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The Curse of the Chargers Defensive Coordinator Position

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San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano  (left)n gives instruction during training camp at Charger Park.
San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano (left)n gives instruction during training camp at Charger Park.

After yesterday's post about why the San Diego Chargers should consider an eventual switch from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3, I thought I'd explain how difficult it is for the team to hold onto good Defensive Coordinators.

Playoff Contender

Let's not be ridiculous. Of course the Bolts are still playoff contenders. The players and coaching staff won't say it because they know it sounds silly after missing the playoffs the last two seasons. The media, both local and national, won't say it because they've been burned too many times by predicting the Chargers to get to the playoffs and go far once they've made it. However, the recipe for success is just a lucky bounce away.

To field a playoff team, the most important thing you need is a good QB. His 2011 slump aside, Philip Rivers has been one of the 10 best (if not 5 best) QBs in the league since taking over the starting job from Drew Brees. He has a Hall of Fame target in Antonio Gates that's not going anywhere and, despite a recurring foot injury, isn't dropping off the face of the earth in terms of product any time soon. They're backed by the legendary play-calling of Norv Turner, who has made bad offenses respectable and has kept the Chargers' offense in the top 5 (in terms of scoring) since joining the team in 2007.

Hitting on a draft pick, getting lucky or staying healthy might be all it takes to get the Bolts over the hump from "contender" to one of the league's elite teams. Stating or insinuating that all of those things are impossible is plain silliness.


As I just touched on, the offense is solid. It will score points and compete. It will move the ball with big plays and long drives. In the last two seasons, despite missing the playoffs, the Chargers offense has not been a problem. The issues have been on the defensive side of the ball and Special Teams.

Special Teams

After a disastrous 2011, the Chargers went out and hired Rich Bisaccia. Bisaccia is well-known around the league as one of the best Special Teams coaches in the league and he showed why, taking the unit from worst in the league to somewhere in the top 10 in terms of FG kicking, punting, punt coverage and kick coverage (the exception being the opening play of the season). Expect more of the same from that unit in 2012.


A.J. Smith finally gave in and played around in the free agency pool this offseason. The team was lacking OLBs, so he signed Jarret Johnson to go with first round draft pick Melvin Ingram. The MLB unit is bolstered by the return of last year's second round pick Jonas Mouton. The defensive line also got two starting-quality additions in Aubrayo Franklin (free agency) and Kendall Reyes (draft). To fill the lone weak spot in the secondary (Strong Safety), Smith signed Atari Bigby and drafted Brandon Taylor. Backup plans on backup plans.

John Pagano

Mr. Pagano has no excuses. Here's why:

  • He's essentially working with the same defensive players and the same defensive scheme that has been in San Diego since the days of Wade Phillips. He's not installing a new system, nor is he having to form new relationships with most of the roster.
  • There is layered talent at every position, so injuries shouldn't be a reasonable excuse. John's brother, Chuck, has shown that there's nothing wrong with the bloodline.
  • The offense certainly won't be hanging the defense out to dry, as they can be counted on to put up points and burn some clock.

It's somewhat of a win-lose situation for Chargers fans. If Pagano and the Chargers defense improves, as they should, Pagano's praise will be more than if he had done a similarly good job in....let's say Cleveland. He'll be talked about more because of his brother, he'll be seen on national TV more because the Chargers will be a contender (and possibly a playoff participant) and by time the offseason rolls around he'll be rumored as a possible candidate for open Head Coaching positions in the NFL as well as college football. As with Ron Rivera, any Defensive Coordinator that is able to bring the Bolts' defense up to a respectable level will get extra attention because there won't be a bad offense or bad special teams unit dragging him down and making his unit appear worse than it actually is, nor will he get buried by being on a team that doesn't get enough attention by the national media.


There's one of two outcomes from this season for the Chargers, their defense and their fans. Either John Pagano and the new talent are the final piece of the puzzle, and the Chargers get back to the playoffs (leading to Head Coaching opportunities for Pagano in 2013 or 2014), or Pagano is no better than Greg Manusky and he gets canned at the end of the year along with A.J. Smith and Norv Turner.

I think there are a lot of Chargers fans out there that would be equally happy by either one of those scenarios. Myself, keeping long-term planning in mind, wish there were some way that the team could bring in a successful Defensive Coordinator without the risk of losing him after a year or two to a better opportunity.