While I'm eagerly anticipating the San Diego Chargers' season, it's more as a result of my fan status and the attachment I have to the players, the team and its history and identity, and the city, a positive jewel. It's not because I expect the team to be strong and competitive and to go deep into the playoffs.
As a matter of fact, to go on the record here, I believe the Chargers will go below .500 in 2012 and end up a mediocre 7-9 also-ran in a difficult transition season. Note that I didn't go down the calendar and allot probable wins and losses, a mug's game since teams are evaluated in this pre-season rundown according to their previous season's performance, and NFL teams are known to swing wildly in quality from one year to the next. No, my prediction rests on the feeling I have that this team is no longer the supremely talented but underperforming unit of the last few seasons. It is a team that is showing the strain of too many misses on its first and second-round draft picks, and of too often bundling picks to trade up for players that end up laying an egg. The resultant lack of depth is apparent on the offensive line and defensive lines, notably.
The reason I say this is a transition year is that while the face of the team is still there in Philip Rivers, and the All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates is due for a big rebound season after two marred by injury, many of the mainstays on the team have moved on. On offence, in a matter of two seasons, the team has dropped Pro Bowlers Kris Dielman, Marcus McNeill, Darren Sproles, and Vincent Jackson, all players who were dominant or game-changers at their position and were replaced by lesser ones. In all this churning, there is only one player who seems to have a chance to be a star in his own right, but he's on defence, not offence.
The offence is feeling the effects of players like Buster Davis, uh, being busts, and players like Ryan Mathews not living up to their high draft billing and the assets surrendered to obtain them. 'Fullback' Jacob Hester never became the go-to do-everything heart and soul leader the team gave up a 2nd and a fifth round pick to obtain. Journeymen at best replace Mssrs. McNeill and Dielman on the left side of the line.
We saw how Philip Rivers' decision-making and accuracy suffered last season with his line in a state of upheaval, and I fear he'll have the same problems this season. He often aired it out to Vincent Jackson, a physical beast who would go up and get his passes against overmatched corners. He doesn't have the same kind of connection and rhythm, and certainly doesn't have the same physical mismatch with Robert Meachem. Passes he would wing out to VJ that ended up completed for touchdowns will more often be intercepted if the pre-season is any indication.
Ryan Mathews is a very talented back who has had conditioning issues and fumbling problems, still has some maturing to do, and struggles to go through a season without having to sit out games due to injuries. He's started the season on the sidelines and should be back soon, but must be productive and consistent for the season to not be a disaster. Even healthy, he'll struggle to find holes without road grader Kris Dielman up front.
On defence, we'll also see a team trying to find a new identity. Jacques Césaire and Luis Castillo were let go before the season, but they were at best steady and experienced but unspectacular. They are replaced by younger, more athletic players with promise, and we can expect them to make mistakes, but also make some plays due to their sheer athleticism.
The linebackers is one area we can be optimistic, even excited about. The addition of first-rounder Melvin Ingram can inject a healthy dose of energy, he showed a high motor and skill in the pre-season getting after the quarterback, a deficiency for the Chargers last season. Shaun Phillips saw a lot of double-teams as the only pass-rushing threat early on, until he got help from Ravens castoff Antwan Barnes. Both are back, along with a seemingly healthy Larry English who seems ready to deliver on the first round pick the Chargers spent to acquire him. Add in veteran Takeo Spikes and third-year player Donald Butler, who played solidly at middle LB last season, and you have the makings of a strong crew, especially when accounting for free agent acquisitions Jarret Johnson and Demorrio Williams.
The secondary is a cause for concern. Quentin Jammer isn't getting any younger or speedier. Antoine Cason seemed to take a step back last season, yet he is counted on to contribute as a former first-rounder and starting cornerback. Eric Weddle is a point of strength, but finding him a partner at Safety has been a a headache for the Chargers for years now. Last year's roll of the dice on oft-injured Bob Sanders came up snake eyes. This year, the plan is to go with hard-hitting but mistake-prone Atari Bigby, and ease in 2012 third-rounder Brandon Taylor. Overall, this is a thin group that can be adequate if things go mostly right for the Chargers, but also has the potential to go very wrong.
Special Teams seem to have solidified under coach Rich Bisaccia, who quelled the Football Follies fodder that were the special teams in 2010, what with blocked punts and fumbles and touchdown returns allowed. Nate Kaeding has returned seemingly stronger than before after tearing his ACL on the opening play of last season. Mike Scifres is one of the best punters in the business. The return game was hurt by the loss of Darren Sproles, and we'll have to see if the options provided by Richard Goodman, Micheal Spurlock and Eddie Royal improve last season's results.
So overall, you have a team with a few bright spots but more questions than answers. Multiply that with the pedestrian coaching and leadership of Norv Turner, and we have a recipe for a muddling team if not for disaster. While Norv may be a nice guy, and has overcome much to attain the success he has, as demonstrated in a profile by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, he is not a leader and motivator, he waffles and gabbles and goofs during games. His much-vaunted talent as an offensive genius and play-caller can be questioned by fans who find some of his calls either predictable or mind-boggling.
The case of Darren Sproles is illuminating. He was often called upon to provide a change of pace in the Chargers' offence, but Norv would try to 'disguise and surprise' by sending him all too often for a run between the tackles, famously during a game-ending play against the Ravens in which he was stuffed by unconvicted murderer Ray Lewis. Norv's 'surprise' play was attempted so often that it was fully expected by teams, who awaited Darren with relish and exposed him to injury. Last season, he defected to the Saints and promptly had the best season of his career, an NFL first in that he was the first to go over 1000 yards on offence and in the return game in the same year. This while in a new system without the benefit of OTA's and a pre-season, and on a team that has a surfeit of options for Drew Brees to choose from. Why couldn't offensive genius Norv Turner wring that kind of production out of him?
Norv's greater failings are his lack of leadership. His teams routinely commit bone-headed mistakes. The players fumble and bumble and take dumb penalties and are never called to account. He is the anti-Belichick, a coach who takes unheralded players and coaches them up and molds them into a winning team. For the Patriots, the team is greater than the sum of its parts. For the Chargers, unfailingly, the team is a shiny bauble that breaks early after moderate use. We all remember Rex Ryan's quip that he would have won a few Super Bowls if he'd been the head coach of a collection of talent like the Chargers. It's probably fair to say that most coaches believe they'd do better than Norv too.
Norv also is awful at clock management and coaches' challenges. His sideline presence leaves a lot to be desired. Observers think that he spends too much time play-calling during games and loses sight of the overall picture. While he has hired an assistant in Steve Fairchild to help with game management, he has historically been a negative on game days in terms of putting his team in the best position to win.
Overall, one can't help to think that the team has regressed from last season. I'm being optimistic and hoping for a small step back this year, and a return to form next season with most of the big pieces intact, an influx of productive draftees, and an improvement from the young players on the defence. And, as manna from heaven, a long-overdue coaching change.