Expectations are high in San Diego after the Chargers rallied to return to the playoffs following a three-year absence. Fans mostly like what they see in coach Mike McCoy and GM Tom Telesco, who took over after Norv Turner and A.J. Smith were fired following the 2012 season. Of course, the road to the Super Bowl goes through division rival Denver, which beat the Chargers in the divisional round. San Diego didn’t exactly charge into the playoffs, but its four-game December winning streak was the difference as Miami and Baltimore faltered. Although McCoy made some glaring mistakes as a rookie coach, he and Telesco have changed the mindset at Chargers Park.
McCoy was right. Philip Rivers didn’t need to be fixed. Everyone else around him needed to get better. That’s why the Chargers remain Rivers’ team, whether he’s throwing to Keenan Allen or Antonio Gates or handing off to Ryan Mathews. Rivers will turn 33 in December, when he hopes to again be leading a late-season run that will get the Bolts into the postseason. After two rough seasons, the franchise quarterback adjusted to McCoy’s quicker-tempo offense and had one of the best statistical seasons of his 10-year NFL career. He completed a team-record, career-best and NFL-leading 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just 11 interceptions. Frank Reich has been promoted to offensive coordinator after Ken Whisenhunt was hired as head coach at Tennessee, and Reich is expected to continue to run the offense that has Rivers dropping back only three steps before throwing. The Chargers also sometimes run a no-huddle.
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Besides Rivers’ resurgence, the most pleasant surprise for the Chargers was Allen’s emergence. The third-round draft pick didn’t even play in the season opener but was a starter by the third game. Showing a remarkable knack for getting separation from defenders, he went on to catch 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. He goes into this season holding down one starting spot. The Chargers are waiting to find out if Malcom Floyd will return after he sustained a scary, season-ending neck injury in the season’s second game. Gates remains motivated, in part because some outsiders have written him off as being over the hill. He’ll be 34 by opening day, yet he’s coming off a 77-catch season that led the Bolts. The Chargers are excited about his backup, third-year pro Ladarius Green.
Mathews heads into the final year of his rookie contract. If this season is like last year, when he ran for a career-best 1,255 yards and scored six touchdowns, the Chargers will be trying to figure out a way to keep him. Mathews played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time and avoided the kind of major injuries that sidelined him in previous years. Little Danny Woodhead will once again provide a nice change of pace and he signed a two-year extension prior to the start of training camp.
The Chargers didn’t have a bruiser to replace Mathews when he went out of the playoff game at Denver, so they signed free agent Donald Brown, who was Indianapolis’ first-round draft pick in 2009, and used their sixth-round draft pick on Arizona State’s Marion Grice.
The offensive line isn’t nearly the mystery it was last offseason. Coach Joe D’Alessandris has his players ready to move around if needed. King Dunlap has settled in at left tackle, and the unit is anchored by center Nick Hardwick, who’s entering his 11th season. D.J. Fluker settled in at right tackle during his rookie season, though he also made three starts at left tackle.
Only three NFL teams had pass defenses more porous than San Diego’s, which is why Telesco used his first two draft picks and three of the first four on defensive players. First-round pick Jason Verrett is expected to start at cornerback opposite Shareece Wright. Second-round pick, outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu, and fourth-round pick, nose tackle Ryan Carrethers, will at the very least be in the rotation if they don’t earn a starting job.
The focus is on competing with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Denver won two of the three games between the teams last year, including in the divisional round of the playoffs.
If anything, the Chargers will have fresh legs in the secondary. Verrett is only 5'10" but is tough and confident, and cornerback Steve Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is ready to go after missing last year with a training camp injury. San Diego also signed Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers after he was released by Kansas City in June as a salary cap casualty.
The Chargers certainly have the makings of a tough defense. One of their first offseason moves was to re-sign one of their own, inside linebacker Donald Butler, before he could hit the free-agent market. Butler is a thumper who helps set the tone and wanted to stay in San Diego rather than try to collect a big paycheck elsewhere. Butler plays next to Manti Te’o, who will be looking to build on a solid rookie season. There were times early last season when Te’o always seemed to be a step behind, but he came on late and was sixth on the team in tackles. He’s still waiting to make a big signature play, be it an interception, sack or fumble recovery.
The Chargers will find out if outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has anything left. He returns for the final year of a two-year contract after missing most of 2013 with a quadriceps injury. The Chargers are looking to Freeney to help tutor Attaochu, a rookie linebacker who is expected to add speed on the edge of San Diego’s 3-4 defense. Attaochu set Georgia Tech’s career sacks record with 31.5. San Diego’s defense came on late in the year, coinciding with the return of outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram from injuries.
Carrethers could be the nose tackle the Chargers have been looking for since Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Carrethers was San Diego’s fifth-round pick, cited by Telesco for his “uncommon production” in 2013 at Arkansas State, when he had 93 tackles, including eight for a loss.
The Chargers remain in good hands with kicker Nick Novak, punter Mike Scifres and long-snapper Mike Windt. Novak set a team record with a 91.9 percent conversion rate, 34-of-37. He was 11-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. Scifres had the highest percentage in the NFL of punts inside the 20, 53.6 (30-of-56). Seventh-round draft pick Tevin Reese wasn’t part of Baylor’s return game, but he’ll be given the chance with the Chargers.
The Chargers certainly are capable of returning to the playoffs, but they’re going to have their hands full. With a killer schedule, they don’t have room for the kind of mystifying losses they had last year. The Chargers did win at Kansas City and Denver, both in the season’s second half. Yet they needed about four miracles down the stretch, not to mention having to go overtime at home to beat the Chiefs’ backups in the season finale in order to make the playoffs. The Chargers spent most of December scoreboard-watching because of a midseason slump. They can’t push their luck like that this year, or they’ll be staying home in January.