Back in 2007, I had a crazy idea: Michael Turner should be getting as many snaps/touches as LT. For all the talk about a running back hitting the age of 30 and heading downhill, I looked at the pounding LaDainian Tomlinson was taking and knew he wouldn't last much longer unless he had someone to split carries with.
Turner, who had averaged 5.9 YPC in 2005 and 6.3 YPC in 2006, was never given a larger piece of the rushing offense and eventually left for the Atlanta Falcons, where has a reliable starter for five seasons and made it to the Pro Bowl twice.
In those five seasons, Turner finished with 6,000+ rushing yards and 60 rushing TDs. Tomlinson played in four of those seasons, totaling 3,000+ rushing yards and 30 rushing TDs. They should've been putting up those numbers together, as a "Thunder and Lightning" combination out of the San Diego backfield, but LT didn't want to give up on the idea of being a star in the NFL yet.
I bring this up because I want to sound less crazy when I say that Ladarius Green should be getting as many snaps/targets as Antonio Gates. While the first month of the season was a great one for the future Hall of Famer, he's been decidedly below average in the last five games and stealing playing time away from a young player that looks to have the potential to be the next Antonio Gates.
Here's what Ladarius did yesterday:
Ladarius Green - 1 catch (1 target), 25 rec yds
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the other time Green was targeted, he caught a 23 yard pass that was called back due to a holding penalty on King Dunlap.
Over the course of nine games, Green has been targeted by Philip Rivers 10 times. Here's what his stat line looks like this season:
7 catches (10 targets), 148 rec yds (21.1 yards per catch)
Now, try to guess who the following stat lines belong to
- Player A: 6 catches (11 targets), 169 rec yds (24.8 yards per catch)
- Player B: 9 catches (10 targets), 143 rec yds (15.9 yards per catch), 1 rec TD
- Player C: 6 catches (10 targets), 53 rec yds (8.8 yards per catch)
Any guesses? Alright, well since I can't hear you, I'll let you know who the mystery players are.
Player A, the only one on the Chargers with more yards per catch than Green this season, is Malcom Floyd. Those are his stats for 2013, a season in which he only played about six quarters worth of football. His value as the team's deep threat has been greatly missed, and Vincent Brown has proved to be an unsuitable replacement on intermediate routes so far.
Player B is Rob Gronkowski's last game, in the Patriots' 55-31 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gronk, fresh off an arm injury that kept him out most of the last year and a half, was targeted more than any other Patriots receiver and finished as the team leader in catches, receiving yards and total yards from scrimmage. Ladarius Green offers a similar size and skillset as Gronkowski.
Player C is the last game in which Antonio Gates was targeted 10 times, against the Washington Redskins. Despite Green being targeted 10 times total in 9 games this season, Gates has been targeted 10+ times in four separate games this year (the Chargers are 2-2 in those games, if you're wondering).
Filling the Gaps
This is not a takedown of Antonio Gates. I love Antonio Gates. If the Chargers wanted to retire his number tomorrow, I'd be all for it. He's been a great player, teammate and he's a really good guy to boot. He's also one of the most reliable weapons the team has on 3rd & 5. However, there's a certain element missing from this Chargers offense.
The only deep threat left is Keenan Allen, and the only intermediate threat that teams have to be aware of anymore is Eddie Royal. Vincent Brown is easily covered 1-on-1 with a decent cornerback because there is no fear that he's going to get by them for a big play. They're smothering him.
What I saw yesterday from the Denver Broncos was something I don't think I've ever seen. They regularly double-covered Keenan Allen, and offered plenty of support on Eddie Royal, and dared the Chargers to beat them with 1-on-1 matchups against Antonio Gates, Vincent Brown and Danny Woodhead. I suppose the idea being that, even if one of those guys catches the ball, the Denver defense is still avoiding the big play. The added benefit being that, if Rivers got impatient and looked for something downfield, the added coverage would give the pass rush enough time to get to him (you can blame the 4 sacks given up on that more than King Dunlap and Nick Hardwick leaving the game).
It's Time for a Change
Good coaches come up with good plans, and when the opposing team eventually figures out how to stop that plan, they come up with a good counterpunch. Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt had an excellent plan coming into the season, but nine games in it appears that teams have started to figure it out. Stop Allen, Stop Royal, Stop Mathews and they're done.
Gates was targeted 8 times yesterday, catching four passes for 62 yards. He was the team's leading receiver, and was targeted far more than anyone else on the team. Antonio's last touchdown, and his last 100+ yard game, came on September 29th against the Dallas Cowboys. It was also, coincidentally, the last time the Chargers scored more than 24 points after doing it in three of the first four games of the 2013 season.
I won't even get into the fact that the Chargers are wasting years of Green's rookie contract, which is up after 2015, because they're hoping that Gates retires at the end of his current contract, which is up after 2015, in a plan that is almost assured to blow up in their faces. I'm just talking about 2013.
Gates isn't the same player he used to be. He's lost that half-step that he has always needed to be one of the league's top tight ends. His diminishing receiving skills are making his (really, really bad) run blocking skills more prevalent. In short, since that game against the Cowboys, #85 just hasn't been very good and the offense seems confused when they're not facing soft defense and/or the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If the 2013 season is going to be salvageable, it's going to be because the team adds a playmaker. Someone that can be the deep threat Malcom Floyd was, the intermediate threat that Vincent Brown isn't, and a mismatch against any single defensive player. We've seen what happens when Ladarius Green gets on the field and defenses try and cover him with single coverage. It's obvious that he would completely change the offense and the way opposing coaches have to approach stopping it.
23-year-old Ladarius Green was on the field for 22 of the Chargers' 75 offensive snaps yesterday, a high for the season for him but not his career high. Green was a receiver, out in coverage running a route, on just 8 of those plays.
By comparison, 33-year-old Antonio Gates was on the field for 66 of the Chargers' 75 offensive snaps and was a receiver on 38 of those plays.
The only offensive players that played less snaps for the Chargers yesterday than Green were John Phillips (who is now very obviously the team's 3rd TE), Ronnie Brown (3rd string RB, only in due to Ryan Mathews' injury) and Le'Ron McClain (who left the game with an injury). That's not going to cut it.
Ideally, I'd like to see a whole new offense against the Miami Dolphins next week. Le'Ron McClain will probably miss the game, and the offensive line is obviously struggling to stay healthy, so I would like to see a lot of 2-TE and 3-TE sets.
Imagine if the Chargers came out with Ladarius Green on one end of the line, Antonio Gates on the other, and John Phillips as the H-Back/Fullback in front of Danny Woodhead. Now imagine that personnel in a hurry-up offense. You could replace Phillips with Keenan Allen on the outside if you want and it becomes even more dynamic.
Green has earned more playing time, and whether it comes at the expense of Antonio Gates or Vincent Brown doesn't really matter to me. What does matter is that, despite a change at Head Coach and GM, the Chargers still seem stuck in the old fashion world of "You win playing time in training camp, not during the season". I wonder what this team would look like, and what Keenan Allen would be doing, had Floyd and Danario Alexander stayed healthy.