By Jeffrey Siniard 10/22/09
On Monday night, Josh McDaniels' re-tooled Denver Broncos came to San Diego and punched the Chargers in the mouth, winning by a final score of 34-23. It was one of those rare NFL wins, the kind that signal a "changing of the guard" in Divisional play (in this case, the AFC West). The last time the AFC West saw a win like this was in San Diego, in December of 2004. In that game, the Chargers were the team on the rise, defeating Mike Shanahan's veteran Broncos team and assuming the top position in the division. This 2004 game was the beginning of the end of Shanahan's tenure in Denver, and a loss the Broncos never really recovered from.
Until last Monday night.
The loss to Denver exposed the Chargers as a fraud, as a once dominant squad that was firmly on the backside of their success. Looking at the NFL, once a team becomes a winner, that team usually has 5-7 years to win a championship before the talent base erodes, age and injuries take a toll, players leave in free-agency, and draft luck runs out. This description fits the Chargers well enough, but the Chargers are still a relatively young team, one whose core is still firmly in their prime or entering their prime.
There are several additional reasons listed below that the Chargers are now faced with a rebuilding challenge, and quite possibly a coaching and front office change at the end of this season.
1. The single biggest problem for the Chargers is the culture of arrogance permeating the entire organization, one that starts and ends with the man in charge - General Manager A.J. Smith. His successes in 2004 and 2006 ended in playoff failures that cost former head coach Marty Schottenheimer his job. Smith's success led to arrogance, and created a circumstance that made his relationship with Schottenheimer impossible. They were A.J. Smith's players, after all. However, Schottenheimer is gone, and Smith now has a vise-grip on the organization. All post-Schottenheimer failures now fall on the GM. This culture of arrogance has led to most all of the following mistakes and problems...
2. Since 2006, Smith has failed to draft quality players who can consistently perform well on the field. High draft picks such WR Buster Davis, CB Antoine Cason, RB Jacob Hester, S Eric Weddle , LB Anthony Waters and OLB Larry English were considered reaches by many NFL observers. These players have ranged from at-best inconsistent to off of the team.
3. Additionally, the organizational philosophy of "building through the draft" has been taken to an almost fanatical extreme. Smith is right to not pursue most high-priced free agents, but several lesser moves could have made a significant difference, such as signing S Brian Dawkins or S Jermaine Phillips, DE Antonio Smith or DE Chris Canty. Contrast this to some smart trades and signings Smith has made in the past, such as LT Roman Oben, RG Mike Goff, LBs Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey, and WRs Keenan McCardell and Chris Chambers. This failure to find quality veteran help may not have been a problem, except that...
4. A.J. Smith (as well as the former GM, the late John Butler) has made a point of ridding veteran players from the roster that he did not bring in, and being antagonistic with many of these veteran players as well. This is a list that includes: LB Junior Seau, S Rodney Harrison, K John Carney, QB Drew Brees, LB Donnie Edwards, FB Lorenzo Neal, and most recently, RB LaDainian Tomlinson and OLB Shawne Merriman. First of all, these are highly talented and/or successful NFL players, at least 2 or 3 of which are future Hall-of-Famers. Recently, only the intervention of Chargers CEO Dean Spanos prevented Tomlinson from leaving the team. You'd think that Smith would have someone in the organization to check him, or at least question his decision making, but...
5. The last 2 persons who had significant input on player personnel decisions are no longer with the team; Marty Schottenheimer and former Assistant General Manager Buddy Nix. Schottenheimer had roster control, meaning he had final say over his 53-man squad. Nix has long been considered one of the best talent evaluators in the NFL. The problems with Schottenheimer are well documented, however, Nix left under a cloud of unusual circumstances (immediately following the 2008 draft) and rumors, retiring for a brief time before re-joining the Buffalo Bills. One can't help but wonder if Schottenheimer served as a reality check for Smith, while Nix was the "power behind the throne."
