If there is one thing we have to understand about this crazy game of football, we have to see that the window of opportunity for a team to win only happens when majority of the players are in their prime all at the same time. Did the Chargers have that window close on them? Yes. I hate to admit that but that's the truth. But here is the real truth of the matter, that was the LT era window that closed.
Marty Schottenheimer had that window to win the Super Bowl with his philosophy and formula for winning a Super Bowl. AJ Smith gave him the personnel to do it. Norv Turner took that same philosophy and stuck with it but added a bit of the passing game dimension slowly with young Philip Rivers. If the Chargers didn't suffer major injuries to Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson, and a minor injury to Antonio Gates, there is without a doubt the Chargers would have beat the then undefeated New England Patriots.
The thing about windows of opportunity for winning a Super Bowl winding down is largely due to two factors: age and personnel loss to free agency. The Chargers were dealing with that very issue this past off-season as they tried to open up their window of opportunity for winning a Super Bowl in what is the first season of the Philip Rivers era.
Not only did the Chargers find the players to replace many key players, but they got more than what they wanted as they saw many of their players see action and still keeping the Chargers as the best offense and defense in the NFL. That's really amazing considering the amount of player losses they had.
Most teams that go through this transition have a tough time rebuilding a team after age and free agent losses after being a successful team or Super Bowl team. Many examples can be found in the Rams, Raiders, Buccaneers, when they struggled for many seasons to recoup after having such a great team. All it took the Chargers to have their window re-open was one season and a season that showed great promise for next season.
Take a look at some of the players that stepped up this season to open the window for the Chargers heading into the next decade.
Many analyst in the past speculated that Shaun Phillips statistical greatness in the past was due to the elite presence of Shawne Merriman. In many ways, they were right. From 2005-2007, Shawne Merriman dominated the opposing offensive blockers often leaving Shaun Phillips to take a B-line to the QB. Hell, everyone benefit from the presence of Merriman because of what he demands from opposing offenses.
When Merriman went down for the entire 2008 season, you can see that Shaun Phillips struggling as he tried to take the role that Merriman was responsible for. In 2009, you can see Phillips evolving as he forced seven fumbles to go with his seven sacks.
Fast forward to the 2010 season, it was clear that the Chargers sack leader had not only emerge out of Merriman's shadow, but be that presence that Merriman was to the entire defense. With Shaun Phillips putting pressuring for 11 sacks, he helped the opposite OLB's to a combined effort of 12.5 sacks. That's very impressive when you consider that Antwan Applewhite, Larry English, Antwan Barnes, and Jyles Tucker all benefitted from what Shaun Phillips was able to do on his end.
Shaun Phillips is the face of San Diego's defense and have done a great job making everyone else around him play better.
Heading into 2010 draft, I was a huge supporter of the Chargers drafting a NT over a RB. The reason was simple, the Chargers weakness in 2009 was the NT position. Sure RB was a need but the Chargers offense didn't have a problem scoring as it was for the defense stopping the run game of a opposing defense. I said many times that the only way the Chargers would draft a RB is if they have utter confidence in their NT's on the squad to get the job done with the loss of elite NT Jamal Williams.
Fast forward to the end of the season, the Chargers NT have been the biggest surprise of the entire season in my opinion.
Jamal Williams carried the Chargers NT position for 12 years. He progressed into becoming one of the most dominant NT's in the entire NFL. When the Chargers let him go, I never imagined that the Chargers would start Antonio Garay. Garay not only dominated the inside of the Chargers 3-4 defense, but he did something that Williams didn't do often in his career, Garay put up sacks.
Garay had 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Garay was in the top three in terms of sacks by a NT in a 3-4 defense. What makes this 2010 performance so impressive is the fact that Garay had NEVER started a single game in his five years in the league. Not to mention that he only appeared in 16 games as a back-up player while he started 15 games alone in 2010.
Garay not only is the promising NT for the Chargers in the immediate future, but 5th round draft pick Cam Thomas can hold his weight up against anyone when he does play. Thomas only played six games, mostly due to him not being needed as much due to the outstanding play of Garay but he did posted up two sacks. Under the guidance of Garay, Thomas will do just fine becoming another player to take the NT position to the next decade.
Antonio Cromartie's time in San Diego got played out. The Chargers gave him every opportunity to prove that he can make the transition from Ted Cottrell's defense, in which he excelled in, to Ron Rivera's zone blitz base scheme. Cromartie had one and a half years to figure it out. Ultimately, he couldn't fit the bill and often complained about the scheme. Cromartie couldn't tackle or be physical enough to be that guy in the zone base scheme.
