The San Diego Chargers are heading into the offseason with a rookie general manager and a rookie head coach. Will the 2013 season be a rebuilding year or are the roster pieces set up for a smooth transition?
Like a complex nighttime drama television show, there are many interesting storylines on the horizon that will unfold over time. Which storylines will matter the most in determining the fate of the 2013-14 season?
The San Diego Chargers' new general manager Tom Telesco and new head coach Mike McCoy will be scrutinized on how they build the team.
The draft is an important event for all franchises because a strong rookie class can improve a team, but rookies stepping in and contributing right away is a luxury.
It will be interesting to see how the new regime views the draft—select the best available, target problem areas, trade up for a guy they want, trade down and collect more draft picks, etc. This draft class will determine the outcome of upcoming seasons, but the impact it will have on the 2013-2014 season is not as important as other factors.
The downfall of San Diego's former general manager A.J. Smith was his shortcomings during free agency. Last year Smith let running back Mike Tolbert leave and sign with the Carolina Panthers and wide receiver Vincent Jackson sign with the Tampa Bay Bucs. The year before that, running back and return specialist Darren Sproles departed for New Orleans.
What Telesco does with cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer, guards Tyronne Green and Louis Vasquez, as well as linebacker Shaun Phillips—all unrestricted free agents—will have a huge impact on the field and in the locker room for the 2013-14 season.
But addressing San Diego's free agents is only half of the issue.
Does Telesco chase other free agents? Which players and positions are focused on in free agency and will have an impact on the 2013-2014 season?
Ryan Matthews is on the verge of being called a bust. The former first-round pick out of Fresno State has 2,476 rushing yards and 852 receiving yards in three years with San Diego. In what was projected to be a breakout year, broken clavicles cost Matthews the first two and final two games of the 2012 season.
Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert may not have been major workhorses in the Chargers backfield, but their contribution to the offense was valuable. Both are now helping other organizations.
Even if Matthews wasn't injury-prone (or fumble-prone,) having viable backups would still be essential, whether it's a change-of-pace back or a bruiser to pound the ball in on the goal line. Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle are unrestricted free agents, and Curtis Brinkley is a restricted free agent.
The Chargers cannot count on Matthews to carry the load by himself, and the situation backs last year were a step back from previous years. Whoever the backups to Matthews are will determine the outcome of the 2013-14 season.
Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer are unrestricted free agents. Neither one played well last year, and letting both go is not out of the question.
But Cason had the fourth-most tackles (73) and Jammer had the sixth-most tackles (64) on San Diego's defense last year. Backups Marcus Gilchrist and Shareece Wright may not be ready to be the starting corners, though.
Spending money on Jammer and/or Cason means less money for the team's other free agents (linebacker Shaun Phillips, guards Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green) as well as less money for other free agents about to his the market (tackles Jake Long and Sam Baker, guard Andy Levitre, cornerbacks Sam Shields and Keenan Lewis).
Figuring out the two starting cornerbacks will be a major storyline for the 2013-14 season.
The San Diego offensive line was not good in 2012.
There really is no sense in arguing that.
Quarterback Philip Rivers was under pressure as soon as he received the snap. When the defense knows it can apply pressure quickly, the defensive backs do not have to defend a deep route. They know the only thing the receivers can run are short routes because anything too deep means the offensive line would have to hold their blocks a little longer. Everyone in the stadium knew the Charger offensive line could not hold their blocks very long.
The Jared Gaither experiment blew up in the face of former GM A.J. Smith, and inexperienced backups proved disastrous.
Former Charger quarterback and Hall of Famer Dan Fouts told "The Dan Patrick Show," "I think [the Chargers] have a lot of work to do. They have to rebuild that offensive line, number one."
The folks at FootballOutsiders.com ranked the Chargers O-line 32 out of 32 in terms of pass protection. At least San Diego was not last in run-blocking. They were 23rd.
Keeping an eye on the offensive line will be a key storyline that will determine the fate of the 2013-14 season.
As every analyst on television is fond of saying, this is a quarterback-driven league.
The problem with Philip Rivers has not been passing yards or even interceptions in recent years. In his first four years as the starter, Rivers averaged 3,700 passing yards and 26 touchdowns with 11 interceptions per season. San Diego made the playoffs each of those four years, making it to the AFC Championship game in the 2007-08 season.
In the past three non-playoff years, Rivers averaged 613 more passing yards (4,313 passing yards) and one more touchdown, but also five more interceptions. While more interceptions is never a good thing, the real killer is the timing of the turnovers. Rivers' picks killed momentum and deflated the energy of the team during crucial moments in games.
The stat that really jumps off the page, though, is that Rivers lost 15 fumbles in his first four years, but he has lost 31 fumbles in the past three years.
Many of those fumbles can be attributed to strip-sacks, but not all of them. Too often the ball just falls out of Rivers' hands. There is also the infamous botched snap that cost the team a win in Kansas City on Halloween night two years ago. Those are nobody's fault except the quarterback's.
If Rivers can keep the ball off the ground and out of the other team's hands, the Chargers' chance of success is increased.
If he continues to turn the ball over, there is no reason to believe the 2013 campaign will be different than the past three years.
The No. 1 storyline that will factor in to how the San Diego Chargers perform in the 2013-14 season is the new general manager and the new coaching staff.
Will rookie GM Tom Telesco work well with his coaches, properly scout players, deal fairly and reasonably with free agents and basically learn from the mistakes A.J. Smith committed?
Will rookie head coach Mike McCoy inspire the team to play hard every game?
Will new QB coach Frank Reich help Rivers get back to elite status?
Will new offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris help the woeful line?
Will new special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer be able to keep those units running as Rich Bisaccia had them?
The storyline surrounding the new staff and front office will determine the fate of the 2013 season and many seasons into the future