After years of finding star defensive players through the draft, and actually retaining them, it's time for the identity of the San Diego Chargers to shift from that of an offensive team to a defensive one.
I had a thought yesterday about the San Diego Chargers and their changing image. Long gone is the gruff former-genius General Manager, and his handpicked repeated-failure-of-a-Head-Coach went out the door right behind him. The new face is young, unproven and confident.
Mike McCoy, former Offensive Coordinator of the Denver Broncos, is now the Head Coach. It's his first go-around as Head Coach. He hired Ken Whisenhunt, recently fired from being the Arizona Cardinals' Head Coach, as the team's Offensive Coordinator. He has only been an Offensive Coordinator in title for 3 of his 16 seasons as an NFL coach. Those things only happened because Team President Dean Spanos hired Tom Telesco, who has never been a GM before, to be his General Manager. The air is filled with hope, but the rustling through the trees sounds vaguely like someone whispering "There's no proof that this will work."
Still, these things are besides the point. The identity of the team, the face of the franchise, is on the players, the style and the effectiveness of the team on Sundays. The Chargers were never "Marty Schottenheimer", they were a team with a great offensive line and a Hall of Fame running back. The team that made it to the AFC Championship was not "Norv Turner", it was a squad that had taken its former identity and added to it a Hall of Fame Tight End and a fearsome pass-rush.
The "identity" of the San Diego Chargers for the last few years has been muddled. Has it been Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and a once-dominant passing attack? Well, yeah, but only because everything else (rushing attack, defense) has been somewhere between terrible and mediocre. In the last month of the 2012 season, that changed. A new identity was starting to form, but on the opposite side of the ball from where many were looking for it.
With injuries to Vaughn Martin and Aubrayo Franklin, the Chargers' defensive line was even younger than it was thin. The starting group was Corey Liuget, Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes. Liuget started all season, but Thomas was viewed as a situational Nose Tackle. Reyes was a rookie that was still earning his way into the rotation before Martin's injury.
What happened over that last month, with these three on the line, was nothing short of dominating. The Defensive Ends combined for 6.5 sacks in just four games and they helped hold the Jets and Steelers to just 69 total rushing yards each. With Vaughn Martin hitting free agency in a few weeks, expect to see more of this trio on the field in 2013.
Quick, name all of the Outside Linebackers on the 2012 Chargers that had more than 1 sack for the season. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Done? Got yourself a nice little list in your head? Well, then, let's see how wrong you were:
Now, guess which of those four guys are Unrestricted Free Agents in just a few weeks. Yup, Phillips and Barnes. Phillips isn't likely to return and Barnes would continue to be a situation player if he were to return. If the Chargers' defense is going to do anything in 2013, it's going to need a pass rush. If it's going to get a pass rush, it's going to need to come from Melvin Ingram. No pressure or anything, rook.
The good news about the Linebackers on this team is that between Ingram and Donald Butler, there's a ton of potential. One could argue that Butler (who had 3 sacks in 2012, by the way) might be the best player on the Chargers' defense or the entire roster, for that matter. Once you start looking at a team and saying "Their 3 best players are all on defense", or "Their best position group might be their defensive line", you know that the offense has started to take a back seat and the identity of the team has shifted.
Mr. Eric Weddle was signed to a contract that many fans believed was too large a few years ago. However, A.J. Smith actually knew what he was doing with this one. Weddle was then showing signs of being one of the league's best Safeties, and it could be argued that he's now ascended to being the best in the league. Between himself a Butler, the debate over which player on the roster has the most talent doesn't even get to the offensive side of the ball anymore.
Sure, there's some barren cabinets. The Cornerback spots are currently big question marks. Strong Safety is a position that hasn't been right since the days of a dominant Chargers pass rush. These are not necessarily bad things, because whoever fills these spots (free agents or rookies) are going to generate excitement and hope from the fanbase. That's the opposite of the offensive side of the ball, where the major spots (QB, WR, TE, RB) are pretty much set in stone with guys that we already know and can already see the flaws in.
While it may be true that the new Head Coach has an offensive background and probably has "Fix Philip Rivers" high on his list of priorities, due to the unbalanced drafting of the last few years this has become a defensive team. The sooner the coaching staff admits to that, the better off everyone will be.