With a new offensive minded Head Coach, and an offensive coordinator that is known as a guru when it comes to "X's & O's", just how good can the San Diego Chargers offense be in 2013? Vastly improved form last season, or just moderately improved? Let's first take a quick look at the nightmare season the offense had in 2012.
Last year the Chargers averaged 4.8 yards per play, which was tied for the 3rd worst in the NFL. The teams that were either tied or worse than the Chargers were teams quarterbacked by Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Lindley/John Skelton, and Mark Sanchez. So, yeah, that should paint the picture for you.
The system was out of place, as we all know by now. There were just far too many objectives to overcome for what last year's head coach was asking this offense to be. The thought process of having an offense be successful based on a power running game that sets up play action passes is a good idea, but there was an issue with that...
The Chargers were 21st in rushing attempts and 28th in rushing yards a game last year. If you don't run the ball, you don't give your offense an opportunity to hit it big on the play action passes. The defense doesn't bite, so there's no big plays like we were used to seeing in years past. The quarterback still tries to make something happen, and turnover.
It was quite the domino effect last year. Puzzling play calling (Rivers had one of the worst completion differentials when throwing without play action, 65%, and with play action, 58%) that led to questionable decision-making by the quarterback (Rivers completed 43% of his passes while under pressure).
It can't get much worse
A big problem last year for the offense was that they weren't very good on the standard downs (1st down, 2nd & 6 or less, 3rd & 4 or less) and there's a "theory" to this that some may agree or disagree with, but I feel like it's very fitting for what the issue was last year.
The theory goes as "Standard downs are the game planning and execution downs, and passing downs are the 'Hey QB, go make a play' downs." The lack of running game, or early down completions, led to 2nd or 3rd and long, giving the defense a large advantage. The offense just couldn't dig themselves out of those holes. Last year was also one of the first years I can recall where Rivers wasn't consistently making plays, and it showed.
Enter Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt.
From the minute they drafted D.J. Fluker, you knew that this team was going to change the way they went about things. No more games where Ryan Mathews carries the ball less than 20 times, which happened in 9 of the 12 games he played in last year. As you've noticed in the preseason, they're going to run it to the right, and run it often. Mathews had 9 carries in a quarter of action against the Bears, and 14 carries in a half against the Cardinals.
The focus on the running game should help out everyone. It takes the pressure off of Philip Rivers from having to convert 3rd and unmanageable, it gives the defense a rest, and it makes like easier on Whisenhunt, where the odds of converting 3rd & 5 is very obtainable instead of 3rd & >8 where someone on offense has to make a play.
Rivers has stated that all camp the message from his new coaches has been "take what they give you." I think that's been evident early on. They haven't taken shots downfield at all during the preseason. I'm sure Malcom Floyd being out had something to do with that, but it's obvious that getting the ball out quick and letting your playmakers do the work is what will make this passing game go.
For this offense to be successful, a lot of pressure will be on Rivers to make the right reads, and to convert the 3rd downs to 1st downs or even touchdowns. Another area where he struggled at last year. Yes, not every 3rd/4th down was equal, whether it's 4th & 14 or 3rd & 1, the Chargers need him to be great and, last year, he wasn't. Rivers dropped back 181 times on 3rd or 4th down, and only converted 37% of those throws for 1st downs, good for 16th in the NFL. Again, for this offense to have a chance, Rivers can't afford to be average.
"The System works, players just aren't making plays" - Ken Whisenhunt after Week 17 loss to 49ers
The offense will be better this year for the simple fact that Rivers won't get sacked 43 times. In NINE games last year Rivers was sacked 3+ times. That's unheard of. The new offensive system, designed for him to get the ball out of his hands, with a bigger empahsis on running the ball, behind a better offensive line, and the running back looks better by all accounts, I don't see how this offense can be any worse.
How much better could they be? Now, that's the question. I think this offense will be better early on in the season if the coaches allow the offense to push the tempo, much like the two long scoring drives against the Cardinals preseason. Allow Rivers to get in a rhythm and read the defense before the snap, allow the offensive line to get some momentum, and allow Mathews to bulldoze his way through defenses. If that happens, this team can win a lot of ball games, and this offense can be a top 12 offense.
For the Chargers offense to accomplish that level of success, they will need to execute, something they haven't yet shown consistency with in the preseason. I do think Rivers is smart enough to diagnose the defense, I don't think he's on the same page as the receivers not named Malcom Floyd or Antonio Gates, which could be an issue moving forward. I still don't think he trusts his offensive line, and will still occasionally drop his eyes and focus on the pressure, instead of keeping his eyes downfield. The run game will be dramatically improved for the simple fact that they will actually attempt to run the ball, and I think Mathews will have a career high in rushing yards. When it's all said and done, due to lack of trust in the players around Rivers, this will be an average offense, likely finish between 16-19.
I think the lack of explosive plays in both the running and passing games will hinder the offense. I also think this is the last year Jeromey Clary is on the team, as he'll struggle all year. I view him as a stop gap more than I do King Dunlap.
