Chargers fans, so accustomed to hearing and reading about how their team has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, have to be thinking that 2011 can’t be any worse than 2010. The Chargers are eager to bounce back from a mystifying season in which all the brilliant things Philip Rivers did were sullied by bewildering breakdowns on special teams. The shock of being eliminated from the playoff race by a loss at Cincinnati continues to linger for a team whose window of reaching the Super Bowl seems to be slowly closing.
Despite the talent, the Chargers have some convincing to do. Coach Norv Turner remains unpopular with many fans. The team’s future in San Diego remains uncertain, with a planned new football palace in Los Angeles perhaps beckoning team owner Alex Spanos if he wearies of his long struggle to get a new stadium built in San Diego.
With only one playoff victory in the previous three seasons, reality says the Chargers have some hard work ahead if they want to regain their status as an elite team. For this fan base, 9–7 doesn’t cut it.
There’s no question that this is Rivers’ offense. The real question is, will Rivers ever get to play in the Super Bowl? He might if the Chargers can finally get everyone moving in the same direction. The Chargers expect to have wide receiver Vincent Jackson at least one more season and believe that running back Ryan Mathews is ready to contribute regularly after a rookie season filled with growing pains. Having Jackson and Mathews — as well as star tight end Antonio Gates and left tackle Marcus McNeill — healthy and productive is what it will take to get the Chargers to the Super Bowl.
Rivers had a superb season and managed to hold the offense together through Jackson’s 10-game absence during a nasty contract dispute and Mathews’ various issues. Rivers finished with 4,710 yards passing, 10th-highest in a single season in NFL history and his third-straight 4,000-yard effort. Mathews arrived with great expectations. But he had some costly fumbles, sprained an ankle early in the season and even sat out a game while healthy because Turner said the rookie didn’t know the protection packages — somewhat shocking stuff considering all the offseason work rookies go through. Although he didn’t shine like a first-rounder in 2010, Mathews is heading into 2011 off a strong finish. He ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns as the Chargers held off Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in the season finale.
With Mathews struggling, Mike Tolbert led the Chargers with 735 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, providing a bruising inside game. Even Tolbert was prone to fumbling, an issue that annoyed Turner all season.
Gates was limited by a painful tear in the plantar fascia in his right foot but gamely tried to contribute. He still finished second on the team with 50 catches for 782 yards and 10 touchdowns. Gates is beginning a $36 million, five-year contract extension, the richest pact ever given to a tight end.
Having the NFL’s top-ranked defense obviously did nothing to get the Chargers into the playoffs. Coordinator Ron Rivera was hired away as coach of the Carolina Panthers and replaced by Greg Manusky, who was linebackers coach for the Chargers under Marty Schottenheimer from 2002-06 before serving as defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers from 2007-10.
To give Manusky a fighting chance — and perhaps after realizing that the stat sheet serves mainly fantasy players — the Chargers loaded up on defense during the draft. With their first-round pick, the Chargers took defensive lineman Corey Liuget, who will play end in the 3-4 scheme. Liuget can clog the middle and free the outside pass rushers. Division rivals Kansas City and Oakland were 1-2 in rushing in the NFL, and both gave the Chargers serious trouble in 2010. In all, San Diego allowed more than 100 yards rushing seven times, including three times in the final five games.
Although outside linebacker Shaun Phillips had 11 sacks, the Chargers are looking for more pressure, particularly from Larry English, who hasn’t played up to his status as a first-round pick in 2009 but will be given another shot to rebound from injuries and his quiet play.
The Chargers signed Bob Sanders just before the old CBA expired, an acquisition that’s clearly a risk-reward proposition. When he’s healthy, he’s good. But Sanders has missed 64 games in seven seasons due to injuries while playing in only 48 games. Sanders joins a loaded secondary that also includes cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason as well as safety Eric Weddle. The Bolts also added veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes, who played for Manusky in San Francisco last season.
