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Week 17 Grades: The End of the 2014 San Diego Chargers

The Chargers 2014 season comes to an official and dispiriting end, as have other seasons, against the Kansas City Chiefs, in the cold, hostile turf of Arrowhead Stadium.

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback: C

Philip Rivers completed 20 of his 34 attempts (58.8%) for 291 yards (8.55 YPA), with 2 INTs. Let's start with the INTs, neither of which were the result of horrendous decisions by Rivers. The 1st INT was a desperation heave down the sideline near the end of the 1st half, with limited time to move the ball into scoring range - and was the same result as a punt. The second INT came on Rivers' last pass of the season, in garbage time.

The truth is that Rivers was handed a nearly impossible game plan, and he was under siege from the Chiefs' defense for the entire game as a result. Rivers was sacked 7 times for 42 yards lost, with 1 lost fumble resulting in a Chiefs' FG, and several other big hits and pressures coming from the Chiefs' defense. In the middle of the 4th quarter, Rivers threw consecutive perfect passes which should have resulted in TDs - one was overturned on a (dubious) official review, the second was dropped. I simply don't know what else Rivers could have done in this game, given the pressure he faced throughout the game.

Running Backs: B minus

Throughout the majority of the game, the Chargers' RBs were generally effective. RB Branden Oliver had a solid game with 71 yards on 14 carries (5.1 YPC), and 1 TD, and added 2 catches for 4 yards on 2 targets. Oliver showed very good patience in allowing his blocks to develop and finding a hole to run through. RB Donald Brown ran for 39 yards on 10 carries, and also added 1 catch for 8 yards. RB Ronnie Brown was in the game for a very brief amount of time, unfortunately one of his early appearances resulted in a missed blitz pickup and the first sack on Rivers.

Receivers: C plus

WR Eddie Royal started the game strongly, but was increasingly ineffective as the game wore on. Royal finished with 4 catches for 95 yards on 8 targets, two of which were dropped TD catches in the middle of the 4th quarter when the Chargers made their last serious push to stay in the game. WR Dontrelle Inman followed his debut with a decent showing, ending up with 5 catches for 79 yards on 8 targets, although he had a couple of crucial drops before the 4th quarter. WR Malcom Floyd was mostly ineffective, with only 3 catches for 29 yards on 8 targets. WR Seyi Ajirotutu added 1 catch for 9 yards on his lone target.

TE Antonio Gates, came on strong in the 2nd half, with 4 catches for 67 yards on 6 targets. In the blocking department, this was the best game in some time for Gates, as well as TE Ladarius Green, David Johnson, and John Phillips.

Offensive Line: D minus

LT King Dunlap finished his season on a high note, all but neutralizing OLB Tamba Hali for the entire game. Surprisingly, LG Chad Rinehart held up relatively well in both the run and pass game this week, matached up often against DE Jaye Howard or Allen Bailey. C Trevor Robinson was mostly solid in the middle, often providing help or being matched up against DT Dontari Poe.

Virtually all of the problems with pass protection involved the right side of the line. RG Jeremiah Sirles had a tough 1st start, allowing a sack to Poe on a swim move, and later allowing Bailey to beat him inside. That said, Sirles was both strong and athletic in run blocking, and I think he is a prospect who merits more development. RT D.J Fluker was injured early in the 2nd quarter, and that turned the tide of the game, as OLB Justin Houston beat replacement OT Willie Smith for 2 sacks in 6 offensive plays. Fluker had a rough go playing injured, also allowing the sack which forced Rivers' fumble, and a sack late in the game.

Defensive Line: B

Following a rough defensive effort against the 49ers, this was a nice rebound effort. DE Corey Liuget finished with 2 solo tackles, as well as 1 sack, and 1 tackle for loss. DT Sean Lissemore finished with 2 combined tackles, while DT Ricardo Mathews finished with 1 tackle. DE Kendall Reyes finished with 2 combined tackles, one of which was a terrfifc shed block and stop on RB Knile Davis. Following the Chiefs TD drive, this group did an excellent job of occupying blockers, not getting pushed off the line of scrimmage, and allowing the back 7 defenders to attack the ball carrier. Nothing spectacular, but a whole lot of pretty good.

