Chargers Coaching Staff: Now's The Time
Heading into training camp Norv Turner is about to start his third season as head coach in San Diego and he and his staff know now is the time to get to a Super Bowl.
To win in the playoffs and contend for a championship is why he was hired, a fact not lost on the rest of the coaching staff.
After too many years of Marty Schottenheimer producing stellar regular season records before bombing in the playoffs, GM A.J. Smith and Chargers' ownership pulled the trigger and made the change.
For the most part they've gotten what they've paid for with two playoff wins and an AFC championship appearance, and very nearly a Superbowl, in two seasons.
Despite that, slow starts, a combined 7-9 in the first half of each season, has not instilled confidence in the Charger faithful. There have even been some "Marty" chants heard throughout Qualcomm stadium which, in my opinion, was madness.
He's finished the second halves of those seasons with a 12-4 record and is a ridiculous 9-0 in December. So breathe easy Chargers nation, he knows what he's doing.
With a regular season record of 77-95-1, Turner's only had four winning regular seasons as head coach in his 11 seasons with Washington, Oakland and San Diego.
But he's been to, and won, multiple Super Bowls as Dallas' offensive coordinator which has to count for something.
How many championships rings does Schottenheimer have? Oh yeah, none.
Norv knows it all comes down to what happens after the regular season, but getting off to a fast start will be an early concern with three AFC playoff teams in the first four weeks.
But while Turner, 57, now finds himself as the longest tenured head coach in the AFC West, his staff looks quite different from when he was hired.
Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was relieved of duty halfway through last season, so linebackers coach, and former Bears defensive coordinator, Ron Rivera was promoted.
More changes came this off-season with Rob Chudzinski returning after two seasons with the Browns. Don Johnson and Mike Sullivan were also brought in from Oakland to coach the offensive and defensive lines.
That's not all. Retired veteran Cris Dishman was brought in to help new secondary coach Steve Wilks while Greg Williams will be the new assistant linebackers coach.
While they get to know the team and scheme the other coaches will be focused on improving the offense and returning the defense to elite status. Special teams will be looked at closely as well.
So here's a look at rest of the Chargers' coaches and the challenges they'll face this season.
Offense Must Return To Power Game
Offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon spent 16 seasons as an assistant, coaching running backs before getting the Chargers offensive coordinator job in 2007.
It's safe to say he knows as well as anyone how important a strong running game is to winning in the playoffs. And if the Chargers are going to beat teams like Baltimore, Tennessee or Pittsburgh when it matters, they'll need to be able to pound out first-downs on the ground.
Everyone knows the passing game is in good shape and Philip Rivers can throw the ball all over the place. That's obviously not where the work is to be done.
But Shelmon, 56, won't have the pressure of calling the plays. It's Turner's offense, he installed it in 2001 as an assistant, and is one of the nine NFL coaches who calls their own plays.
That's not to say Shelmon doesn't have any say. Turner consults Shelmon in rushing situations and when a running play is called mainly off a good give and take.
Having LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles will generally make a coach look good, but gaining only 15 total rushing yards against the Steelers speaks for itself.
So when he gets to training camp the focus will be on returning the running game to it's smash-mouth roots.
A healthy LT and Sproles, the spark plug, will headline the backfield, but it will be interesting to see how 228 lb., fourth-round draft pick Gartrell Johnson is integrated into the offense.
Shelmon has settled into his new role and after going to the AFC Championship in his first full season as offensive coordinator, with nearly the entire offense returning, all eyes are going to be on him and the running game in crunch time.
Make Or Break For The Defense
Ron Rivera was coaching a depleted linebacking corps when, in week eight of last season, he was thrust into the defensive coordinator's position.
To some that might have been difficult a adjustment. Not for Rivera. He was only a year removed from running a fearsome Bears defense for two seasons that included a Super Bowl appearance.
Rivera, 47, now leads a highly skilled but inconsistent group that is looking to harness it's ability and return to the upper echelon of NFL defenses.
As linebacker on the Bears' 1985 championship squad, he knows that getting to the quarterback was as vital then as it is now. That element will crucial to the defense's success in the upcoming season.
The inability to strike fear into opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines, as they had the previous year, was apparent. Anytime you have 14 fewer sacks and 15 fewer interceptions in a season it shows on the scoreboard.
They also got pushed around in the running game when it mattered most: the playoffs.
Injuries did play a part in some of the drop-off, but that will be no excuse this season. Everyone is healthy and knows what it will require to get back where they want to be.
This will be Rivera's first full training camp that he's been the top dog of a Chargers' defense that returns all but one starter from a year ago. His time under defensive innovator Buddy Ryan as a player in Chicago should prove valuable in bringing the heat.
