Riding an 11-game winning streak as the 2010 playoffs approach, the San Diego Chargers have steadily risen up the NFL team rankings and, in some quarters, are considered the top-ranked team in the league. Both NFL.com and Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, for instance, have ranked the Chargers No. 1 in the league, and many other sports commentators feel the Chargers might be the team to beat in this year’s playoff.
What is in the cards for the Chargers remains to be seen, but the last time they enjoyed this kind of cachet among commentators and fans alike was following their 14-2 performance during the 2006 season.
That optimism in 2006 proved to be fatal; the team quickly exited the playoffs in a divisional loss to New England, which set in motion a tumultuous series of events, culminating in a complete overhaul of the coaching staff and the firing of head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
But as the Chargers enter the playoffs with the same kind of momentum and apparent clout as in 2006 (in 2006 the Chargers entered the postseason on a 10-game winning streak), one does wonder whether the current version of the team is in fact as good as the highly-touted version in 2006.
In some ways, the similarities go beyond the powerful winning streaks that both teams have produced. Many of the key players in the 2009 season were also wreaking havoc in 2006—notably, quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and even Malcolm Floyd.
In the case of Rivers, Jackson, and Floyd, the 2006 season was mostly a matter of getting their feet wet. Jackson had 457 receiving yards and six touchdowns, Floyd had three receiving TDs, and Rivers 3,383 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The receiving corps at the time was headed by Gates, who had 924 receiving yards and nine TDs, and Eric Parker, who had 48 receptions and 650-plus yards.
For Rivers, Jackson, and Floyd, each of them cranked the volume on their personal stats this season. Jackson in particular, has blossomed into a receiver of devastating ability, Malcolm Floyd had over 750 receiving yards in 2009, and Rivers the kind of year where he is a top candidate for the league MVP.
Back in 2006, the Chargers were mostly about LaDainian Tomlinson, and, in spite of the early signs of promise their current receivers displayed, the 2006 team was essentially the LT show. Tomlinson ran for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns, adding another three TDs and 500-plus yards as a receiver. It was the zenith of his career in the NFL.
At the same time, backup running back Michael Turner added another 502 rushing yards and 6.2 yards per carry, the kind of stats that were to fill his pockets with cash a year or so later.Even blocking fullback Lorenzo Neal ran for 148 yards on 29 carries, as the run-dominant Chargers of 2006 bowled over every nearly every defense in their way.
By any objective standard, the 2009 Chargers' running attack cannot touch this. Tomlinson managed just 730 yards and a 3.3 yards per carry average. Darren Sproles chipped in another 343 yards, but the team’s running game was truthfully a shadow of its earlier self.
Some Charger supporters are quick to point out that as the Chargers have transitioned themselves to a passing team and that the decline in the running numbers is largely offset by an increase in aerial yardage.There is some truth to this, and, in the end, the 2006 Chargers accumulated 79 more yards than the 2009 team on offense. They did so, however, with a more balanced attack.
On defense, one key difference between the two squads is clearly seen in the performance of Shawne Merriman.In 2006, Merriman was ubiquitous—everywhere on the field—recording 17 sacks, and menacing quarterbacks and offensive tackles relentlessly. Merriman also forced four fumbles, as did bookend Shaun Phillips.
Merriman’s barrage of sacks counted heavily toward the team’s impressive total of 61. Yes, 61 sacks for the 2006 Chargers, as Phillips recorded 11.5 and Luis Castillo managed seven.
Jacques Cesaire and Randall Godfrey had four each as well, as the Chargers consistently exerted maximum pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
By comparison, in 2009 the Chargers' sack machine recorded 35 sacks, 26 fewer than three years ago. Shaun Phillips led the team with seven, and also added seven forced fumbles. Merriman had four, and the rest of them were scattered about the team’s defensive unit.
Overall, the 2006 Chargers ranked 10th in the league in team defense, giving up an average of 18.9 points per game. Their defense was 12th in the league getting off the field on third down.
The 2009 Chargers' defense ranked 16th in the league, giving up an average of 20 points a game. They were 21st in the league getting off the field on third down, significantly worse than the 2006 team.
On the other side of the ball, the 2009 Chargers' offense ranked 10th in the league, and averaged 28.4 points a game.
The 2006 team did better, ranking fourth in offense and averaging 30.8 points a game, the highest points-per-game average of any team in the league.
What does all of this suggest?
The pattern I see from the numbers is that the 2006 team was better. Their defense got far more pressure on the quarterback, and they got off the field more effectively on third down. They gave up fewer points and had more interceptions.
The Chargers offense was far more balanced than it is now in 2009, as they had a poignant passing attack and a devastating rushing attack.
But in the end, of course, it might not matter.
If the 2009 Chargers win the Super Bowl—or perhaps even get to the Super Bowl, they will likely be remembered as the better team by many of their dedicated fans. It would, in fact, be a tough argument to counter.
As it stands for now, though, that goal is one with several hurdles awaiting.