The San Diego Chargers have made slow starts and fast finishes their unofficial trademark under Norv Turner's leadership. The first nine games of the 2011 NFL season have been no different. The question remains, though, whether or not Philip Rivers can lead the Chargers on a fifth straight late-season run to remain in competition for an AFC West title this year.
The answer is yes, but if, and only if, San Diego can find a way to give Philip Rivers adequate protection in the pocket—something he's been lacking all too often this season. Now down three starters on the offensive line, including Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill and Chris Dielman, a unit that was struggling to begin with is now paper-thin.
If the Chargers can get healthier in the trenches, though, and find creative ways to afford Rivers a little more time, the Chargers can and will win more games than they lose over the last half of the season.
However, now at 4-5, San Diego has left itself such a slim margin of error that another late-season run may not be enough for a playoff bid regardless.
Still, even as they gasp for breath with seven games left to play, they're not dead yet—at least not quite.
Unlike the typical sports streak, the Chargers' strong finishes over the last four seasons have a very specific, clearly identifiable reason behind them. Their 26-6 record in November and December is no coincidence, and luck has very little, if anything, to do with it.
The fact is that the Chargers have found themselves in the exact same position they are in now for the last four years consecutively. Under Turner's leadership, their average start is 4-4 and their average finish is 6-2. As bad as things look right now, San Diego is a staggering 14-2 over the last eight weeks in 2009 and 2010. Last year, however, a 7-2 finish left them 9-7 and out of the playoffs after a 2-5 start.
Here we go again.
The primary reason that the Chargers have followed the pattern they have is deeply rooted in the fact that Norv Turner runs an entirely different playbook in the first half of the NFL season—one that does not take advantage of the team's strengths. This and this alone is the principal cause for their slow starts.
Presumably, the rationale behind this strategy boils down to limiting the ability of opponents on the back end of San Diego's schedule to prepare for what they will see on offense, and it works, to a degree. The only reason the Chargers go on a run each and every year is because it takes the league six to eight weeks to catch up to what they're doing on offense.
All one needs to do in order to see this fact for themselves is to randomly select a handful of highlights from the first half of the season and compare them with a similar number of highlights from the second half.
What you'll see right away is that Turner runs almost entirely out of what is essentially a “max-protect” formation through the first six to eight weeks. This is true at least until the game is just about out of reach or when he runs out of running backs like he did against the Denver Broncos.
The max-protect, as depicted in the figure above, is a standard formation which “maximizes” the pass protection by keeping two or more skill position players back to block on passing plays. In this formation, some combination of the halfback, fullback and/or tight end will stay back to assist the offensive line with pass protection.
But the extra protection comes at a steep price because for every additional blocker, Turner must subtract an equal number of potential receiving targets.
What this means for Rivers is that, often, no more than two wide receivers are sent into the pattern once the ball is snapped. If neither of those two targets can get open (often against as many as four defensive backs), he has two options: throw the ball to the check-down, usually the halfback running a delayed pattern out of the backfield, or simply throw the ball away.
A great formation in certain specific situations, the max-protect is an ultra-conservative scheme probably best reserved for running the clock down late in the game when protecting a lead.
For Turner, though, the formation serves an entirely different purpose.
The diagram above provides and example of the type of plays Turner runs in the second half of the season. Notice that, instead of two or three receivers being sent into the pattern, these formations send out as many as four and even five potential targets.
Turner's strength has long been considered his ability to draw up a devastating aerial attack. This fact only makes it more frustrating to watch, though, as San Diego's explosive offense is hamstrung by a scheme that would make Chuck Knox seem like Air Coryel in comparison.
This season, Turner opened things up—right on schedule—in Week 9 against the Packers. Just like every year, the Chargers' spread formations, which had been seen no more than a half a dozen times in the prior seven games, managed to catch Green Bay by surprise.
The result was San Diego racking up nearly 500 yards on offense, and, if not for Rivers' three interceptions, the Chargers may very well have come out with the win.
And while he continued to run his second-half playbook against the Raiders the following Thursday, the Chargers' second-team offensive line failed to give Rivers enough protection to execute it. Still, Turner did not revert to the max-protect against the Raiders even though it might have been the most appropriate time to use it.
You can be pretty sure that Rivers appreciates the additional one to two targets down field that the spread formation provides. His tendency to put up much better numbers over the second half of each season reflects that fact.
Not to say that Turner is entirely to blame. Rivers knows as well as any that, in the system he's being asked to run early on, his main priority is protecting the football—something he's struggled with this year more than any other time in his pro or collegiate career.
Again, though, unless San Diego can get better pass protection out of five down linemen and the occasional halfback, the Chargers won't even be able to run a spread formation with any effectiveness anyway.
The Chargers need to be able to play with a lead more often. The defense will also need to spend a little less time on the field in order to avoid being completely spent by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.
For San Diego, like most teams, the success of the defense is tied directly to the success of the offense. The problem for the Chargers this season has been the turnovers and stalled drives that have left the defense out on the field far too long. There's no better example of this than the game against the Raiders on Thursday.
If the defense is asked to play for 35 to 40-plus minutes of a 60-minute contest, they’re going to be soft as warm butter by the fourth quarter. It's just a simple fact of life. This has particularly been an issue for the Chargers over the last several years when the offense has struggled to sustain drives or score.
In order for San Diego to be able to play an aggressive, downhill style of defense, they'll need to be able to play with a lead more often. The defense will also need to spend a little less time on the field in order to avoid being completely spent by the time the fourth quarter rolls around.
While not out of the question by any means, it remains to be seen whether or not another late-season run can even make a difference for the Chargers at this stage. With the offensive line now in shambles, it makes you wonder why Turner didn't use the tools he had at his disposal while he still could.
The Chargers' brutal schedule down the stretch doesn't make things any easier, and 5-2 may not be enough this year. On the bright side, though, should the Chargers fail to make the playoffs again this season, Turner won't need to worry anymore about whether or not to save his best stuff for last.