I expect the Chargers' offense to struggle somewhat to start the season. The running game should definitely be improved compared to the last few seasons. Upgrades at left tackle, left guard, and most notably, right tackle with mauler D.J. Fluker should pave a few more holes for the Bolt's backfield. Ryan Mathews also looks different so far, running very hard, decisively, and with a purpose. That may be due to upgrade in depth at the running back position in the form of the versatile weapon Danny Woodhead.
The passing game is where I see them struggling. Coaches have stated that Philip Rivers needs to "trust the system" and until he does the passing game will fall short of its potential. Rivers needs to get the ball out quick and gives his receivers to get the ball and make a play. If he keeps holding on to the ball too long, especially with a subpar offensive line, mistakes will happen and defenses will capitialize. It could take Rivers a while to completely trust the system and allow the offense to take off. That said, I see them finishing around 14th in rushing, 22nd in passing, and 20th overall on offense.
Health and lack of roster can ruin this prediction completely. Assuming the best or ideal, I think the run game will be ranked around the 12th, and the passing game around the 18th. There is too much doubt in my eyes surrounding both the offensive line and the receiver corps. I feel like the offense is either going to be as average as everyone expects it to be, or surprisingly good. Hopefully it's the latter, but wishful thinking has failed me before....
The offense is tough to predict. The Chargers have the talent at nearly all of the positions necessary to be a top offense, but if the preseason is any indication, those pieces aren't clicking together yet as a cohesive unit. That is something that will take time and a ton of practice as the offensive line get to know each other, the receivers and Rivers gets comfortable, and Ryan Mathews learns to make is reads and follow his blockers better.
Speaking of offensive line, do you realize who the backup swing tackle is? Mike Harris. When you are done hyperventilating over the possibility of Dunlap or Fluker getting injured, the offense has much the same problem as the defense: depth. The offense is better off than the defense in this respect, but an injury to the offensive line or quarterback could be devastating to the San Diego Chargers this season.
Final Prediction? The team finishes 16-20 range in offense overall, gradually improving as the season progresses.
The preseason showed McCoy's and Whisenhunt's commitment to keeping the offense in 3rd and >5. Initially, they're looking to do this by running to the right, and in the passing game, the Chargers were using a lot of shallow crosses as blitz beaters.
I think opposing defenses start the season in 8 man fronts, as well as flooding shallow and intermediate zones, and dare Rivers to beat them deep. The question is whether the O Line can give Rivers 2-3 chances a game to go deep without getting him killed; 3rd and <5 have to be avoided as much as possible for the same reason.
Health permitting, the soft early schedule gives this unit a chance to jell (especially games against Tennessee and Oakland) sooner than possible otherwise. If Rivers is anything like 2007 Kurt Warner, he should hit his stride in mid-to-late October. Overall, I think they'll be league average (12-18) both running and passing-early struggles masked by a soft schedule, and 2nd half improvement masked by a harder schedule. The Charges can't afford any serious injuries to the offense-there's no depth anywhere except maybe at RB.
This season, I think Rivers has to be (this is not meant as an insult) a Game Manger - protect the football, take what the defense gives him, and help his defense by controlling the ball, the pace, and the clock. Think 2001-2006 Tom Brady or 2004-2006 Ben Roethlisberger, if it helps.
I have no expectations for this offense, only dreams.
The first 5 games of 2007 were tough for a young Rivers, a still fantastic LT, a young (healthy) Gates, and a really good offensive line. The team went 1-4 in that stretch, trying to transition from Marty-ball to the Norv Turner offense. I do not think the transition from Norval's system to the McWhizz offense will be any easier. The 2013 line is not as good as 2007 line, Gates is older, RM24 is not LT; the only player from that group that could be thought of as "better" is El Captain and I am not certain if he still has his head screwed on right after the last two seasons.
Assuming PR's head IS right, the offense will look much better the last 6 games of the season than the first 6. It may be one of the best in the league toward the end of the season, but will not be too good the first 6 games of the season. Overall, I believe that this offense will finish 17th in the league in rushing (defenses will figure out that the Chargers are a right handed running team pretty quick) and 14th in the league in passing. I am not going to judge this offense until at least week 9 (right after the bye.) What I am going to watch most closely is how many INT's PR throws and how many of those bad plays, bad decisions, or panicked throws up from grabs. This will be the tell the tale of whether the Bolts still have a franchise QB.
I ranted about this exact thing for about 20 minutes last night. I think the offense could be really good this year, and here is why:
- It's Peyton Manning's offense, which is always good regardless of the playmakers
- Rivers is being asked to use his brain, pre-snap and post-snap, and it might be his most valuable asset
- Zone blocking seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered for Mathews
- McCoy and Whisenhunt are combining philosophies, and it will take a few weeks for NFL teams to get enough tape on the Chargers' new offense to figure it out
- Everything (even, possibly, "read-option" plays) is geared towards taking whatever the defense is willing to give up. Good offenses do that, and consistently move forward.