Norv Turner and A.J. Smith are unemployed because they didn’t make the playoffs. It was only thanks to overwhelming support of his players that owner Dean Spanos decided to give his unpopular coach another year. There was no such reprieve in 2013.
The 2012 San Diego Chargers fell short of their goals which precipitated a change at head coach and general manager. In the preseason, the Chargers were still thought to be in the division race because the team had addressed so many needs in the offseason.
With Peyton Manning of the rival Broncos' off the field for a full year, The Chargers might have been the safest pick to win the AFC West at the time.
The Chargers fell short of the playoffs by three games and were out of the race for the final month of the season, if not much longer.
What went wrong? Where do the Chargers go from here? When you fall three games short of the playoffs, there isn’t just one thing wrong with the team. Let's take a look.
Smith was fired mostly for his inability to build a winning roster. You could make a case that Turner squeezed a fair amount of production out of his players, but just lacked the necessary pieces to get the job done.
One major blunder Smith made dealt with star wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Smith’s inability to get a long-term contract offer done with Jackson was one of his many false moves. Jackson, like many other good players, was allowed to leave as a free agent.
Smith had to replace a lot of production at wide receiver and decided to bring in Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal in free agency. Smith already had Vincent Brown and the Chargers were high on him. The logic was sound as Meachem, Royal and Brown combined in 2011 to equal Jackson’s production.
Brown broke his ankle in the preseason and miss the entire regular season. His absence hurt the passing game and, even though he was playing behind Meachem and Royal for most of training camp, he could have provided depth and spelled them when they were playing poorly.
It didn’t work out for the Chargers. Meachem ended up barely seeing the field in the second half of the year, as he was replaced in the starting lineup by Danario Alexander. The Chargers still ended up replacing the production they lost from Jackson, if only because their acquisition of Alexander.
In a weird way, it was the loss of Mike Tolbert that was the difference in the running game. Tolbert had 10 touchdowns for the Chargers in 2011 and they scored 13 fewer touchdowns in 2012, with Jackie Battle often serving as the goal-line back.
The rest of the difference can be summed up in the production of Ryan Mathews, who scored six touchdowns in 2011 and just one in 2012. Mathews’ production dropped from 4.9 yards per carry in 2011 to 3.8 in 2012. It’s easy to blame Mathews for the struggles in the ground game, but the offensive line was really to blame.
The run blocking wasn’t good and the pass protection wasn’t any better. Philip Rivers has been hit so much over the last few years that he’s had to adjust his game.
Smith gave injury-prone left tackle Jared Gaither, who has a penchant for missing practice, a big contract after five good games at the end of 2011. He ended up playing in only four games.
Smith also repeated the mistake he made the year before when he failed to bring in quality offensive line depth.
Gaither’s play, or lack thereof, and the play of his backups were a big reason Rivers struggled. Not replacing Jeromey Clary was another poor decision by Smith. Rivers was sacked 30 times in 2011 and 49 in 2012. The Chargers’ sack percentage went from 8th at 4.9 percent to to 29th, with Rivers' going down on 8.5 percent of his dropbacks.
According to ProFootballFocus, the Chargers’ group of tackles accounted for 29 of the 49 sacks allowed, with the interior offensive lineman accounting for just 12. Michael Harris graded out as the worst pass blocking tackle in the entire NFL.
Smith was so worried about repairing the pass rush and replacing Jackson that he totally ignored the offensive line. Smith was able to overcome his mistake on Meachem by finding Alexander, but he could not overcome the fact that Rivers was being protected by two of the worst tackles in the NFL.
At one point in the season the Chargers were 3-1. We now know that the three victories came against three of the worst teams in the league and the loss was a blowout at home to the NFC’s No.1 seed. The Chargers were still 3-1 headed into a Week 5 game against the stumbling New Orleans Saints.