Linebackers: B minus

In what may be his final NFL game, OLB Dwight Freeney finished with 1 sack of QB Chase Daniel, and also drew a holding penalty against LT Eric Fisher. LB Melvin ingram likewise posted 1 sack, beating RT Ryan Harris for a sack in the 3rd quarter. OLB Jeremiah Attaochu had a quiet end to his regular season, finishing with only 1 combined tackle. Also possibly playing his last game, OLB Jarret Johnson struggled a bit - he was targeted on a misdirection pass play which went for big gain by TE Travis Kelce. Johnson also wasn't quite as good setting the edge as he usually is. He ended up with 2 tackles, 1 for a loss.

Inside, ILb Manti Te'o led the defense with 13 combined tackles. He did a nice job flowing to the ball, but overran a few plays, missed some tackles, and was beat in zone defense on a couple of occasions. ILb Andrew Gachkar collected the 4th sack for the defense, tackling Daniel as the play was breaking down - he posted 2 combined tackles. ILB Kavell Conner finished with 3 tackles, one for loss, and did a better job of not lunging at ball carriers like he did against the 49ers.

Secondary: B

CB Brandon Flowers finished his solid 2014 season with 2 combined tackles, as the Chiefs generally did not look his way. CB Shareece Wright did allow one DPI penalty, and finished with only 1 tackle before leaving due to injury. Reserve CB Chris Davis was beat for a big play by RB De'Anthony Thomas, which resulted in his lone tackle. CB Steve Williams also finished with 1 tackle.

SS Jahleel Addae had 8 combined tackles for the game, and forced the Chargers' only chance for a turnover when he hit WR Dwayne Bowe just short of the endzone. FS Eric Weddle finished with 5 solo tackles, 1 for a loss, and often spied Daniel in the redzone.

Special Teams: D plus

Besides the injury to Fluker, the 2 biggest moments in the 1st half were punt returns by PR De'Anthony Thomas which set up FGs in the 2nd quarter. Punt coverage units were shaky on tackling, allowing Thomas returns of 41 and 22 yards. Again, PK Nick Novak failed to produce a touchback, and coverage units allowed 55 yards on 2 returns to KR Knile Davis. PR Eddie Royal failed to find much return yardage, although KR Chris Davis did have one nice return of 29 yards. Novak also missed his lone FG attempt - from 52 yards late in the 3rd quarter, and converted his lone XP attempt. P Mat McBriar did a solid job punting, as he averaged 42 yards per kick with 1 dropped inside the KC 20.

Coaching: F

I loathed Mike McCoy's decision to kick a 52 yard FG late in the 3rd quarter, trailing by 12. But first, to those who supported the decision: I understand that if Novak makes that kick, the Chargers could have attempted FGs on their next 3 drives and possibly tied the game.

Here's why I remain opposed - First, it still leaves a 2 score deficit to overcome with about 15 minutes remaining, and 1 of those scores has to be a TD. Second, there's no way McCoy could have known or expected to have 3 other possessions inside FG range in the 4th quarter at that time, considering the Chargers' offensive struggles. Third, the missed FG added 8 yards of field position, which the Chiefs nearly cashed in until PK Cairo Santos missed his own 50 yard attempt moments later. Fourth, you're counting on Nick Novak making all 4 kicks, kicking with a new(ish) holder, cold weather, and a terrific opposing Special Teams unit. Had Novak's FG been good, it might have worked - but that's only with a lot of positive assumptions built in.

Considering the opponent and their tendency toward aggressive blitzing on defense, the idea by Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich to pound the football and try to beat the blitz for big plays makes sense on the surface. Crucially, however, you have to be able to consistently block the blitz for this style to work. And while the Chargers ran the ball effectively until the 4th quarter, it was evident once Fluker got hurt in the 2nd quarter the Chargers' offensive line couldn't adequately block a 4 man rush, let alone a blitz.

