5 Bold Predictions for the San Diego Chargers' 2011 Season
Do you feel it? That jittery anxiousness writhing around in the pit of your stomach that somehow perks up every first week of August like some sort of late-summer viral Groundhog's Day? Calm down, you're going to be just fine as these symptoms are not brought on by some sort of new debilitating and deadly disease but rather the ever closer, yet excruciatingly slow return of NFL football, although those worn down by the monotony of baseball might argue that the two might as well be the same.
But now that football is almost finally, mercifully upon us, there is no time better than now to begin the prognostications and predictions for the San Diego Chargers upcoming season.
Before that however, a quick recap on what was by far the most disappointing Chargers season of the Norv Turner era. The Chargers began by posting a 2-5 record due in large part to a special teams unit that was widely considered one of, if not the, worst of all time. The Chargers managed to win seven of their final nine games in their typical streaky fashion, but were unable to capture a fifth consecutive AFC West title and were relegated to an early January vacation.
During this most tumultuous offseason, the Chargers turned their attention to upgrading their No. 1 overall ranked, yet highly inflated defense. As former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was hired as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, the Chargers replaced him with former linebackers coach and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in the hopes of maintaining continuity and re-energizing a solid yet unspectacular unit. The Chargers also brought in several key players such as LB Takeo Spikes and S Bob Sanders, and re-signed pivotal members in Eric Weddle and Malcom Floyd. At this point the roster appears to be set, aside from the mandatory training camp cuts.
So just what does the 2011 season have in store for the boys in Bolts?
1. Ryan Mathews Lives Up to the Hype
When you're replacing the player who was not only your boyhood idol, but quite arguably the greatest player in the franchise's history, and the team traded up to make sure that you were the one to do it, it's fair enough to say that there was a great deal of pressure on the young rookie out of Fresno State.
Let's just say Mathews' rookie campaign didn't go exactly according to plan.
Throughout the season Mathews was plagued by injuries, missing four games last year, and by fumbles, putting the ball on the ground fives times, losing three of them. However, there were times throughout the season that Mathews displayed flashes of greatness, particularly in the season finale against the Denver Broncos in which the young back ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
Mathews has all the physical tools to be a very productive back in the NFL. At 6'0" and 218 pounds Mathews combines an impressive balance of power and speed when he carries the ball, as well as soft hands and tremendous balance and vision. If Mathews can realize his vast potential and not put the ball on the ground, then big things should be expected from #24 in 2011.
2. The #1 Offense Will Get Better
Last season the San Diego Chargers featured the No. 1 offense in the NFL, led by Philip Rivers' league leading 4710 passing yards. Rivers accomplished this while throwing to mostly no-name guys fresh off the street, due to injuries suffered by All-World TE Antonio Gates, WR Malcom Floyd, WR Patrick Crayton, in addition to Vincent Jackson's 12-game contract dispute.
That is not the case this year. San Diego returns every starter from last year and the only major contributor not returning is RB Darren Sproles who departed for New Orleans. The Chargers will look to their running back trio of Ryan Mathews, Mike Tolbert and sixth-round pick Jordan Todman, whom the team is very high on, to supplement the loss of the dynamic diminutive back from Kansas State.
A full season of a healthy and content trio of Floyd, Jackson and Gates, who played all of one snap together last year, is a formidable addition to an offense that proved to be the best at picking up yards a year ago.
3. Manusky Will Re-Energize the Defense
Perhaps the biggest loss to the San Diego Chargers this offseason was not in the form of a player ala Kevin Burnett, but rather in the coaching staff, namely defensive coordinator Ron Rivera leaving to become head coach of the Carolina Panthers.
However, the Chargers moved quickly in addressing Rivera's departure, quickly pursuing their former linebackers coach and then 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
The hiring was meant to bring stability and continuity to last year's No. 1 defense, and by all indications it has done all that and more. Manusky has been fiery in practice and his presence, aided by the additions of LBs Takeo Spikes and Travis Laboy (former 49ers) as well as S Bob Sanders, has turned the Chargers into an aggressive bunch which plays with a swagger previously unseen in San Diego.
Last year the biggest knock on the Chargers defense was its inability to produce critical turnovers and put consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. Manusky's aggressive nature should surely change that in the Chargers favor.
4. Bob Sanders Will Bounce Back
The signing of former Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders was not met with much noise outside of San Diego, but by season's end it may well prove to be one of the offseason's biggest moves.
The oft-injured former Colt was viewed as damaged goods by most of the league, as he has played in a total of just nine games in the past three seasons.
However this offseason has proven to be extremely beneficial for Sanders as he has finally had an offseason that was not entirely devoted to rehabbing, but rather training and preparing. Sanders brings an intimidating force in the secondary for San Diego that hasn't been seen in the city since the heyday of Rodney Harrison. Sanders has looked extremely impressive in camp thus far and has been met with rave reviews from his coaches and teammates alike, having formed a strong rapport with fellow safety Eric Weddle.
Sanders is a game changer for San Diego and if he can finally stay healthy for a season expect him to contend for Comeback Player of the Year as well as a Super Bowl ring.
The Chargers Will Be a Force in the AFC
The San Diego Chargers missed the playoffs last year, not having won the AFC West for the first time since 2005, due in large part to historically bad special teams play.
However during this offseason the Chargers have seemingly addressed all areas of concern.
The Chargers hire Rich Bassachia away from Tampa Bay and he has brought a new sense of purpose and accountability to the unit.
The holdout should also be a non-issue for the Chargers, or at worst, they appear to be one of the teams most adept at dealing with the results of the lack of offseason preparation brought on by the lockout. This is a veteran team led by a passionate MVP candidate in QB Philip Rivers who appears to be on a mission not to repeat the slow starts of seasons past.
The Chargers are also loaded on both sides of the ball. The addition of first round pick Corey Liuget gives the team a solid, penetrating force at defensive end, and Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders add veteran leadership to a team that was sorely lacking it. The only area of concern of defense appears to be whether or not 2009 first round pick Larry English will finally turn the switch and become the force off the edge he was expected to be opposite Shaun Phillips.
The offense has a happy and content Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd who form one of the league's top WR duos. Antonio Gates, who is still dealing with lingering foot issues, is expected to be ready for the season and the team does not seem to be overly worried about their stud TE, just cautious.
If the Chargers can finally get off to a fast start and stay healthy, expect them to be right in the mix, contending for the Super Bowl as the AFC representative.