How often does a team boast during the draft about how it addressed special teams needs? Not often. Then again, the Chargers were so bad on special teams in 2010 that they had no choice. The continuing blunders, which began on opening night in Kansas City and never let up, cost longtime special teams coach Steve Crosby his job and led the Chargers to draft Clemson cornerback-returner Marcus Gilchrist and Missouri linebacker Andrew Gachkar with the specific intention of upgrading special teams. Others in the draft will be expected to help get the Chargers’ special teams back to their previous lofty status.
Part of the Chargers’ problems in 2010 stemmed from letting too many veteran special teams contributors leave. Among them were Kassim Osgood, a Pro Bowler as a special teamer who wanted more time at wide receiver, and Tim Dobbins.
The Chargers’ special teams meltdowns were stunning. They allowed three kickoff returns for touchdowns, a punt return for a TD and had five punts blocked. Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster returned a punt 94 yards on opening night, and Mike Scifres had consecutive punts blocked early in a game at Oakland, leading to nine quick points for the Raiders. The Chargers seemed to have figured out their problems, but in the finale at Denver, rookie Cassius Vaughn returned a kickoff 97 yards for a TD, and the Chargers failed to recover an onside kick in the closing seconds.
Coincidentally, long snapper David Binn was hurt in the opener and missed the rest of the season. The Chargers went through a number of long snappers and are expected to get Binn back for his 18th season.
Winning the AFC West isn’t automatic any more for the Chargers. The Chiefs have caught up with the Bolts, the Raiders seem to be right there, and the Broncos have a different look with Tebow. Maybe getting swept by the Raiders will be a wakeup call for the Chargers. If not, 2011 could be as disappointing as 2010.
Outside the Huddle
Quarterback Philip Rivers hosted the second annual Philip Rivers 5K Walk & Fun Run to raise money for the Rivers of Hope Foundation, which he founded with his wife, Tiffany. The foundation develops and coordinates resources and programs that create community awareness, recruit adoptive families, provide financial aid for adoption and offer assistance for foster children and orphans in San Diego. “There are a lot of kids in need, and the 5K Walk & Fun Run not only raises money to help, but also brings awareness to what these children are going through,” Rivers says. “It is a fun day for everyone, and it is a great way for people to get together and support a very worthy cause.”
Several Chargers were allowed on team property during the lockout to participate in the Shoot to Cure HD, a fundraiser for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. The HDSA conducts research to try to find a cure for the fatal degenerative brain disorder. Ramona Johnston, the wife of longtime Chargers PR director Bill Johnston, was diagnosed with the disease several years ago. Although several players attended, they were not allowed to go into the building. A handful of Chargers came disguised in wigs and sunglasses, calling themselves “Team Lockout.”
Rookie wide receiver Vincent Brown will play his home games in the same stadium where he caught passes for San Diego State. Brown was taken in the third round of the draft, then drove to Chargers Park in “about five minutes” after receiving the call in the kitchen of his girlfriend’s house. “I tried to keep it hush-hush and not let everybody know. I was just excited. I couldn’t stop smiling,” Brown says. “Everybody started looking at me and they knew I was excited. They called my name on the TV and the whole room just went crazy from there. The history here, the tradition here, it’s amazing. Just to be part of this is a dream come true.”
Chargers owner Alex G. Spanos was honored with an American Spirit Award from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. The honor came as part of an initiative showing the role football and the NFL played in the war effort. More than 1,000 NFL players and personnel enlisted, and the museum acknowledges that the NFL sold millions of dollars worth of war bonds and donated funds from exhibition games to related charities. Spanos was honored along with fellow owners Bud Adams of Tennessee, Tom Benson of New Orleans, William Clay Ford of Detroit and Ralph Wilson of Buffalo. Spanos enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and trained as a pilot before transferring out of flight school to become a B-29 gunner until 1946. Spanos helped more than 145 World War II veterans and their families from Northern California visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He also headed a campaign during the Gulf War that raised more than $4.5 million for the United Service Organizations.
The lasting image of 2010 will be Norv Turner turning to then-defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and saying, “What happened?” after Jerome Simpson burned cornerback Antoine Cason for a 59-yard TD in the fourth quarter of a 34–20 loss at Cincinnati that eliminated the Chargers from playoff contention.