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Do the San Diego Chargers have the most versatile offense in football?

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That's the question that's been bouncing around in my head the last few days.  I don't see how the answer could possibly be no. 

At first this started as a simple question in my head.  We know who the number 1 WR is.....but who's number 2?  Who's the slot receiver?  Are these positions that are up for grabs and nobody is talking about it?  Then, the more I thought about it, the more it all made sense.  If we're using the analogy of the offense being Norv Turner's "car", then AJ Smith has built for him a Hummer that can handle Porsche and out-race a Corvette.  No matter what he's looking to get out of his offense, the pieces are in place to compete.

An in-depth analysis, formation by formation, is after the jump.

It's common to hear about offensive formations.  It's even common to hear about which offensive formations certain offensive coaches like to use the most.  I say Joe Gibbs, you say "Two tight ends and a fullback."  I say Charlie Weis or Josh McDaniels and you say "Four and five wide receivers."  For most teams, the coach and the GM have an offensive philosophy that they choose and the team is built according to that philosophy.  An advantage the Chargers have is that they're built to fit all philosophies.


Joe Gibbs Package - 2 TEs, 2 RBs (1 FB)

Personnel: Let's start here.  We're going to be doing some head-counting.  The team fields 11 players, so with this package your personnel counts this way: 1 QB, 2 TEs, 2 RBs, 2 OGs, 1 C, 2 OTs, 1 WR.  ONE wide receiver.  In today's NFL, that seems nuts.  However, if you're game-planning and you notice that the opposition has a difficult time stopping the run, this formation may be fun to throw at them every so often.

What you need to run this formation effectively is a good offensive line, 2 tight ends that know how to block, at least 1 tight end that knows how to catch the ball and a FB with a nose for the right hole.  You also need a QB with a big arm who can occasionally take advantage of the secondary on a play-action.  When Gibbs came back to the Redskins he was handed a roster not built for this formation, so he had to adapt.  With no suitable FB, he was forced to play the formation with 2 WRs.  With Mark Brunell's lack of arm strength, he was forced to get REALLY creative just to keep the chains moving.  When you're trying to stick a square peg into a round hole, you can trick your way to limited success, but there's a reason that offense was in the bottom half amongst the NFL during Gibbs second stint in Washington.

Chargers: Joe Gibbs would be licking his chops to get a hold of this roster to run his offense.  You have one of the best pass-catching TEs in the league (Gates) with one of the best blocking TEs in the league (Manumaleuna).  You also have an improved offensive line (Dielman and Hardwick starting out healthy, RG spot improved) and a Hall of Fame RB in LaDainian Tomlinson.  Now, as your final piece, throw in a FB that loves to block, has a great nose for picking the right hole, has soft hands, has very good speed, it tough as nails and has experience running the ball. 

When Gibbs came back he utilized versatility.  Chris Cooley played the H-back role, moving around from FB to TE, and was a threat to block or catch a pass on any play.  The Chargers have TWO players like that in Hester and Manumaleuna.  With those two guys on the field you have potent blocking for a run play and good receivers on a pass play, so your personnel and formation is not tipping your hand.  That's exactly what every offensive coach wants.


Peyton Manning Special - 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB

Personnel: Nobody has figured out how to better-use this formation than Peyton and Tom Moore.  Ideally, here's what you want: A #1 WR with enough speed to stretch the defense on one side of the field and a slot receiver with enough speed to do the same on the other side (or down the middle).  The #2 receiver should be a precise route-runner with great hands and the TE should be a good blocker as well as a good receiver.  Just like all of these offensive formations, this one is fairly common and can be run without optimal players in these positions but it won't be nearly as effective.

The Colts were difficult to stop at their offensive apex because they ran everything so perfectly.  Harrison was precise and Wayne was a rocket.  However, Dallas Clark is what made the offense dynamic.  The year before he got there, the team went 10-6 but their offense was ranked 17th in the NFL.  The offense jumped to 2nd in the NFL in Clark's rookie season and stayed in the top 3 until last year.  The reason for this big jump is because Clark's abilities as a run blocker and a receiver allowed the Colts to further disguise what they were going to run when he was on the field.

