Familiar cast returns, but Chargers' future is in doubt
Almost every conversation concerning the Chargers eventually veers to the question of whether they will move to the Los Angeles area beginning with the 2016 season. While the City of San Diego has never been this motivated to try to come up with a realistic plan to build a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers have never been this close to bolting up the freeway to L.A.
While the contentious issue plays out between team ownership and City Hall, general manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy are trying to stay focused on how to improve on last year’s mostly unsatisfying performance. The Chargers finished third in the AFC West for the second straight year and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
While stars Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle return, there’s a lot of room for improvement for a team that has gone 19–15 in two seasons under McCoy, including a playoff win and loss after the 2013 season.
Most of the pre-draft buzz surrounding the Bolts was a rumor that they would trade Rivers to the Tennessee Titans in order to draft Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Rivers is entering the final season of his contract and has expressed reservations about moving to the Los Angeles area — if that’s what the team decides to do. The Bolts didn’t trade Rivers, so he’ll be back for his 10th season as starter. Rivers is coming off an up-and-down season that ended when he was sacked seven times in a lackluster loss at Kansas City in the season finale that knocked the Bolts out of playoff contention.
As L.A. rumors began to swirl, Telesco worked on two areas that hurt the Chargers in 2014 — a shaky offensive line and an unproductive running game. He re-signed left tackle King Dunlap, who had a big 2014 season protecting Rivers’ blind side, and brought in free agent guard Orlando Franklin. Five different guys snapped the ball to Rivers last year, including Chris Watt, who heads into camp as the starter after getting valuable experience as a rookie.
Telesco spent heavily to move up just two spots in the first round of the draft to take Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who led college football with an astounding 2,587 rushing yards in 2014. Gordon will replace Ryan Mathews, whose five years in San Diego included too few Pro Bowl appearances and too many injuries and fumbles. The slashing Gordon is expected to help take the pressure off Rivers, who had a second strong season since McCoy arrived as coach.
The Chargers should be in great shape at running back, if they can stay healthy. Branden Oliver returns after stepping in as a rookie to fill in while Mathews was injured. He ended up leading the Chargers with 582 yards and three touchdowns. Third-down back Danny Woodhead returns after missing much of last season with a leg injury. In 2013, his first season with the Chargers, he rushed for 429 yards and caught 76 passes for 605 yards.
Rivers’ top targets — Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd — will be supplemented by the addition of receiver/returner Jacoby Jones and Stevie Johnson. Gates, entering his 13th season, caught 69 passes and scored 12 touchdowns (one off his career high) last season.
The Chargers have to get more production out of their defensive line, pass rush and, specifically, inside linebacker Donald Butler. The Chargers had only 26 sacks last year, one of the weakest efforts in the NFL. At the very least, the two guys who led the team are back, defensive end Corey Liuget (4.5) and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (4.0). Still, the Chargers have to come up with more pressure against opposing quarterbacks. They also need to get Butler back to his hard-hitting ways after he practically disappeared once he signed a long-term contract. Butler did finish third on the team with 73 tackles, but he didn’t play with the same impact he had in previous years.
There are some bright spots. Liuget had a breakout season, and the Chargers will look for even bigger things from the former first-round draft pick, especially after signing him to a five-year contract extension in early June. He had some impact plays — he recovered two fumbles, one for a touchdown in a comeback win at San Francisco, and forced two more, including one on a strip-sack that linebacker Andrew Gachkar returned for a touchdown against the Rams. Inside linebacker Manti Te’o continues to develop and had a solid second season. He finally had his first big impact play when he intercepted a pass — off Tom Brady, no less. The Chargers look for him to continue to develop, particularly in pass coverage.
Weddle stayed away from early offseason workouts, feeling disrespected because the team hasn’t offered a contract extension. He’s still growing his beard, vowing not to shave until the Chargers have won the Super Bowl. He will team with third-year pro Jahleel Addae, who started five games in 2014, and Jimmy Wilson. A San Diego native who went to Point Loma High School, Wilson signed with the Chargers as a free agent after spending his first four NFL seasons with Miami.
The Chargers remain in good hands in this department with kicker Nick Novak and punter Mike Scifres, and they’ve added Jones to the mix as a kick returner. Eddie Royal left as a free agent, leaving Allen to handle punt returns. Novak had another strong season, making 22-of-26 field-goal attempts (84.6 percent). He ranks second in franchise history with an 86.3 field-goal percentage. His franchise-record streak of 32 consecutive field goals came to an end on Nov. 16 against Oakland when he missed from 48 yards, his first miss in just more than a year. However, he bounced back and hit a season-long 52 yarder. In a home game against New England on Dec. 7, Novak had to fill in as the team’s punter for the first time in his career after Scifres suffered a shoulder injury. Novak hadn’t punted in a game since high school, but he averaged 40 yards on six attempts with a long of 51 and one punt inside the 20. It was the first time since 2003 that someone other than Scifres had punted for the Bolts. San Diego could use a little more juice in the return game, and Jones, who has 10 career special teams touchdowns including a memorable 108-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XLVII, could provide it.
Rivers and the Chargers know exactly where they have to improve — in games against AFC West foes. The Chargers were swept by both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs last year, beating only the lowly Oakland Raiders in the division. A lackluster effort at Kansas City in the finale, against backup quarterback Chase Daniel, cost the Chargers a playoff spot and had people wondering about their focus and motivation. A return to the playoffs isn’t out of the question, especially with the addition of Gordon, but another third-place finish is just as likely.