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Quarterly Grades; 1st Quarter 2014

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With 25% of the season now in the books, we can take a look back and assess how the position groups and the team have done in the first quarter of 2014. The ultimate grading for an NFL team is, of course, their won loss record, so expect some of the grades to be exemplary. Other grades, not so much.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching: A-

The greatest accolade one coach can receive is the recognition that he is getting more out of his players than their past history (or lack of history) would suggest they are capable of producing. Right behind that is recognition that the team is "more than the sum of its parts". From that macro perspective, the coaches are doing a superb job in 2014. I’ll get the negative out of the way first:

• The offensive game plan against Arizona looked bizarre and Mathews use in that game reminded us of the bad old days of Norval.
• McCoy has demonstrated a desire to ease off on the offense in three of four games this season. One could point to the first loss of the season and make an argument that the offense got too conservative, too early.

I find the lack of a vicious "it’s the defense’s job to stop us, not our job to play it safe" tendency bothersome. My own opinion is that if it continues, at some point in this season the team will find itself on the wrong side of a miracle comeback. The team has already squandered a lead late (against the Cardinals) and I have an abiding hate of throwing out too much of the playbook on defense and offense before the clock reads 0:00 in the 4th.

The right has far outweighed the wrong. Overall, the team is relying on what it can do well offensively to move the ball and score. The defense has shown a variety of looks and schemes, even making adjustments from one series to another while it deals with banged up or missing personnel. The special teams have been superb. Penalties have been few. Turnovers have been minimal. Well-coached teams do not screw themselves with penalties, turnovers, and other mistakes.

Quarterback: A+

In 2049, when an amateur blog writer in his early 50’s decides to (once again) chronicle the Chargers and when he gets to the second year of the McCoy era, he might have the same trouble writing about this stretch of the 2014 season as I am with properly recounting (so far unsuccessfully) what we fans were thinking and seeing in late 1978 and 1979. To the current 17 year old BFTB reader and fan that is just starting to really get into football and the Chargers, let me talk like a Dad for a minute. Appreciate the fact that you are watching Philip Rivers make NFL history here. QB’s JUST DO NOT do what #17 is doing right now:

• 9 TD passes and only 1 INT.
• 70.1% completion rate
• 8.4 yards per ATTEMPT (>12 yards per completion!)
• QB Rating of 114.5

These stats are remarkable enough, but when you consider that they have been done against the #2 (Arizona), #8 (Seattle), and #11 (Buffalo) defenses in the NFL, that puts the performance into the otherworldly category. That does not even factor in the times that Rivers has kept drives going by running, which has not happened much and is not pretty to watch, but has been vitally needed when it has happened. Enjoy the show, my friends. Hopefully, most of you younger guys will have more appreciation of what Rivers is doing now than I did while I was watching Dan Fouts in 1979.

Receivers: B+

The only real blemish on this grade was Royal’s and Gates’ terrible case of the dropsies in the season opener. With enough tape now, teams have to be really concerned about the multi-faceted threat that the Bolts bring to the field. Royal has demonstrated an ability to work short and exploit poor slot coverage (such as a linebacker) deep. Floyd can work deep and shallow. Keenan Allen can separate from even an elite corner with just one step. Teams have tried press, zone, and blended coverages, none of which have really worked. The icing on the cake is Antonio Gates, busy padding a Hall of Fame resume. Just think what could happen if Green is set free this season or the team likes Oliver’s imitation of Danny Woodhead on screens and wheel routes.

Running Backs: INC

It is fortunate for the Bolts that Rivers is playing at such a high level. If this team had to depend on its rushing offense to move the ball and score points, this team would be in trouble. While the run game looked OK on occasion when Ryan Mathews was healthy, there seems to be some real issues with run blocking on the offensive line. Another bothersome aspect of this group is us Bolts fans coming to realize why the Colts were not exactly desperate to bring back Donald Brown. The backs acting as pass receivers have been good, their pass protection has not been horrible, but the Bolts have one rushing TD this season and that has to be a cause for concern among the offensive coaches. Trying to feed the advertised 3-headed monster in the first two games, losing Mathews & Woodhead, and without having any decent holes opened, the ground game has been MIA this season.