Cromartie's gone. Cason's here and boy is he here to stay. Cason is much more physical that Cromartie in the zone scheme and proved that he understood the defense as he played in a similar base scheme that made him the best CB in college football.
Cason had 67 tackles, one force fumble, and four interceptions. That's better than what Cromartie put up in the last three seasons, including this season. Cason isn't afraid to tackle. That's something that helped the Chargers improve in the run defense category not only in defending rushing yards per game, but also rushing yards per carry.
To understand why Kevin Burnett is so important to the Chargers defense, is to understand the role of each player in the LB's corps. In the ILB's position, usually it's the strong side ILB that is the run support player while the weak side ILB is the fill in guy and is usually the stronger coverage ILB of the two. Not to mention, the weak side ILB is the guy that's usually the faster guy. Stephen Cooper was the weakside ILB for the past 3 years until Burnett arrived.
Weakside ILB's usually get the most tackles in the 3-4 defense. Guys like Steelers' ILB Lawrence Timmons, 49ers' ILB Patrick Willis, Chiefs' Derrick Johnson, and Ravens' ILB Ray Lewis.
What makes Burnett so great is his ability to not only play coverage, but he is always positioned to make the tackles with the defensive line and Cooper taking up the blockers. Not only that, but he is able to pressure when asked to blitz.
Burnett had 95 tackles, six sacks, two force fumbles, and two interceptions. That's pretty impressive numbers for a guy that the Cowboys never gave a shot at starting. Good move by the Chargers in bringing him in last season as he is taking advantage of the opportunity he's given to be that guy that he knew he could be. It's true, the Chargers haven't seen a weakside ILB as good as Kevin Burnett since Donnie Edwards.
LaDainian Tomlinson was without a doubt the most electrifying runner the Chargers have ever had in the history of their franchise. That being said, his 2009 season was his most disappointing season. Over the past couple of years, AJ Smith and along with the Chargers front office knew that they can't have just one elite runner as they know from experience that such a elite runner is useless if he's hurt in the playoffs taking away one part of the offense along with it.
No one knew what Mike Tolbert or rookie Ryan Mathews will do as replacements in the Chargers backfield. Seeing them struggle with the football isn't something surprising for guys that just started playing into that role as a starting RB. What is surprising is how they ran with utter power and practically ran over opposition. That's something the Chargers haven't seen since Michael Turner.
Mike Tolbert is the Jerome Bettis of the Chargers. He is just a power bowling ball. He ran for 735 yards, 11 TD's, averaging 4.0 yards a carry. Tolbert moves the ball on the ground and rarely gets hit in the backfield. Sorry to say but LT couldn't even do that on the ground last season.
Ryan Mathews. I could only salivate at what would have been if he stayed healthy. He ended the 2010 season with a performance than only the departed LT could have done. Mathews scored all the Chargers TD's against the Broncos. Mathews showed during games as his combination of power, change of direction, speed, along with his size, is something I haven't seen in a RB in a long time. Mathews put up 678 rushing yards, seven TD's, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Both Tolbert and Mathews rushed for a combined 1,413 yards, 18 TD's, averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
They may not be LaDainian Tomlinson but they sure as hell gave the Chargers something they can work with to help the Chargers in the Philip Rivers' era of opportunity to win a Super Bowl.
The Chargers window of opportunity is re-opened and all it took was one season for the Chargers to see who will help carry the Chargers to their first Super Bowl win. The Philip Rivers era has begun on a good note. Without a doubt, with a dynamic QB in Philip Rivers, the Chargers have a better chance winning the big game than trying to build a team around a elite RB.
The 2011 season will be one to look forward to Charger fans. People say that the Chargers are heading downward, I don't see that when I see outstanding players living up to the standards to those that were Charger players before them. With so many small contributing players playing a bigger role this 2010 season, you can see that everyone was able to grow into them comfortably over the progression of the season. The 2011 Chargers will definitely not lack experience compared to the 2010 Chargers team that headed into the season.
Look to the Chargers to make a huge statement, especially after the disappointment of this season. The last time the Chargers didn't make the playoffs, they went on to a 4-1 start, ending the season as the number one seeded team in the AFC Playoffs. Let's see if they'll be able to put the nail in the coffin and bring home the Lombardi Trophy.