For me, the most depressing time in recent Chargers history was week 8 of 2012. The Chargers lost to the Browns 7-6. Yes, they scored six points against the Browns. It was at that point that it hit me. As long as I had held on to some kind of hope that the Chargers' front office and coaching had a plan that was going to come through, it was time to give up. After winning the next week, the Bolts dropped four games in a row, falling to 4-7 and effectively cementing Norv Turner and AJ Smith's status as former members of the Chargers' organization. It had been too long since the San Diego was a strong contender, and it was time for a change.
Tom Telesco to the Rescue
The roster that new general manager Tom Telesco inherited needed plenty of renovation. For starters, the offensive line was a train wreck. The team was forced to depend on "Big Lazy" (Jared Gaither) to hold down the fort at left tackle, but numerous "injuries" shoved undrafted rookie Mike Harris into action. An undrafted rookie should never have to start, especially at left tackle.
Telesco went out and made a couple of under-the-radar signings in King Dunlap and Chad Rinehart basically for pennies, but the duo did a solid job of holding down the left side of the line (when healthy of course). Telesco then made plenty of Charger fans groan (including myself) with the drafting of tackle DJ Fluker, who quickly proved those people wrong. Fluker was way more advanced as a pass protector than expected and as advertised as a run blocker. The Chargers had 4 different starters on the line from the 2012 season, all without breaking the bank. The unit was vastly improved in 2013.
Tom Telesco also did some major handy work with the wide receiving corps. Robert Meachem, who was essentially brought in to replace Vincent Jackson in Norv Turner's vertical passing game, clearly wasn't the guy for the Chargers. They sucked up a ton of dead money, just to make sure that they truly got the best players on the team. The front office was not expecting such a huge impact from rookie Keenan Allen already, but he already looks to be the steal of the 2013 draft as a third round pick. This group was also helped by the new coaching staff, which leads me to my next point.
Seen as a "quarterback guy", Mike McCoy was best known for making Tim Tebow look like a competent NFL QB. His style, along with the help of Ken Wisenhunt in 2013, proved to be a much better fit for Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense. In 2013, Rivers saw a major spike in touchdowns, yards per attempt, and completion percentage while seeing a steep drop off in turnovers.
Norv Turner's offense depended on a strong offensive line to protect the quarterback and allow seven-step drops to go with a deep passing game. It also relied on big, fast receivers who could make plays down the field. The Chargers had neither of those in 2012. McCoy, on the other hand, runs an offense based on quick decisions on the quarterback's part, as well as route running and YAC ability for the receivers (which is why Keenan Allen is already a star). He also managed to use Danny Woodhead better than Darren Sproles was ever used in San Diego. The Chargers only upgrades on offense came from the bargain bin, but the turnaround from the 2012 season was tremendous. McCoy and the coaching staff made the most out of what the Bolts had on offense, proving how important coaching is.
One stat from 2013 I failed to mention above is Rivers' four fourth quarter comebacks, which happens to be the same total as the 2009-2012 seasons combined. That is what has me excited about this team. They don't just look different, it feels different watching them. They have bought into the new system and have proven that they can finish games and win the tight ones. That goes a very long way in the NFL.
Balance and Depth
The Chargers' playoff run highlighted how important balance is in the NFL. They shifted from a pass-heavy offense to a run-heavy attack and won five games in a row, including their first playoff victory since the 2008 season. Their ground game opened up opportunities in the passing game as well as helped out the defense by not forcing them to play as many downs.
Unfortunately, the loss to Denver in the divisional round of the playoffs highlights how important depth is. Johnnie Troutman was forced to start at guard, and he struggled. Ryan Mathews was worn down from his rise in carries at the end of the year and was barely on the field. As a result, the ground game never got going, and could not help the defense make up for the thin secondary and pass rush.
This offseason, Telesco has gone back to work by turning their weakest position group from 2013 (cornerback) into a strength with the selection of Jason Verrett and signing of Brandon Flowers. They have also addressed positions that were not very deep in 2012, such as inside linebacker and guard.
If you want evidence that the Bolts are looking for balance, look no further than the 2014 draft class. The Chargers selected three offensive players and 3 defensive players. They also touched on every position group (excluding QB) by drafting a defensive back, linebacker, defensive lineman, offensive lineman, running back, and wide receiver.
What the Future Holds
The new Chargers front office is not afraid to move on from player's from the old regime (Gaither, Meachem, Thomas), and go get their guy. I wasn't excited about trading away a draft pick to pick Manti Te'o, but I can certainly appreciate the conviction of the front office to go get who they want. They also make rewarding their own players and to keep roster continuity intact.
The Chargers staff has done a great job of keeping core players and making upgrades with little wiggle room under the salary cap. The fact that veterans like Eddie Royal, Dwight Freeney, Jarret Johnson, and Jeromey Clary were willing to take pay cuts shows how much respect the front office has already earned and proves the players dedication to winning.
Sure, this may be a bit premature. Who knows how the past two rookie classes will pan out down the road? However, there is no denying that the reloading that Tom Telesco has done with the Chargers' roster in such a short amount of time is quite remarkable. He and the coaching staff have changed the culture and the attitude of the team. For that reason, I am quite confident in saying that this is the most satisfying time to be a Chargers fan in a long time.