Expectations are high for good reason and how far the Chargers go will likely depend on if the defense can get back to terrorizing offenses and creating turnovers.
Old Face, New Responsibilities
If I had spent the last two seasons in Cleveland, I'd want to go back to San Diego too. That's exactly what Rob Chudzinski did after two seasons as the Browns' offensive coordinator.
After 11 seasons as an assistant in the college ranks with Miami (Fla.), Chudzinski began his NFL coaching career in Cleveland, spending one season as the tight end coach before bolting for San Diego.
Chudzinski, 41, not only returns as the Chargers' tight ends coach, the same position he held for the 2005-2006 seasons, but as an assistant head coach to Norv Turner as well.
This time around he'll be responsible for more than watching Antonio Gates work over linebackers and safeties. Adding new wrinkles to the offense with both Turner and Shelmon should give the Chargers some fresh, innovative looks.
A Chance To Be Special
Why are the special teams coaches so under appreciated or altogether forgotten when the facet of the game they're responsible for is so incredibly important?
It seems only when someone gives up a game-breaking return, misses a field goal or fumbles a punt does the special teams coach get noticed. Blanket punt coverage and a solid punting game doesn't get headlines.
I don't know that Chargers' special teams coach Steve Crosby would be interested in a whole lot of extra attention but he sure deserves some props.
Despite the costly Santonio Holmes' 67 yard punt return and the muffed punt of Eric Weddle's helmet in the season ending playoff loss to Pittsburgh, Crosby has one heck of a unit.
Mike Scifres' pin-point punting, Sproles' dynamic returns and Kasim Osgood's ferocious kick coverage are all examples of how special Crosby's unit has been.
Yet, Crosby, 58, knows they'll have to be better this season in order to go deeper in the playoffs. Having spent the past 30 years in the NFL as either a player, scout or coach gives him all the experience needed.
New Coach With New Players
It didn't take long for Ron Rivera to put his stamp on the defensive staff with the addition of Don Johnson to coach the defensive line.
While Johnson, 54, spent the last two seasons coaching the defensive line in Oakland it was his previous work in two seasons on Rivera's staff in Chicago that was the connection.
The task at hand will be to get better against the run. Stopping power running teams has been a problem which needs to be fixed if they're going to overcome the Steelers and Titans in the AFC.
Johnson will have the guys with Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo and Jaques Cesaire. The drafting of Vaughn Martin will help with depth assuming he is able to handle the NFL game off the bat.
Work To Be Done Up Front
A stand-out offensive line is perhaps the most important and most overlooked component of a great team. Coaches Hal Hunter and Mike Sullivan will be tasked with keeping this Chargers unit operating at a high level.
It will be the first season Hunter, 49, leads the group after veteran offensive line coach Jack Henry was not given a new contract last season.
Sullivan, 41, was brought in from Oakland to fill the assistant position that had been Hunter's for the last two seasons. They'll have their work cut out for them with the loss of veteran guard Mike Goff and questions at tackle.
While they excel in pass protection the production of the running game leaves something to be desired. Only one first-down on the ground against the Steelers in the playoffs illustrates this point.
A concerted effort to get back to a more punishing ground game must be Hunter and Sullivan's primary focus.
Third-round pick Louis Vasquez and free agent Kynan Forney will be the most interesting battle on the line in training camp.
Linebackers Locked And Loaded
Looking at the Chargers roster, linebackers coach John Pagano couldn't ask for a whole lot more. Could he?
A completely healthy Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips being free of legal issues might qualify. But that said, this group is stacked.
A more experienced Jyles Tucker and first-round pick Larry English provide a tremendous insurance policy if the aforementioned issues aren't settled.
Being stacked is one thing, but producing sacks is another. The lack of a pass rush from the linebackers was the Chargers undoing last season. Without getting to the quarterback the defense wasn't able dictate tempo up front.
If the full complement of 'backers are available to Pagano, 42, they should once again be the disruptive force they were.
Stephen Cooper, Matt Wilhelm, and the addition of Kevin Burnett from Dallas, solidifies the inside linebacking position. Now all that has to happen is for everything to go as planned.
The Buck Stops Here
When it's said and done General Manager A.J. Smith will have only himself to either congratulate or blame for the coaching changes.
They were bold moves made to reach the franchise's second Superbowl but Smith, 60, has never been afraid of bold moves. People either love him or hate him due to this characteristic.
Smith began his pro-football career in 1977 and has been in control of the Chargers for the past six years. He was named the NFL's executive of the year in 2004.
If success is not achieved, and soon, it's going to be increasingly difficult for the GM to continue making coaching changes without looking in the mirror himself.