6. Speaking of "power behind the throne," A.J. Smith decided in 2007 to hire Norv Turner, a coach with a 58-82-1 record, as Schottenheimer's replacement. Looking at Turner's coaching history, one is hard pressed to find a legitimate reason for his hiring. Smith said he works well with Turner. While a good working relationship between head coach and general manager is nice, it is not required for winning games. Turner was likely hired for 2 reasons: to develop Philip Rivers into an upper-level NFL quarterback, and to take the players Smith gave him and like it. While Turner has done terrific work with Rivers, all of the previous hallmarks of Turner-coached teams have come into play...
7. Beginning with the most obvious point-that Norv Turner is unable get the best out of his players on a consistent basis. Inconsistency, inattention to detail, and a lack of accountability have also been hallmarks of Turner's teams everywhere he's been, from Washington, to Oakland, and San Diego. Turner has also been dogged by perpetually lousy late-game management, which has cost the Chargers at least 2-3 wins over the last 2+ years (last year's Sunday night game against Indianapolis comes immediately to mind). What has saved Turner in San Diego has been the Lazarus-like ability of his team to "flip the switch" and win the games that mattered to get to the playoffs. However, as the last game against Denver demonstrated, Turner's 2009 Chargers team has neither the players, nor the coaching (or, frankly, the soft divisional opponents) to win the "must-win" games. A team with the talent the Chargers have should be able to survive major injuries, but lack of depth as well as...
8. The changes to the defensive scheme made by previous defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell in 2007 and 2008 have wrecked San Diego's once vaunted attacking 3-4 defense. When Wade Phillips was hired as defensive coordinator in 2004, he didn't have one half the talent Cottrell and current defensive coordinator Ron Rivera had at their disposal. Phillips' scheme was a variation on the defenses in Pittsburgh and New England - a scheme that is successful with even average talent - the defense works the same, but goes from solid to dominant with good talent. For example, in 2004 and the first half of 2005, Phillips has Steve Foley at the OLB pass-rushing position. Foley netted 14.5 sacks over 29 games in San Diego, before being replaced by Shawne Merriman. Merriman turned a solid defense into a QB-terrorizing defense. Cottrell changed the scheme in 2007 to work specifically off the talents of NT Jamal Williams, Merriman, and CB Antonio Cromartie. It cost him his job in 2008 when Williams suffered nagging injuries, Merriman was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament, and Cromartie suffered a fractured hip. These injuries and scheme changes have turned the Chargers' defense into a shell of it's former self, unable to holds leads and shut down the opposition, aided by...
9. Norv Turner's playcalling, especially an insistence on running the ball early and taking vertical shots downfield, has made it easier for opponents to keep the Chargers' offense off the field. With a struggling defense, logic dictates that the Chargers employ a short-to-medium range passing game at the outset of the game, gradually mixing in the run. This has several benefits: the offense gets into an early rhythm, the opposing defense stays on the field, your struggling defense has a better chance to play with a lead, and most importantly - in the Chargers' case - keeps your franchise quarterback from taking a pounding. The net effect is that the Chargers' struggling defense is on the field longer than normal, your offense has fewer possessions, and the opponent dictates the tempo of the game. Players are bound to lose faith in the coaching staff under these circumstances, and attempt to go beyond the scheme to make plays on their own - often compromising the scheme (especially on defense). This is compounded by...
10. Several Chargers players who are clearly more interested in using football as a stepping stone to celebrity or popularity, as opposed to letting their play make them stars. The most recent case is Merriman's now infamous incident with Tila Tequila, but it only the latest in a string of multiple off-field problems. There have been several instances involving alcohol, ranging from Foley's shooting by an off-duty police officer, WR Vincent Jackson's multiple DUI arrests, OLB Shaun Phillips being accused of battery in a nightclub after drinking, Jamal Williams' DUI, and most tragically, former SS Terrence Kiel, killed in a DUI accident after leaving a party. Also thrown into the mix is Cromartie's problem with keeping his package in his pants - 7 children by 5 different women (seriously dude, mix in a rubber or two)! Surely, Turner's reluctance (or ability) to hold players accountable is a factor, as well as Smith's arrogance filtering down into the locker room, as evidenced by the preponderance of trash talking by players on the Chargers' roster.
