I came up with this idea when chatting with David Fucillo from Niners Nation last week: Could the 2013 San Diego Chargers have the same type of turnaround as the 2011 San Francisco 49ers? Well, it's scary how comparable the two teams are when those points in their respective histories cross.
The New Coach
Jim Harbaugh took over as Head Coach of the 49ers in 2011 after Mike Singletary was let go by the team. He had never been an NFL Head Coach before, and many wondered if his fiery personality would clash with professional athletes.
Mike McCoy took over as Head Coach of the Chargers in 2013, after Norv Turner was let go by the team. He had never been an NFL Head Coach before, and many wonder if the way he has handled the media during his first training camp is a sign that he's not ready for his new job.
The Old Quarterback
Alex Smith was coming off a season in which he led the 49ers to a 3-7 record in 10 starts, throwing 14 touchdown passes while turning the ball over 12 times. He was sacked 2.5 times per game. The media was surprised when new coach John Harbaugh said that he would work with Smith, instead of trying to bring in a QB of his own, in 2011.
Smith finished 2011 with a 13-3 record, scoring 19 touchdowns against just 7 turnovers, despite being sacked 2.75 times per game. His completion percentage jumped three points, and he finished with 800 more passing yards than the year before.
Philip Rivers is coming off a season in which he led the Chargers to a 7-9 record, throwing 26 touchdown passes while turning the ball over 22 times. He was sacked 2.875 times per game. Due to his current contract situation, and his past success, new coach Mike McCoy is tasked with trying to "fix" Rivers in 2013 the same way that Harbaugh "fixed" Smith in 2011.
The Cursed Linebacker
I didn't want to do this, but...
CIN (2002): 2-14
CIN (2003): 8-8
BUF (2006): 7-9
BUF (2007): 7-9
PHI (2007): 8-8
PHI (2008): 9-6-1
SF (2010): 6-10
SF (2011): 13-3
That, right there, is a list of the teams that Takeo Spikes has played on in the NFL. The first year is his last year with the team, and the second year is the team's first year after his departure. This is the most strawman argument that has ever existed, but you can't deny that teams seem to (randomly) get better after Spikes is replaced.
Spikes was on the Chargers last year, but is currently a free agent.
The biggest change that Harbaugh made to the 49ers defense was probably getting rid of Greg Manusky. The Chargers tried to do that same thing last year, but John Pagano was still stuck with the old veteran players that A.J. Smith thought could make the defense run.
- Out goes veteran-who-shouldn't-ever-be-starting safety Atari Bigby, replaced by young-and-exciting Marcus Gilchrist or young-and-exciting Brandon Taylor.
- Out goes veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes, replaced by young-and-exciting Manti Te'o.
- Out goes veteran defensive end Vaughn Martin, replaced by young-and-exciting Kendall Reyes.
- Out goes veteran nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, replaced by young-and-exciting Cam Thomas.
- Out goes veteran cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, replaced by young-and-exciting players in Derek Cox and Shareece Wright.
Do you see where I'm going with this? Pagano, who wasn't terrible last year (no matter what Jerome says) running a defense made of spare parts, seems to finally have a defense (at least at the top level) that is made up of young, exciting talent that fits his defense.
How did the 49ers turn their defense around so drastically from 2010 to 2011 (going from 16th to 2nd in points allowed)? Well....
- Out went shouldn't-ever-be-starting safety Reggie Smith, replaced by young-and-exciting free agent Donte Whitner.
- Out went veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes, replaced by young-and-exciting NaVorro Bowman.
- Out went veteran nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, replaced by youngish Ray McDonald. McDonald had been a backup on Singletary's team, but was useful once Isaac Sopoaga was moved over from DE to NT to take Franklin's place.
- Out went veteran cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements, replaced by Tarrell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Vic Fangio is now starting to get some depth in San Francisco, but when he arrived in San Francisco he knew the only way the defense could be good was to keep the starters on the field as much as possible. The 49ers almost never subbed in players on defense, and got incredibly lucky with health along the way. The Chargers should adopt this plan in 2013.
Comparable for days
You could do this for a while. There are tons of comparable players and coaches between these two teams. Before the season starts, and we learn what kind of a team the Chargers actually are, let us dream and convince ourselves that they could end up being as good as the 2011 49ers.