly last year when they cut Josh Lambo during the preseason and went younger and cheaper by signing YouTube sensation Younghoe Koo, a South Korean who had played at Georgia Southern. Koo’s miscues cost the Chargers dearly, prompting them to turn to Nick Novak. Novak was hurt early in a win at Dallas, and punter Drew Kaser had to take over, making one extra-point attempt but missing two others. The Chargers used Travis Coons and Nick Rose late in the season. Kaser returns, as do returners Benjamin and Austin Ekeler.
It seems like it happens every season: The Chargers get hot late in the year, and some pundit somewhere says, “Boy, I wouldn’t want to face the Chargers in the playoffs.” And then just like that, the Chargers miss the playoffs. And every year, the Chargers can painfully point to one or two games, or even one or two plays, that cost them a postseason berth.
Last year it was an ugly 0-4 start that ultimately doomed the Chargers, with kicking woes costing them dearly. But there was also the mind-numbing 20-17 overtime loss at Jacksonville in which the Chargers intercepted Blake Bortles twice inside of the final two minutes and still lost thanks to a penalty, a turnover of their own and then a game-winning kick by former teammate Lambo.
So while winning six of their last seven games still gave them playoff hopes, they missed the postseason because they didn’t control their own destiny. That’s got to be foremost in Rivers’ mind, as he’s seen that picture before and doesn’t want to repeat it yet again as his career winds down. That’s why winning the AFC West is paramount, with its guaranteed playoff berth, rather than putting their fate in the hands of the always-wild scramble for a Wild Card berth.