Keep Hope Alive AFC West, but the Chargers Aren't Going Anywhere
Or is that keep dreaming?
When people are saying that LaDainian Tomlinson (LT) has "clearly lost a step," they are not taking into account the injuries that he was playing with. Tomlinson was healthy for about three games last season and looked great. In those games, he averaged 19 carries for 94 yards, which is an average of 4.94 YPC and over 100 YPG of total offense.
It's important to remember that the Chargers, and probably every other running team, gain more yards per carry as the game goes on. During the 2006 season, LaDainian Tomlinson averaged about 3.6 YPC for carries 1-10, but averaged 7.6 YPC for carries 21 plus! With injuries and bad defensive play, LaDainian Tomlinson didn't get a chance to run the ball 25-30 times a game.
It did not help that the run blocking of the offensive line has steadily deteriorated over the last two seasons. Too bad for the AFC West that San Diego has addressed that problem with the addition of former Atlanta Falcon Kynan Forney to replace Mike Goff.
Some fans feel like the Chargers will try to use Darren Sproles to replace LT, but that is not the case. The Chargers know that Sproles is not a season long answer for LT, but they also know that he may be the best screen runner in all of football, and they intend to use him as a weapon against the AFC West and everybody else.
Unlike a lot of teams, the Chargers know the value of special teams play. Especially after they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs last season due in very large part to not so special teams play. Having returner Darren Sproles, gunner Kassim Osgood, kicker Nate Kaeding, and punter Mike Scifries puts San Diego one step closer to a win right off the bat.
When those guys win the special teams battle, it will be very difficult for any team to beat the Chargers.
The Chargers' points scored and offensive yardage ranking generally don't match, because they win the hidden yardage game. The Chargers were number two in points scored last season, but ranked number eleven in total offense.
Take the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts always seem to at least be even with the Chargers when you simply look at offense and defense talent, but have a clear disadvantage on special teams. When the Colts play the Chargers, they are usually forced to drive a lot further for points which means they usually lose—and are full of excuses.
It also means that teams with lesser offenses usually lose to the Chargers as well, because they don't have a Tom Brady.
I am repeatedly seeing head coach Norv Turner bashed on the Internet, and when I look at articles other than the ones I have been writing, those guys are not too thrilled with Turner either.
Turner had no business trying to improve San Diego's offensive philosophy (the Chargers have changed back to a run first team), but he was brought in to develop Philip Rivers into a championship caliber passer and win in the playoffs.
Can there be any doubt that he's doing his job?
The offense has done exactly what Norv Turner said he wanted it to be able to do. Move the ball against good defenses in big games. Bad luck has struck San Diego down in the playoffs, rather than superior opponents.
Eventually, teams will have to face a completely healthy Chargers team in the playoffs and then we'll see how good of a big game coach Norv Turner really is.
Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was just as bad as 2003 defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey. Just as Lindsey's bad coaching was covered up by Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison, and then exposed when they left the following season; Ted Cottrell's horrendous play calling was covered up by the ferocious pass rushing of Shawne Merriman and then exposed when he was injured last season.
Replacing Cottrell, new defensive coordinator Ron Rivera will have his chance to turn Chargers defense back into the formidable force it was a couple of years ago.
In defense of Cottrell, with a healthy Merriman on the field it was nearly impossible for teams to successfully pass the ball on the Chargers.
There has been speculation that the window has closed on the Chargers. No. While stars LaDainian Tomlinson, Stephen Cooper, and Quentin Jammer are all going to be 30 years old when the season starts, the other stars on the team are all 25 - 28 years old.
It should not be assumed that there will be mass exodus of players like Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, and Shawne Merriman when their contracts are up. While they can't Franchise Tag everybody, the Chargers are a well run organization and players generally do not want to skip town.
28-year old Kris Dielman couldn't even bring himself to take an extra few million to sign with the Seattle Seahawks and leave the Chargers.
As long as Rivers is on the team, the team has a chance at the Super Bowl if the rest of the team is at least solid. The window is not closing anytime soon.
Fans of other AFC West teams feel that their teams have made significant strides to take over the division from the Chargers. After all the Chargers went 8-8 last season. However, the Chargers have gone 5-1 against the AFC West three out of the last four seasons. With all the injuries the Bolts sustained, going 1-5 against the Chargers is not a good sign for the AFC West.
Most good teams have a down season due to injury, luck, age or other reasons—like the 2007 Ravens—but the AFC West was so bad, they couldn't even kick the Chargers when they were down.
I have to believe, like with the Chargers, a simple philosophy change could result in a sudden and permanent turn around for at least one of the other AFC West teams.
In 2004, the Bolts made significant personnel changes. The Bolts hit at least 10 home runs on players like free agent Steve Foley, draft pick Shane Olivea, or left tackle Roman Oben who was traded to the Chargers from Tampa Bay. The Chargers suddenly became one of the most talented teams in the league.
The Chargers also switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense. The offense switched from a run first team to a no huddle, pass first team after Marty Schottenheimer realized the Chargers two minute offense seemed to be completely unstoppable at the end of games.
Norv Turner is likely to change San Diego back into a pass first team in 2009. Trouble is brewing for the AFC West, with that change in conjunction with the return of Shawne Merriman.
In any case, don't expect the Chargers to collapse due to injuries and horrendous defensive play calling again this season. If the AFC West wants to dethrone the Chargers after three seasons on top, they will have to earn it on the field.
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