Ugh. A disastrous showing in the final pre-season game, and it has to be pinned equally on Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith. I'll never let Coach Turner off the hook for failing to have his guys ready to play, whether early in a game or early in the season. In this game, the offence stuttered and coughed up the ball twice to start the game, and it deflated the team and they never got into a rhythm, they never believed and were never in this game. If Philip Rivers and his #1 offence can't get in sync, the rest of the boys are going to start to doubt.
Why was Philip Rivers even on the field for a fourth pre-season game? We pin the other portion of blame on the Chargers GM. Coach Turner chose not to play Mr. Rivers and a few other vets in the third game, which is traditionally used to get the starters ready for the regular season. Instead of giving them three quarters of work to get into a groove, he held them out to avoid Philip getting killed by the subpar offensive line he was forced to field. This is where A.J. Smith comes in.
The Chargers lost former All-Pro left guard Kris Dielman due to a career-ending concussion, as well as former Pro-Bowler Marcus McNeill due to a spinal injury, both during the off-season. Nick Hardwick, affected by the injury suffered by Mr. Dielman and his subsequent seizures, thought long and hard before re-signing with the team. A.J. Smith's response to the loss of the left side of the line? He drafted an injured guard who was bound to spend his first season on IR in Johnnie Troutman, and a centre in the 7th round in David Molk. He also signed chronic underachiever and malingerer Jared Gaither to a four-year contract to play the left tackle position, and Rex Hadnot, a journeyman guard who was released by the Cardinals in the spring.
Now it's hard to fault A.J. for drafting defensive players in the first three rounds, since that side of that ball needed a lot of attention. It's also hard to find players off the street who can sub in for former Pro Bowlers. In total though, his efforts to compensate for the loss of these two players are underwhelming, both in the results obtained so far, and in the judgment he showed. Indeed, once the fourth round came about, he chose to stock up on a position of strength by drafting Tight End Ladarius Green, instead of beefing up on an area that was crying out for help. We can argue that A.J. Smith did well by trying to get the best player available in the fourth or fifth round, but that will be his argument to make in the end. It is thought that he and Norv Turner kept their job by the skin of their teeth last off-season. Alex Spanos surprised most observers by retaining his staff instead of making wholesale changes. We have to believe that these two gentlemen can't be patient, they were expected to deliver some results this season, since they have had a lot of the pieces needed to produce a winner and contender, and they have consistently underperformed.
So this off-season has been anything but business as usual, with Jared Gaither's back spasms keeping him out the entire off-season. Add in nicks and dings to Nick Hardwick and Tyronne Green, and the offensive line has been in a state of upheaval, preventing the offence from getting its act together, and planting the seed of doubt in a group of players that has been trained to expect turmoil and poor results under this administration. Somehow, an experienced GM and coach tandem have managed to muck up something as tested and routine as a training camp and exhibition season.
Now some will claim that we shouldn't worry, that pre-season games don't matter, that you can't tell anything by watching subs playing subs. Well, earlier in this game, we saw the #1 offence against the 49ers subs, and two drives ended in turnovers. Antonio Gates gave up a fumble on a strip tackle, and Philip Rivers again forced a ball into coverage and gave up an interception. The latter was galling, in that the defender was standing up at his goal line, like a left fielder waiting for a fly ball, and the ball indeed came right to him. It wasn't the case of a disguised coverage or a safety who came out of nowhere to snag the ball.
Charlie Whitehurst and Jarrett Lee who came in after Philip Rivers' two possessions fared no better, being unable to generate a rhythm with the 49er pressure constantly an issue. The blocking was no better when running the ball, as the Chargers gained only 76 yards on 21 attempts. A healthy Ryan Mathews would have helped here, but he would have had just as much trouble as the other Charger ballcarriers did finding open holes to run through.
Other impressions weren't very positive. I had to watch the San Francisco feed, so most of the attention was on the players in burgundy and gold. Still, it was hard to miss Atari Bigby's whiff on his tackle of Delanie Walker. Sure, the SF TE is a lot bigger than the SD safety, but I didn't see an attempt to wrap up the receiver. And Mr. Bigby is known as a big hitter. On this one, he gave 70% effort, possibly keen to avoid injury, and just laid a good shoulder in his man, which wasn't enough to stop him speeding into the end zone. Another DB, cornerback DeAndre Presley, a free agent who was a college quarterback at Appalachian State and is trying to earn a job as a defender, was lowlighted on a couple of plays where he played the wrong angle and tackled poorly. It's hard to fault the guy for it, but it also makes it hard to think he can earn a job.
Bront Bird, a free agent linebacker who made the team last season on the strength of his special teams play, had a noteworthy game in that he got a sack and an interception. Things are looking up for him, in that with the news that the Chargers will be allowed to place Vincent Brown on temporary Injured Reserve due to an agreement reached today between the Players' Association and the NFL, the Chargers will not be squeezed by having to carry Vincent on their roster. So Mr. Bird and Andrew Gachkar are in a fight with each other for a likely LB/Special Teams spot on the 53-man roster still, and the former helped himself tonight.
So A.J. Smith has a lot of work to do on Cutdown Friday, along with Norv Turner. Mr. Smith has to find one or two treasures out of the players who will be available tomorrow. There's need at cornerback and safety, but most importantly at the offensive line. There needs to be more talent, more depth, more effectiveness there. He has to provide Norv Turner with a couple of players who can spot in when Jared Gaither sits out. Undrafted free agent Mike Harris is a project, and we don't have the time to teach him. We need a vet or two who will solidify the left side of the line. They don't need to be spectacular, just effective, and that will be a huge improvement.
So A.J. has to pull a rabbit out of a hat and save the season right now, and then Norv Turner has to coach these new guys up and get them up to speed. It's a tall task, but that's what they have to do to keep their jobs. Enough excuses.
I hesitated before purchasing the Sunday Ticket package this year, being skeptical that the Chargers would contend. In the end, I decided to splurge, since I enjoy watching the Chargers play, but my pessimistic outlook for this season was only strengthened by tonight's showing.