Like most people, I was surprised by the level of success sustained by the San Diego Chargers in Mike McCoy's first year as a head coach. I expected five wins out of this team, and they won 10. It raises the question, what did we miss? The defense was historically bad for most of the season after being slightly better than average in 2012, so that suggests expectation exceeding pretty much entirely had to occur on the offensive side of the ball.
1. Danny Woodhead isn't just good, he's great
Philip Rivers' play really dropped off the last three years, and the biggest difference was the loss of Darren Sproles. Norv Turner's offense relied on having a running back that could make plays with the ball in the receiving game. Sproles not only made plays, he commanded double teams that freed up receivers to win double-teams. His absence made the whole offense less dynamic and easier to defend.
Woodhead was expected to give the Chargers offense some of this element back. Instead, he had a more productive season as a receiver than any Sproles ever put up (including his time with the New Orleans Saints). Woodhead's 282 receiving DYAR was better than the next best back by 85 DYAR, and was good for 10th in the league regardless of position. For those not impressed by advanced stats, he caught 76 of 86 balls thrown his way for an absurd 88% catch rate. He had 605 receiving yards, 30 first downs, and six scores. These were all career highs.
Many were worried that few former Patriots go on to have success when they leave, but Woodhead had the best season of his career.
2. Keenan Allen should have been picked in the first round
Allen was projected by many draftniks as a first round pick, but after not running well before the draft, he fell to the third round where the Chargers selected him. As a rookie, Allen was projected as either the fourth wide receiver behind Malcom Floyd, Danario Alexander and Eddie Royal. Alexander didn't make it to the regular season before going on IR, but Allen still did not play in week 1. Malcom Floyd suffered a neck injury in week 2 that landed him on IR as well, and suddenly Allen was going to have to be a major contributor.
It's fair to say that Allen was a pleasant surprise. Despite not starting until week 3, he still put up (by DYAR) the third best season for a rookie wide receiver since 1989. He obliterated the Chargers franchise rookie record for receptions, besting LaDainian Tomlinson's 59 by 12. He also surpassed John Jefferson's franchise rookie record for receiving yards by 44, finishing with 1,046.
His great season didn't stop with the regular season as he also matched a rookie record with 2 receiving touchdowns to go along with 142 yards against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. All of this led Bill Barnwell of Grantland to suggest that if you were to re-draft the 2013 NFL Draft today, Allen might be the first overall pick.
3. Philip Rivers isn't anywhere near done
When the Chargers were looking for a new head coach last January, one of the keys was to find someone who could "fix" Philip Rivers. Early in August, people started to worry about him and whether or not he was struggling to pick up the offense. By mid-September, people were convinced Philip was back. He wasn't just back. He was better than ever. Rivers finished second in DYAR and third in DVOA.
Were it not for Peyton Manning having a year for the ages, he would have been the favorite for NFL MVP. He set career highs in completions (378), completion percentage (69.5%) and QB Rating (105.5). The completion percentage was particularly notable because head coach Mike McCoy had asserted that Rivers would complete 70% of his passes and this was thought to be nearly insane. I guess it wasn't so crazy after all.
This might be the most important difference between expectation and outcome. No one position is as important as quarterback in the NFL, and Philip Rivers proved himself to be among the elite once again.
4. King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker are quality bookend tackles
When Tom Telesco signed Dunlap, Philadelphia Eagles fans helpfully stopped by to let us know that we had a real loser on our hands and that we could expect a combination of incompetent run blocking and dangerously bad pass blocking. Chargers fans made themselves feel better by assuring themselves that Dunlap was just a swing tackle and that their team could still sign or draft a real left tackle.
In the draft, the Chargers would not select another left tackle. Instead they "reached" for a right tackle in Fluker that many "experts" were convinced would have to be moved inside to guard. There was much gnashing of teeth among the fan base, and many were ready to give up on Telesco one pick into his first NFL Draft.
All of our fears were clearly misplaced. Dunlap was one of the premier run blocking left tackles in the National Football League and he allowed only 19 total pressures of the quarterback. Fluker, meanwhile, was a revelation at right tackle and not only didn't need to be moved to guard, but was able to competently fill in for an injured Dunlap at left tackle. The Chargers, in spite of the critics, managed to field one of the best offensive tackle tandems in the NFL.
5. Ryan Mathews is the player Chargers fans hoped they were getting when he was drafted
Perhaps the most unexpected overachiever this season was Ryan Mathews. After getting benched repeatedly by Norv Turner thanks to an inability to hold onto the football, Mathews rebounded this season with easily his finest season as a runner. He bested his previous career high in running yards with 1,255 and put the ball on the turf only twice over 311 touches.
More impressive than his season stats, though, were Mathews' final four regular season games. The Chargers needed all four games to have a chance at the postseason and nobody did more to win those games than he did. He rushed 29, 29, 25 and 24 times for 103, 127, 99 and 144 yards. He scored touchdowns in the first three of the four games. He also played through injuries and generally reversed every negative perception fans had of him coming into the season.
There's a real argument to be made that Mathews was the team's most valuable player on a team that had one of the two best quarterbacks in football.
I think you reasonably could have thought one or two of these things would happen, but nobody saw all five of them coming true. The players themselves deserve most of the credit, but you also have to give a nod to Mike McCoy, Ken Whisenhunt, Joe D'alessandris, Frank Reich and the rest of the coaching staff for getting more than anyone could have hoped out of this group.