The Identity Crisis that is Killing the Chargers.

There are many different ways to operate a sports team.  Some are aggressive, some are conservative.  Some are physical, some are finesse.  However, the teams that always have the most success are the ones that embody two of sports' best known cliches.

Successful teams have "an established identity," that gives them the ability to "impose their will" on their opponents.

In the next couple of sections, I want to expand on these ideas by providing specific examples, before explaining how this affects the San Diego Chargers.

More below the jump, lots and lots more (I apologize in advance if it seems like rambling)...

Understanding cliches.

When we speak of "an established identity", it means simply that a team is known for doing something with particularly great skill or frequency, so much so that said skill or frequency of incident becomes associated with that team.

When we speak of "imposing your will," it's often conveys a physical, brutish style that beats opponents into submission.  However, imposing your will can come in any manner of forms, physical and conservative, or finesse with aggressive, or any other combination you can come up with.   What, "imposing your will" means to me, is that whatever style you play, whatever strategy you use, you are the team that is dictating the flow of action. 

Traditional Models. The St. Louis Rams of 1999-2003 and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The St. Louis Rams were known for employing a fast paced offense, designed to score easy points by exploiting defenses who could not match up with the speed and skill of their receivers, or the accuracy of their quarterback.  They were also known for not having a great defense... the idea was to lure opponents into playing a fast-paced, high scoring game.

The Rams imposed their will by baiting opponents into high scoring games.  Their scoring came in large, fast bunches, and baited opponents into trying to match them score for score.  The usual result was either a high scoring Rams victory, because you could not beat them at their game, or a blowout victory because the opponent didn't have the ability to keep pace. 

The end result is an opposing offense that forces the action, leading to mistakes.   The opposing defense is worn down mentally by having to make constant adjustments and chasing the opposition.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, since the early 1990s , have relied on an  attacking defense, coupled with an opportunistic offense to impose their will on opponents.  Their defense, a 3-4 "zone blitz" scheme attacks the QB, while at the same time confusing the QB by varying the type of coverage played (zone or man) as well as the players blitzing the QB.  The Steelers' offense relies on a short passing game and tough running game to control the clock, while also taking quick strikes when the opportunity arises. 

The end result is an opposing offense that is beaten up and confused, leading to mistakes.   The opposing defense is physically worn down by constantly being on the field.

The "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams and current Steelers prove that it doesn't matter whether you are a finesse team or a power team, but they also point to a method of winning that is as old as sports itself - you win by doing what you do best.  When you saw these teams, the game plans described above are what you expected every time you saw them.  The only variation comes from identifying the specific weaknesses these teams see in their opponent and wish to exploit.

By the way, this tradition goes back to the 1960s Green Bay Packers, with their famous toss sweep, the 1970s Steelers with their Cover 2 defense, the 1980s San Francisco 49ers with the Walsh Offense, and the 1990s Denver Broncos with their Zone Running game.  These teams won because they stuck to a philosophy that maximized their players' abilities,  executed it with precision, and they drafted (or signed) players who fit their "established identity" like round pegs in round holes.

A New Model.  The New England Patriots.

This trend came to a kind of halt in the 2000s, as Head Coach Bill Belichick built an anomalous dynasty in New England.  Belichick's philosophy was grounded in a dynamically different vision of how to operate a team.  There is no overarching philosophy behind what the Patriots do, rather they vary their philosophy depending on 2 factors - what their players do best, and what their opponent does best.

In other words, what you see from the Patriots this week is likely not what you will see next week.

As an example, during the first 2 weeks of the 2011 season, you see the Patriots frequently employing a 2 TE offense.   Their two TEs create mismatches against most defenses, meanwhile, their WRs are more quick than fast, adept at finding holes in zone defense or quickly beating press coverage.   The Patriots are the INVERSE of traditional offensive design.  Their WRs are used to move the chains and control the clock, while the TEs are used to generate big plays down the field - a splendid example of innovative coaching.

If an opponent is designed to the throw the ball, the Patriots may use a defense that employs only 2 defensive linemen - to force their opponent to do something that they are either not comfortable with, or not as good at (see Super Bowl 39 vs. Philadelphia as a best example).  The following week, against a team that is designed to run the ball, the Patriots may employ a 4 man defensive front, to force a running team to pass the ball. 

One other critical factor in the Patriots success is that the Patriots are routinely better than almost every other team in situational decision-making.  The Patriots are not necessarily more talented than their opponents, but they are coached hard on making smart decisions in critical situations.  The Patriots understand better than anyone else that only handful of plays can determine the outcome of games, and they work hard at winning those plays.

The "established identity" of the Patriots is to turn an opponent's strength into a weakness, causing the opponent to make mistakes by one of two means: doing things that they're not particularly skilled at, or attempting to force the action on the Patriots' terms (like the 2 INTs Philip Rivers threw last Sunday).   By dictating what they allow an opponent to do, and capitalizing on mistakes, the Patriots "impose their will."

The San Diego Chargers' identity is run first, use play action, and play physical defense... right?

Now, thinking of the examples above, what are the answers to the following questions?

  • What is the established identity of the San Diego Chargers?
  • How do the Chargers seek to impose their will on opponent?

Nominally, we might say that the Chargers are a team that is designed to win games offensively by balancing a physical runnning game with a vertical passing game.  As for the defense, the Chargers are a team that is designed to contain an opponent's running game, and blitz the QB when the opponent is forced to pass the ball.  Sounds good, right? 