The question, going forward, is how to correct these problems and return the Chargers to prominence. I offer some suggestions below.
1. Dean Spanos must decide that Norv Turner and the coaching staff need to be replaced. This will force A.J. Smith to accept some responsibility. If Smith refuses, then Smith must sink with his handpicked coach. If the general manager must be replaced as well, I would suggest a couple of candidates: the aforementioned Buddy Nix, as well as Director of Player Personnel Chris Polian-from Indianapolis.
2. I suggest Jon Gruden as the next head coach, and (provided he is fired from Dallas) Wade Phillips to return as defensive coordinator. First, Gruden's Super Bowl-credentials carry immediate credibility in the locker room. Second, Gruden's best work as a head coach has come with a veteran QB like Rich Gannon or Brad Johnson - he has never had a franchise QB in his prime to run his offense. With Rivers running a variant on the Bill Walsh offense under Gruden, the Chargers should remain one of the top 10 offenses in the NFL (it should be noted that Rivers operated a spread variation of the Walsh offense at North Carolina State under offensive coordinator Norm Chow). Gruden will also certainly maintain a higher level of consistency, accountability, and attention to detail than Turner. Phillips, meanwhile, could reinstall the base 3-4 defense, and get the players back on the same page.
I might also consider Mike Shanahan for many of the same reasons as Gruden, but Shanahan's likely insistence on player personnel control is a turn-off, as Shanahan has struggled with both the draft and free agency.
3. Whomever the general manager is in San Diego next season, free agency and the draft must be used to upgrade the following positions; in order of importance:
- NT - The Chargers must find a successor to Jamal Williams. Even if Williams returns healthy next season, he will be entering his 12th season.
- RT - Jeromey Clary is a functional-at-best offensive lineman. This is the side of the Chargers' offensive line that is most successfully attacked by opposing defenses - witness the devastation Denver OLB Elvis Dumervil wrought once moved to Clary's side of the offense.
- C - Nick Hardwick is a terrific (and underrated) center, but he has had significant injury problems the last 2 seasons, and an adequate replacement must be groomed in the event he is unable to fully return to form. Addressing the C and RT positions will allow the Chargers to accurately assess the ability of current starter (and rookie) RG Louis Vasquez.
- DE - The Chargers do not have a true replacement for departed DE Igor Olshansky. The Chargers need another DE who can eat up space and tie-up multiple blockers in the run game.
- S - The Chargers have never found an adequate replacement for SS Rodney Harrison.
- Depth at the following positions must also be addressed: RB, TE, ILB, OT, OG
4. The following list of players needs to be resigned or extended:
- WR Vincent Jackson
- WR Malcom Floyd
- LT Marcus McNeill
- TE Antonio Gates
5. The following group of players needs to go:
- S Steve Gregory
- OLB Shawne Merriman
- RT Jeromey Clary
- WR Buster Davis
- WR Chris Chambers
6. The following group of players has 1 more year to prove they belong /can return to form /clean up their act on and off the field:
- CB Antonio Cromartie
- OLB Shaun Phillips
- DB Paul Oliver
- FB Jacob Hester
- CB Antoine Cason
- S Eric Weddle
- DE Luis Castillo
- ILB Stephen Cooper
If this seems extreme, just realize that what Denver did this offseason was no less extreme. As it turns out, it was also necessary.
I'm tired of watching the Chargers waste Hall-of-Fame talent on a succession of almost, but not quite good enough teams.
I'm tired of seeing this team destroyed by front-office ego clashes and immature athletes.
Please, Dean Spanos, don't waste great careers like LaDainian Tomlinson, or rising superstars like Philip Rivers, the way that Junior Seau, and Dan Fouts before him were wasted. Demanding the best starts with you. Demand better from your front office and coaches, and the players will fall in line. Otherwise, this will not only be the end of an era, but the beginning of the end... again.