Chargers: As I mentioned before, Vincent Jackson is our clear-cut #1 receiver but the #2 and #3 spots are not set in stone.  As a matter of fact, the #2 and #3 spots could be different people depending on the situation.  The players fighting for the #2 spot are Chris Chambers and Malcom Floyd.  They both have great hands, but Chambers is the better route runner and the more experienced of the two.  Also, with his second season-ending injury at the end of last season, the team may start viewing Floyd as an injury risk.  Unless Chambers blows it in training camp, this spot is his. 

Who is the slot receiver though?  Floyd would have to be the favorite, but Buster Davis and Legedu Naanee (both 3rd year guys) are challenging for the spot in training camp.  All three guys fit the requirements, and Naanee would be the most interesting due to his versatility.  As far as I know, he's the best blocker of the 3 candidates and a former college QB as well.  Wildcat, anyone?  I could see reverses and some decent running plays out of this formation with Naanee out there.  We'll see though.  I think Rivers likes Floyd too much for Norv to put him on the bench.

As a wild card, Manumaleuna is a good enough receiver that he could play the slot receiver occasionally.  Him being on the field would force the defense to think run, but a pass play could still be on.  It would probably work best if Floyd took Chambers spot at #2 to take advantage of the holes downfield.


Basic I Formation - 2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 RBs (1 FB)

Personnel: We're all familiar with this one because the Chargers have been running it as their most common formation for roughly a decade.  It makes sense, just look at their roster throughout those seasons.  Here's what you need for a Basic I.  A run-blocking FB, 1 deep threat WR and a TE with good hands.  Well, two out of three ain't bad.  Unfortunately, this is a dying formation because of the lack of run-blocking FBs left these days.

Chargers: The best thing Lorenzo Neal ever did for the Chargers, besides create giant holes for LT to run through, is prove to the team that FBs are still a valuable commodity in today's NFL.  That is why the Chargers overpaid for Jacob Hester.  Is he as good a blocker as Neal?  No, but Neal probably wasn't the world's greatest blocker when he was 23 either.  They knew that Hester filled a spot in their offense that made them different from other NFL teams.  He was the key to making them dynamic.  They were right.

Jacob Hester allows them to run the I formation as they want.  They can run out, throw out of it, run screens out of it, you name it.  The secondary has to respect the pass so VJ doesn't run past them, but they have to look for the run at the same time because, with 7 blockers (5 offensive linemen, TE, FB) again 4 linemen and 3 LBs (or visa versa), the running back can very easily end up in the secondary.  When they have to watch for both things, that's when you hit them for the big play-action.  When you have a FB and TE that can both block and catch, it creates doubt in the defense and big plays for the offense.


Spread Offense - 4 WR, 1 RB or 4 WR, 1 TE or 5 WR

Personnel: This is what a team runs when they don't have a lot of talent.  That's not meant to be an insult.  All you need to run an effective spread offense is 1 good receiver and a QB that can make quick decisions and accurate throws.  The more good receivers you can throw in the mix, the better it will typically turn out.

Chargers: I haven't had a chance to compliment Philip Rivers yet.  He's another very versatile player, because he is incredibly accurate (6th most accurate in 2008) and has a great arm (1st in yards per pass attempt in 2008).  When the offense needs to move the chains with 8 yard passes, he's your man.  When the offense needs to throw over the top for big plays, he's just as good.  He's the main reason the Chargers can run an effective spread offense.  However, Norv Turner doesn't use this formation often because then the defense knows for sure that you're passing.

Let's think of all the people the Chargers could put out there in a 5 WR set though.  VJ, Gates, Floyd, Chambers, Davis, Naanee, Osgood, Manumaleuna, Sproles, LT, Hester....and, I know it's a little premature, I think Kory Sperry is going to win the 3rd TE spot.  That's 12 guys.  Would you be nervous if I just randomly picked 5 of those guys and threw them out there with Rivers?  Me neither.