Offensive Line: C-

If the grades were assigned bypass blocking, this would be an A-. If the grades were assigned by run blocking, I would have no choice but to assign an F. Rivers has been sacked 5 times this season. This extrapolates to 20 during the entire season. If a starting NFL QB was asked if he could live with 20 sacks in a season, you would get 32 enthusiastic "Yes!" answers.

Part of this is due to scheme, with Rivers getting the ball out of his hands in less than 3 seconds, usually. Part of it involves PR’s ability to move around enough (particularly climbing the pocket) to avoid pressure. But the largest part of it, from what I have seen, is typically redirecting rushers away from #17. It may not look dominating or satisfying, but it has been effective. The pass protection on the interior line could use some improving, but again, results are results and it is tough to argue with the finished product.

The run blocking though is a completely different story. The Bolts rank 30th in the league with 278 yards rushing through the first 4 games. Simply put, that is awful for a team that was the 13th best running team in the NFL last year.

Special Teams: A-

How wonderful it is to not tremble in fear every time the Bolts line up to punt, receive a punt, or cover a kick-off! The Chargers have been able to benefit from winning the field position battle more often than not with Scifres handling the few punts this team has needed to make. Novak is pretty much automatic for 45 yards out and closer and this unit has just not made any cringe worthy plays this season. Another sign of a well-coached team is how it takes care of business in the kicking game. The only reason this is not a solid A or A+ is due to the lack of any big plays on returns this season.

Defensive Line: C+

The play of Reyes over the last two weeks has elevated what would have been a C or C- to a C+ grade. The Bolts are getting some pressure from the 3 linemen, Liuget has had beastly flashes, and except for some real questions about Reyes in the first two games, all three positions have been (so far) doing their jobs more often than failing to do their jobs. I really do not have too much to say about this unit, which for a 3-4 D-line is not a bad thing. The Bolts have dealt with 3 good rushing teams (and the Jaguars) so far and allowed a total of 389 yards this season, which is not great, but it is not bad, either.

Linebackers: B

For this unit, Dwight Freeney elevates the grade higher than a C. The huge question so far this year is what in the world is going on with Donald Butler? He will make perhaps one play a game and look either lost or slow or both lost and slow for the rest of the game. There have been some thoughts and observations that the LB group as a whole does not seem to have much unit cohesion. I’m not certain of that, but I will offer up the thought that without Butler reverting to the playmaker we saw in 2012 and most of 2013, this unit is just not too much more than average on a good day.

And then you see Dwight Freeney. The bull rush, the spin, the swim, the up & under, the speed rush… the veteran OLB puts on a pass rushing clinic in virtually every game and it is sure fun to watch, unless you are a Left Tackle, RB kept in to pass block, or a QB on the receiving end of beautiful football craftsmanship. This is something else you younger fans should savor while it is happening; Freeney is a consummate artist in rushing the passer and this sure has been fun to watch.

Defensive Backs: B+

What a difference a year makes! At this point last year, the Bolts were enduring Cox, Marshall, Gilchrist, and a similar collection of empty jerseys make QB’s like Jake Locker and Matt Schaub look capable. The only issue with some of these guys is that we have not seen enough of them. Flowers is looking like the steal of free agency, Verrett has solidly answered his detractors (and that would be me, too) with his physical play and overall ability, and the team just LOOKS a lot tighter on the back end than last year’s unit. The only reason this is not an A is due to the two dropped INT’s against the Cardinals. Had those picks been made, the Bolts would probably be 4-0 right now.

Overall: A-

The largest factor in this grade is the win against Seattle and the lack of a letdown since then. The three games after the season opener have all been pretty much dominant performances by a well-coached and well-prepared team, with superb quarterbacking and enough of everything else to look complete. The team has showed some emotional resiliency in dealing with injuries and the loss of major contributors to the offense and defense.

With the next four games being against the Jets, Team Dysfunction, the Chiefs, and the home match-up against the Broncos, the Chargers have a real chance to reach the halfway mark of the season at 7-1. This would make the tougher part of the schedule in November and December look a lot better, particularly with some injured players that were expected to be huge contributors to this year’s team returning to the active list.