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Second Semester Grades for the San Diego Chargers

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From 3-1 to 2-2, it looks like the team’s performance may be slipping as the season grinds on. With an overall 5-3 record though, are there really a lot of bad grades to hand out?

Doug Pensinger

I am still trying to mentally grasp the fact that half of the regular season is already over for the Chargers and that only 13 weekends of meaningful football remain for the 2014 season. After earning top marks in the first quarter of the season, which saw the Bolts at 3-1 and on a roll, the following four games were a mixed bag. We can safely say that the roll has stopped and begun to reverse, as San Diego has lost its last 2 games to the team is a treading water with a 2-2 record during the second quarter of the season.

Coaching: B-

In assigning that grade, I am trying to be charitable due to the injuries on this team. Those injuries limit the possibilities of what this team can physically do. This is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, where the linebacker and defensive back corps has been smote down like a biblical tribe that PO’d Yahweh.

I wish I could use the term "decimated" in referring to the injuries, as that word derives from the Roman punishment of taking out every 10th man in a Legion that mutinied. The Chargers on both sides of the ball could probably have dealt with a true "decimation" without much of a drop off in performance.

The offense has lost two highly-valued skill–position players and the most important interior lineman, but managed to keep steamrolling teams until divisional play (against teams other than the one in Oakland) started. Some ugly cracks and blown gaskets have started showing in the last two weeks on what was mostly a beautifully–oiled machine in weeks 2–through–6.

With all that said, injuries are part of the NFL and coaches need to adjust schemes and game plans to get the most out of their players. In the position groups, I will describe some things that I believe were required to get the most out of the players available; only leaving the pure coaching stuff to finish up on. A lot of this is not positive:

  • McCoy still seems "Not Ready For Prime Time" in his use of timeouts and situational game management. Among some of McCoy's highlights:
    • The Oakland game had him not using a timeout when he probably should have
    • He wasted a timeout at the end of the KC game in an effort to "ice" KC’s kicker (which is a ridiculous exercise 99.99% of the time)
    • He called a bizarre timeout on a 3rd–and–1 play in Denver; a timeout that drew an incredulous reaction from Philip Rivers on national TV.
  • Can we stop the Troutman / Watt rotation please? If Watt is the future, leave him in and get the cohesion with the other 4 guys going. Feel comfortable knowing that you have a back-up that once upon a time you thought was good enough to start. If Troutman is significantly better (a dubious claim at this point), than leave him in and declare the right guard position an open competition in 2015. Just pick one, already.
  • I know that the team lost a crucial matchup weapon with Woodhead going out for 2014. What about the other guys on this team that present match-up problems? Where has Green been? Why is Royal getting used as a downfield receiver? Why do we not see some potentially–interesting spots to line up Royal, Oliver, or Green? This offense has looked way more vanilla than the injury losses would suggest. The team’s personnel invite truly creative uses of them and I have not seen much of that at all.
  • There are two important players on this team that look like they need some coaching. I do not think they have gotten it yet. More on that later.
  • The play–calling is puzzling and bizarre far too often. An old NFL adage is "if you are doing something that works, keep doing it until the other team can stop it". This team too often refuses to do that. It will go away from what works for some inexplicable reason and then flail around trying to do stuff it is not built to do or is physically incapable of doing.

That last point has become a trend the offensive brain trust — and I include the Head Coach and quarterback in that group — has delved into far too much since the Jets game.

The Jets, Seahawks, and Jaguars were not beaten by being cute and clever. They were beaten with an offensive team running plays that it is capable of executing within the system. A case in point was going away from Oliver on the next–to–last drive of the Chiefs game when he had a hot hand and Kansas City had no answer. Two incompletions and then a game–tying field goal proved to be the Chargers' ultimate doom in that game.

Quarterback: A-

11-4 and 9-1, with an overall 20-5 or 4:1 ratio.

Those numbers are Philip Rivers’ touchdown-to-interception numbers through the last four games, the first four games, and the entire season. Still excellent, and make no mistake, without Rivers having the kind of year he is having, we Chargers fans are probably talking about the 2015 draft now and not debating what needs to happen to get into the playoffs again.

The part that concerns me is not the uptick in interceptions in recent weeks. Tipped balls, spectacular defensive plays, or simply a throw that gets away from the passer, a QB is going to get picked off a certain number of times in a season. I could live with a 13-INT season from my QB.

The part that concerns me and produces the minus is the shade of the 2012 Philip Rivers that came back in the last 3 games. You know, the guy that had many of us wondering if he was still a quality starting quarterback in the NFL.

For those of you that have repressed that memory, let me refresh it for you. That version of Rivers forced a lot of passes into coverage, tried to do too much, got himself into trouble looking to make the Big Play, and made horrible decisions with the football a few times a game. Sound familiar?

This comes back to coaching. Reich should have sat him down after the Oakland game and showed him some of the throws Rivers made and compared them to, say, the Tampa Bay game in 2012. Or maybe just a quiet talk that week and if it did not get fixed, then made him sit down and watch some 2012 train wreck footage after the Kansas City game. Then show the tape from the 2014 Seahawk game.