The Chargers were up by 10 points in the third quarter on the Saints with the opportunity to add to it when Rivers was sacked bringing up a 3rd-and-22. The Chargers punted, gave the ball back to Drew Brees and intercepted him a few plays later and returned it for a touchdown.
The interception and touchdown were nullified by a roughing the passer penalty on rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram. Brees promptly drove the Saints down the field for a touchdown to cut the lead to three points. The Chargers went three-and-out on their next possession, Brees threw another touchdown on the following drive and the Chargers were down by four points.
Which game was the turning point of the season?
Rivers was sacked and then intercepted on the next drive setting up a field goal that gave the Saints a seven-point lead. Rivers managed to get the Saints within striking distance at the end of the game, but he was sacked and fumbled with 19 seconds left because Gaither remained on the field even though he was injured.
The Chargers blew their opportunity to be 4-1 giving extra weight to their Week 6 contest with the Denver Broncos. The Chargers started that game by scoring 24 unanswered points. Game over? Nope. Peyton Manning and the Broncos scored 35 unanswered points in one of the worst meltdowns in NFL history.
The Broncos were down 10 points thanks to their special teams coughing up the ball twice. Jammer intercepted Manning and returned it 80 yards for another seven and Rivers added another seven at the end of the first half on a pass to Antonio Gates. The defense forced the Broncos to punt four times in the first half.
It fell apart again for the Chargers. Manning drove his team down the field for a touchdown at the start of the second half as you would expect. The Chargers still had a three score lead. On the back of the running game the Chargers drove to Denver’s 33-yard line and then Rivers was sacked and fumbled. The Broncos returned the ball 65 yards for another touchdown to cut the lead to 10.
The Chargers went three-and-out, with Rivers getting sacked on 3rd-and-5. Sensing a theme? The Chargers fail to respond and the pass protection is often to blame. Manning drove the Broncos down for another touchdown to cut the lead to three points. Rivers threw an interception on the next drive. Manning threw a touchdown pass on the following one to take the lead.
Rivers would throw two more interceptions trying to come back, one was returned for a touchdown. With back-to-back meltdowns, the Chargers went from 5-1 to 3-3. Coming off the bye week, the Chargers failed to score an offensive touchdown against the Cleveland Browns.
The Chargers had two weeks to prepare for a bad Browns team and failed to score a touchdown. The defense held the Browns to just seven points, which they scored on their opening drive. The Chargers went conservative to try to mitigate their issues with pass protection and at wide receiver. The Chargers would turn to Alexander for the remainder of the season.
Better pass protection, a timely defensive stop, receivers on the same page with Rivers, a penalty and a couple turnovers were the difference between 6-1 and 3-4. It was those three wins that the Chargers needed to be in the playoffs.
There was also the 4th-and-29 conversion the Chargers allowed against Baltimore in Week 12, but the Chargers were 4-6 at that point and needed to run the table. That play was simply insult to injury. The Chargers had a chance to bounce back and failed in Cleveland, they had other chances in Tampa Bay and Denver, but many of the problems remained.
Alexander stepped in and fixed one problem, but the protection for Rivers remained poor and caused a lot of the turnovers. The defense had trouble rushing the passer all season and getting off the field on third down.
Top Offseason Priorities
What was the Chargers biggest problem in 2012?
The Chargers will need to bring in a general manager and head coach that can address the team’s weaknesses. Turner was a player’s coach and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Chargers hired more of a disciplinarian. The general manager simply can’t ignore the offense like Smith.
Once the new general manager and head coach are in place, the Chargers can start to rebuild the roster. Finding a couple of offensive tackles is an obvious priority along with offensive line depth. There is a need for a pass rusher, a No. 1 wide receiver and some help in the secondary. The Chargers could also use a running back to supplement or replace Mathews.
With improvements in a few key areas and proper coaching, the Chargers could turn things around in 2013. Rivers is the lynchpin to the whole thing and the Chargers need to give him the protection and weapons he needs to be successful.