Being the General Manager in the NFL is a balancing act. You're responsible for balancing the checkbook, keeping balance in the locker room and balancing the level of talent/dollars on each side of the football. Probably the most important job a GM has, though, is balancing contracts (dollars/years) against the production of a player.
Every player basically fits the same career mold. They come into the league young, get better each year and eventually reach their "peak". Nobody really knows how long that player will perform at his "peak", but eventually he's going to start to decline because of the wear & tear his body takes.
The speed of the decline can almost be predicted by the position the player plays. For defensive backs, it can be a very gradual decline (Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey, Darren Sharper, Charles Woodson). For running backs, it can be a very dramatic decline (LaDainian Tomlinson, Eddie George, Edgerrin James). The fact of the matter is, it's up to the General Manager to see that decline coming and decide "We can't give this guy a 5 year contract because his body will break down in 2." It's a tough job to do, and the numbers say that AJ Smith did a perfect job in predicting the rapid decline of Stephen Cooper.
I know amongst us stat geeks there has been some debate about ProFootballFocus.com and their rating system. I happen to think it's every bit as qualified as other similar sites, but the debate is not needed in this instance. I would like to compare Stephen Cooper to himself, looking at how he's rated overall, against the run and in pass coverage in the last three seasons according to their system.
Now, again, these rankings don't mean a ton. In fact, Football Outsiders (who don't have up their 2009 numbers on Cooper yet) says that Stephen Cooper was better at stopping the run in 2008 than he was in 2007. However, I think when FO's 2009 numbers come out they will show a similar drop-off in production for Cooper. Even the average football fan can tell you that Stephen didn't have a very good season, and it was mostly due to him not being able to physically do the things he used to do. He's not as fast or as strong as he was a year or two ago. Logic tells us that as he continues to age (he'll be 31 by the start of next season), his production will not go back up.
So what are the Chargers to do? Well, contract-wise they're in a pretty good spot. Cooper is under contract for only one more season, and is due $2.875 million. That puts him at the level of somebody like Takeo Spikes or Kawika Mitchell. There's no doubt that the team will pay that in 2010 to keep their defensive captain, but I think it's just as likely that Stephen Cooper will be looking for work elsewhere in 2011.
The question I'm asking is....what should the Chargers do in the interim?
Bench Him: This idea has some merit. Brandon Siler (16.1 overall according to PFF) and Kevin Burnett (7.0) outperformed Stephen Cooper in 2009. They're both young (Siler is a surprisingly young 24) and talented, and could be the ILB of the future for the Chargers. Making them starters, and getting them more snaps, would probably be the smart move for 2010 and the future. Cooper and Tim Dobbins would still be rotated in occasionally.
The issues with this are with the locker room and leadership. Cooper is a defensive leader and was the only defensive captain to be playing most of last season (the other captain was Jamal Williams). He's also the guy with the headset who relays plays from the coaches to the rest of the team. Ron Rivera has referred to Cooper as his "coach on the field". Putting him on the bench would require somebody else to not only step into the role of play-caller, but they would need to be responsible for pre-snap adjustments and have some leadership qualities as well. Could Siler be that guy? Maybe, but the fact that he'd essentially be a first-year starter would make it hard. Burnett is in the same boat, even though it would officially be his second year as a starter. Eric Weddle is a possibility, because he's very intelligent, but nobody can be sure what type of leader he is.
Start Him: Obviously, the benefits and risks of this move are the opposite of benching him. You're risking defensive productivity because it would appear that Cooper no longer has the skills to play the position. Also, in addition to possibly stunting the growth of Burnett and/or Siler by taking that position, the following year the team would have to scramble to assign a new play-caller and defensive captain. Doing it before the 2010 season, and having Cooper support the move (which he most likely will), would make both transitions easier.
The biggest benefit to starting him is the trust Rivera has in him. Pre-snap reads and adjustments are Cooper's specialty, and nobody questions 54's toughness since he's playing with a painful injury about 90% of the time. You know what you get with Cooper's intangibles, but you risk seeing the same or worse on-the-field performance from him again in 2010. Having weak-links on the field, especially in the middle of the defense, just for the intangibles is a questionable move.
Trade/Cut Him: I'll throw this out there because it's an option, but realistically it's not. The best you could hope to get for Cooper is a 6th round draft pick, and the move would probably end up pissing off a lot of players on the team.
The benefit of this move is that it would free up a roster position for a young ILB, possibly a rookie, that could be groomed as the eventual replacement for Burnett (who is only under contract for 2 more seasons and will be 29 when the contract expires). Right now, a player like Darry Beckwith or somebody picked up in the draft would be the 5th or 6th LB and would either get cut in pre-season or be buried on the depth chart.
Conclusion: This decision is one that needs to be made by a braintrust. AJ Smith, Norv Turner and Ron Rivera need to sit down and discuss each of the possible options and how it coincides with their vision of the ILB spot going forward. Do they want to put Cooper out there, hope he plays better in 2010, and then try the transition without him in 2011? Would they prefer to make him a backup, and put him on the sidelines so that he can help to teach the kids for a season before leaving? What other options do they have for play-callers/captains in this defense?
If I'm those guys.....well, you know what I'd do. I almost always go the route of putting proven young talent on the field instead of aging veterans. In 2010, I'd like to see Siler be on the field for around 1,000 snaps instead of less than 400. I'd like to see the team fully support Kevin Burnett at the other spot, with Stephen Cooper serving as the backup plan. I'd like to see how Eric Weddle handles the role of play-caller in the preseason. If Cooper's age, and contract, are most likely going to force a divorce in a year....why not start getting used to him not being around this season?