Therefore, Reich had two options:

  1. Stay with the vertical passing attack, and leave extra blockers in to help - especially when Fluker temporarily left the game.
  2. Switch to the 3 step, quick passing game - which is the team's offensive M.O..

By the way, the short passing game is WHAT THE CHARGERS DO BEST. THEY"RE BETTER AT IT THAN MOST DEFENSES ARE AT STOPPING IT. Ask Seattle, or ask Baltimore - a similarly aggressive defense with a strong front 7 and mostly below average secondary. Even if you make the concession Rivers had Danny Woodhead and Ryan Mathews in Week 2 and Keenan Allen for both contests, the other point is that the Chargers feature that style of play to protect their offensive line (and QB, by extension). Committing to a vertical passing game forced a beat-up offensive line, mostly without RB or TE help, to play to their weakness against their opponent's strength - the Original Sin of bad coaching.

By the way, as a preemptive rebuttal against those who want to go to the "You can't always use the quick pass game because opponents know it's coming and take it away" line. Kansas City's defense never had to take the short passing game away because the Chargers didn't use it until the start of the 4th quarter! Taking this long to make such a critical adjustment in a must-win game is the single biggest mistake of the game, in my opinion, and it falls squarely on Reich (and by extension, McCoy). Also, why no end arounds, screens (WR or RB), jet sweeps, or other misdirection-type plays to help slow down the Chiefs defenders? Why not run once with 1st and Goal from the KC 3? Why run Brown twice behind Sirles and an injured Fluker on the last legitimate drive? Just an awful, awful game.

As far as Defensive Coordinator John Pagano is concerned, his bend-but-don't-break philosophy served the Chargers fairly well on Sunday. That said, the decision to play vanilla early against a QB making his 2nd career start, with limited practice reps during the week is questionable at best. It allowed the Chiefs to dictate the flow of the 1st half, control the ball and the clock, and allowed Daniel to play from ahead, and Chiefs' Head Coach Andy Reid to coach from ahead. Not once in the game was Daniel truly put in a critical situation - which was the best opportunity to force a mistake, and make the Chiefs play to their weaknesses.

5 Biggest Hidden (i.e. non-scoring, non turnover) Plays:

  1. 9:44 left in the 2nd Qtr. 1st and 10 SD at SD 12. Donald Brown carries up the middle for 5 yards, and D.J. Fluker gets rolled up in the pile. He leaves the game temporarily, then returns injured. 2 of Justin Houston's 4 sacks followed this injury, 2 of them against reserve OT Willie Smith.
  2. 8:47 left in the 4th Qtr. 2nd/3rd and Goal at KC 3. Royal "drops" (i.e. on 2nd down, his apparent TD was overturned on a dubious replay decision. He was interfered with - uncalled - on 3rd down) consecutive passes from Rivers which would have resulted in a TD.
  3. 6:23 left in the 2nd Qtr. 4th and 20 at SD 12. McBriar punts 37 yards to Thomas, who returns the kick 41 yards to the SD 8, resulting in a FG and a 13-7 Chiefs lead.
  4. 2:00 left in the 2nd Qtr. 4th and 14 at SD 29. McBriar punts 43 yards to Thomas, who returns the kick 22 yards to Midfield. KC drives to the SD 9, then settles for a Santos FG and 16-7 lead with 0:36 left in the half.
  5. 4:02 left in the 4th Qtr. 3rd/4th and 1 SD at KC 20. Brown is stopped for no gain on consecutive plays, resulting in a turnover on downs and the effective end of the game.

Looking Ahead To:

General Manager Tom Telesco making the right moves with his first foray into free agency with significant money to spend, a hopefully productive 2015 Draft class, and seeing this team take the step from Competitive to Contender. Also (as of this writing), with Pagano entering his 4th year as Defensive Coordinator, McCoy entering his 3rd year as Head Coach, and Reich entering his 2nd year as Offensive Coordinator, it's time to see some growth in terms of game planning, making adjustments, and managing the game.