San Diego Chargers: State of the Franchise—2009

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IJune 21, 2009

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 21: Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers talks with coach Norv Turner against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on December 21, 2008 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Last year’s San Diego Chargers started off terribly, and their record stood at 4-8 with just four games left to play.

The Denver Broncos, whose record stood at 8-5 in Week 14, completed a monumental collapse to become the first team to lose a division with a three-game lead with just three weeks left to play.

They were the phoenix, who rose from the ashes to reclaim their AFC West title for the third straight season.

A recent hot button topic has been whether the Chargers’ window for Super Bowl contention is beginning to close; even with Phillip Rivers playing at a Pro Bowl caliber, they were still only a .500 team. LaDainian Tomlinson’s performance dropped off drastically last season, and many wonder if Darren Sproles can be a feature back.

But the Chargers’ defense was without their all-star pass rusher, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. If he can return to form, he can help to drastically improve a defense that ranked a dismal 24th in the league in sacks and second to last in passing yardage allowed.

They also drafted Larry English, a great prospect at outside linebacker, who can be a situational and rotational pass rusher.

While questions about Norv Turner’s leadership abilities have never quite been silenced (there’s even a fan blog with the sole intent and purpose of getting Turner fired), no one can question the drastic turnaround the Chargers made last season to make the playoffs.

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Turner has helped the team post a remarkable 8-0 mark he has posted in December in his two seasons as their head coach.

Offense

Last season was considered a down year for LaDainian Tomlinson. Injuries hampered his production and gave way to inconsistency throughout the year, and he collected a “meager” 1,536 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns.

But hey, it’s tough to have a better season than his record-setter in 2006, where he had 2,323 yards from scrimmage and set the single-season record for total touchdowns with 31.

Although it’s safe to say that Tomlinson’s best years are behind him, there’s no question that the future holds a bright horizon for franchise quarterback Phillip Rivers, who posted a league-best quarterback rating of 105.5 last season.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Rivers has the right tools to lead his team to victory on the strength of his arm, though it doesn’t hurt to have a feature back like Tomlinson who excels at catching passes out of the backfield and pass-blocking.

It also doesn’t hurt to have tight end Antonio Gates, who posted respectable numbers last season despite also being slowed down by an injury early in the season. With him back at full health, the options open right back up for Rivers and the offense.

Despite posting only 59 catches last season, Vincent Jackson picked up a whopping 1,098 yards. His seven receiving touchdowns last season were second only to Gates’ eight. At 6’ and forever,” with the amazing athleticism he has displayed, Jackson has slowly but surely molded into the top-flight receiver the Chargers always thought he could be when they drafted him in the second round in 2005.

Of course, it all starts with the monstrous offensive line the Chargers have built over the years. Center Nick Hardwick and guard Kris Dielman have been landmarks of the Chargers’ between-the-tackles running game for years, and have held their own in pass blocking situations to afford Rivers time to throw.

Defense

Shawne Merriman is back.

Those four words mean a drastic turnaround for a dismal defensive performance last season. The majority of San Diego’s problems stemmed from their utter inability to rush the passer or create any kind of pressure.

If Merriman’s return isn’t enough, or if he’s not his old self after major knee surgery sidelined him last season, first-round draft pick Larry English should factor in nicely and make a huge difference for a team that ranked 24th in sack output last season.

Cornerback Antonio Cromartie gathered a whopping ten interceptions in 2007, but last season Cromartie grabbed a measly two.

Pressure on the quarterback should result in more turnovers, as evidenced by the 2007 version of their squad which ranked first in turnovers with 48, 30 of those being interceptions. Last season, they ranked 11th in interceptions and an abominable 17th in total turnovers.

Of course, the pressure of creating pressure on the quarterback can’t fall squarely on the shoulders of Merriman; other players must step up as well. Defensive tackle Jamal Williams remains an anchor on the front line, despite age and injury.  

It’s hard to tell how much of a difference one player will make to a squad, but the absence of Merriman last season caused the defense to drop from the fifth overall ranking to 15th in just one year.

Chances of Winning This Year

The Chargers’ shot at making another trip to the playoffs this year is strengthened by the fact that they’re in such a historically weak division.

They also gave another perfect showing in December of 2008, despite starting off their season at a miserable 4-8. If they can ride that momentum into 2009, they could be a force to contend with all season long.

The problem, however, will be riding that momentum; despite a perfect showing in December of the 2007 season, the Chargers fell flat for the first few weeks of 2008, losing a few last-minute shockers.

Could it be that Norv Turner really doesn’t practice the two-minute drill, as claimed by the site that wants him fired? If this is the case, it showed in their games, and this is an area that will sorely need improvement going into the 2009 season.

Especially come playoff time.

Let’s face it; the Chargers have been the bugaboo for the Colts in the playoffs for the past few seasons, but they won’t get to advance at their expense every year, and they have fallen flat in post-season match-ups with other AFC elites like the Steelers and Patriots.

The offense is coming into its own, as evidenced by Phillip Rivers’ spectacular performance all season long last year.

However, as exposed against the Steelers in the Divisional Round of last year’s playoffs, Darren Sproles can’t carry the team on his legs alone, and both he and Rivers will need LaDainian Tomlinson to stay injury-free to keep a multi-dimensional attack in tact.

More or less, the Chargers need to gain momentum and keep it sustained for the duration of the season in order to prevent themselves from falling flat in the fall for a third straight season.

Chances of Winning In The Future

The future is bright for their offensive line. Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill has come on strong since his rookie year in 2006, and former sixth round pick Jeromey Clary started all 16 games last season at right tackle.

By drafting Louis Vasquez in the third round of the 2009 draft, the Chargers assured themselves a security blanket in the event that either of their starting guards is injured, or perhaps he could fill the void left by recently departed Mike Goff.

They also have a lot of bright spots on defense, especially at linebacker, with Shawne Merriman yet to enter his prime, and a great developmental prospect in 2008 first round pick Larry English.

They’ve had problems in the past with their secondary, but a strong pass rush has proven effective for them in generating turnovers. Antonio Cromartie will be fed plenty of interceptions by quarterbacks feeling the pressure of Merriman, English, and/or Shaun Phillips next season.

With last year’s first round pick Antoine Cason developing nicely as a nickel cornerback, he could see more time as a starter next season, much like Antonio Cromartie in his sophomore year, and could make a much bigger impact as a result.