Rivers should be able to see the difference and perhaps take it to heart.

Receivers: A-

Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates have posted the top marks for this group. Floyd has made some truly spectacular catches on deep balls over the last four games and when healthy, he is one of the best (and consistently underrated) wide receivers in the NFL.

Gates now has 9 touchdown catches on the season as he continues to defy the toll that 11 years in the NFL have taken on his body. After shattering Alworth’s franchise records for yards, TD’s, and receptions, he is a sure lock for first ballot Hall of Fame honors.

Royal, when used properly, makes valuable contributions and the same can be said about Allen. Besides the quarterback, this is the strongest unit on the team right now.

Running Backs: C+

The emergence of Branden Oliver and his contributions in the games against the Jets, Raiders, and Chiefs elevate this unit’s grade. The first quarter grade was an Incomplete, as the team’s primary runners were injured. Once Donald Brown became "the man", it became fairly obvious why the Colts were so desperate to get Richardson last year. Donald Brown was not, is not, and probably never will be "the man" while he is in the NFL.

Before getting knocked out of the active line-up, Mathews showed a little bit of good stuff, as did Woodhead. When Mathews returns, it will be interesting to see how the team splits up the time with him and Oliver.

Offensive Line: D

The sack numbers are good and the average yard per carry number has increased with the emergence of Oliver. This grade is based upon the eye test and it being completely obvious that neither Rivers nor Oliver trust the offensive line to the do their jobs.

The only players on the line that have played consistently this season are Dunlap and Ohrnberger. Rinehart gets no push on runs, and he plays on roller skates in pass protection. The regression from last year has been severe. Fluker is looking slower and weaker this season than he did in his rookie year, a bad combination for a right tackle. Troutman and Watt have both been uneven in their play, looking somewhat effective one play and getting beaten badly or flagged the next.

Special Teams: A-

Novak picks this grade up for the unit and his remarkable streak continues. It would be nice if he could get a touchback every now and then though.

Scifres is one of the best and most consistent defensive weapons this team has.

The coverage teams have not permitted any disasters, while the receiving units likewise have been able to not cause game–changing catastrophes. There have not been any big plays created by this unit, although Allen’s punt return in the Oakland game was crucial.

Defensive Line: C-

Reyes has showed that he is not an every–down defensive end in a 3-4 defense. Without a matching bookend that draws attention from an offensive unit, Liuget is constantly double–teamed and negated. This team still needs an actual nose tackle that is an NFL–quality player. Lissemore looks ineffective more often as the season wears on.

Without help in this unit, the Chargers defense cannot be more than average.

Linebackers: D

This grade is a composite of the "C" from the outside linebackers and the solid "F" from the inside linebackers.

Dwight Freeney single–handedly raised this unit to a high standard before teams figured out he was the only pass–rusher to worry about, and too many snaps for a past–his–prime player has reduced his speed and power to a level manageable for opposing offenses. Jarret Johnson has been effective, but his game is often too limited to help with pass coverage or pass rush. The inside linebackers have all too frequently been liabilities to the defense.

This is another area where some coaching needs to be done.

After rewarding Donald Butler with a more–than–fair contract, he has repaid the team with some of the worst starting inside linebacker play in the NFL in 2014. He is slow, lost, and looks to me like he is reluctant to initiate contact. This is where some additional personnel coaching needs to happen. If McCoy, Pagano, and Weddle cannot figure out how to motivate Butler into playing better, he should be benched when Te’o returns. Look at the tape from the Kansas City and Denver games: opposing linemen, fullbacks, and tight ends are not even bothering to block him at this point. If that is not the most damning condemnation of a linebacker’s play, I do not know what would be.

Defensive Backs: C / Incomplete

I dream of seeing a healthy Weddle, Verrett, Addae, and Flowers on the field for an entire game. The play of the back-ups has dragged this unit down to being a frequent liability (and I'm including Shareece Wright and Marcus Gilchrist in THAT group now).

I like the starters in this group. I hate their medical issues which results in too many snaps for back-ups.

Overall: B-

It would be unfortunate if in January, the team looks at the 31-0 blowout of the Jets on October 5 as the high point of the 2014 season. While there are a lot of things to like about this team, there are also a lot of things that make me uncomfortable, nervous, anxious. Pick your own adjective for the feeling I have that perhaps I have seen this movie before in 2002, 1996, 1987, 1978, and so on. It is the knowledge that this team is on the knife's edge of having a season that looked so promising just three weeks ago spin completely out of control over the next month.

Perhaps I am too much of an old dog, and the new tricks in the 2014 NFL are things I have not figured out yet, but my years of watching this game have taught me that teams which are not solid on both the offensive and defensive lines do not have consistent success in the NFL. With an offensive front 5 that has 2 consistent players and defensive front 7 that has 2 consistent players, I just cannot see this team having a playoff run in it this year. As usual with my pessimism, I am begging for this team to prove me wrong.