During Marty Schotteheimer's time in San Diego, and Norv Turner's first 2 seasons, this was our identity.  Through the skill of our players, we imposed our will, in most of 2004, parts of 2005, almost all of 2006 and the latter half of 2007. In fact, it was our failure to adhere to this identity that partially resulted in our playoff loss to New England in January 2007 (LaDainian Tomlinson touched the ball 9 times in the 2nd half, which we lead for all but the last 90 seconds or so).

The Chargers, to this very day, would maintain that this is their identity.  But that hasn't been true since January 2009.

The Chargers True Identity.  A Spread Pass Offense?  Wait... what?!

Since December of 2008, the Chargers have not been physical enough on offense to balance the run with the pass in the manner described above.  On defense, they are not physical enough to contain a good running game, nor do they have the skill players necessary to blitz the QB and force mistakes in the passing game.   And whether Norv Turner, A.J. Smith, or anyone else in the building realizes (or wants to admit) it, the Chargers are no longer capable of maintaining that identity.

In fact, out of necessity, the way forward was shown to us in 2009.  We all remember this as Tomlinson's last (and injury riddled) year in San Diego.  As a result, the Chargers shifted their orientation towards a pass-first offense, gradually mixing in enough 1st half runs to set-up play action.  The idea was let Philip Rivers build a lead, and let the defense work off the lead.  Then, in 4th quarter, with the game in hand, the Chargers could run out the clock.  Looking back to 2009, most of the Chargers' best games fit this pattern: a sweep of Kansas City, 2nd half wins against the Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, and Tennessee Titans

Of course, we shelved this identity just in time for our playoff loss to the New York Jets (17 of Rivers' 40 pass attempts were in the 4th quarter).

Our best games in 2010 also fit this pattern.  In every single one of these games, the Chargers largely imposed their will on their opponents.  They made less mistakes.  I would argue that this is the Chargers current identity, and there's one major problem.  Ever since Christmas of 2009, the Chargers have rejected this identity in favor of the old identity, and the old identity no longer works.

Look at these statistics from 2010, taken from the Football Outsiders 2009, 2010, and 2011 Alamanacs:

  • 2008:  The Chargers ranked 29th in league average of plays run with 3+ receivers, and 28th with 4+ receivers.  The Chargers had a 55/45 pass/run split on plays from that year, and led the NFL in passing DVOA, while ranking 18th in rushing DVOA.
  • 2009:  The Chargers ranked 31st in league average of plays run with 3+ receivers, and 19th with 4+ receivers.  The Chargers had a 59/41 pass/run split on plays from that year, and led the NFL in passing DVOA with more than 3 receivers, while ranking 32nd in rushing DVOA.
  • 2010:  The Chargers ranked 32nd in league average of plays run with 3+ receivers, and 21st with 4+ receivers.  The Chargers had a 59/41 pass/run split on plays from that year, and led the NFL in passing DVOA with more than 3 receivers (even with all the injuries and Jackson's absence), while ranking 18th in rushing DVOA.

Now consider this information, taken from the article earlier this week reviewing the Chargers playcalling and formation usage in the loss to New England.

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills here...11 personnel is by far the most successful formation.  It borders on unstoppable when Floyd is in the game, since both Jackson and Floyd have shown they can catch the ball even if they are covered.  Even without Floyd and with two very inexperienced receivers, 11 personnel continued to be successful.  Yet for some reason, Norv refuses to use the 11 personnel grouping unless his back is up against the wall or if he is in the 2 min drill. This personnel grouping spreads out the defense and if they try to shut down Gates (as the Pats did), they will get killed by WR's and RB's (as the Pats did).

 

If the Pats game taught us anything, it is that the hurry-up offense is incredibly successful when the defense cannot match up against your personnel group.  I am not a coach and absolutely not experienced at all with calling football plays, but the difference that I saw between the Chargers and the Pats yesterday is that the Pats found something that worked offensively and exploited it until the defense found a way to stop it.  The Chargers, meanwhile, found something that worked, but kept switching away from it.

 

Here are some numbers from Orz's spreadsheet, which is wonderful:

 

  • 9.93 yards per attempt (with 3 dropped passes).
  • 19.86 yards per completion.
  • 6 1st downs.

In this case, the statistics are not misleading, and match what we have seen on the field the last 2+ years.  The Chargers are not a running team.  They are a passing team, and a great one at that.

Conclusions:

In my opinion, the Chargers will continue to struggle, especially in the 1st half of games until they realize that this is a pass first, pass second, and pass third offense.  You can mix in some runs for play-action purposes, otherwise, you have to put the ball in Philip Rivers' hands, spread the field and let him build a lead that our otherwise shaky defense can play behind.  Once you get that lead, then use the run to shorten the game and limit opposing opportunities.

Enough with the "establishing the run" garbage, as it creates nothing but stalled drives, creates more opportunities for the opponent, and leads to mistakes and 2nd half deficits, while wearing down our already non-elite defense.

If step one toward becoming a legitimate championship team is establishing an identity, then the best and simplest way is to feature what you do best.  It can't help but increase the confidence of the players and coaches knowing that what they're doing will work.  It probably helps to limit mistakes.  The next step is to impose your will, and the Chargers have shown the last 2 years and 2 games that they cannot be stopped when they adopt this identity.

Sticking to a philosophy is fine when you have the players to execute it, or if that philosophy fits what your players do best.  Sticking to a philosophy when it doesn't maximize your players' potential is a fireable offense.

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