The Offensive Line
At the risk of oversimplifying what is an impossibly complex sport, I will say that all of the Chargers problems were a result of the offensive line play. That is not to say that this is a perfect team with a good offensive line, rather the Chargers could not imitate their success of 2013 because of this position group. So what happened?
The loss of Nick Hardwick was a big one. He was responsible for calling the protection on blitzes, which was a huge responsibility that fell on to Philip Rivers' shoulders when he went down. Hardwick is the kind of player that makes the offensive lineman around him better. However, I refuse to believe that he alone was responsible for allowing what was one of the worst offensive guard combinations in 2014 (according to PFF) to play at least at an average level in 2013.
The bigger loss for the offensive line than Hardwick was that of Ken Whisenhunt. The team went away from the quick, 3-step drop passing game and zone block running game that was successful in 2013. Rinehart went from allowing a QB pressure on every 40 snaps in 2013 to about every 27 snaps last season. Both guards saw a huge drop off in run blocking efficiency as well. Man (or "Power") blocking schemes focus more on each player having a one-on-one matchup they need to win. If you watched the left side of the offensive line in 2014, you saw that very often Chad Rinehart did not win. Zone blocking relies more on the lines' ability to work together, to move in a direction as a group and move defenders to let the running back find a hole. This system is very helpful to offensive lines without elite talent (check) and with a good coach (check) to keep the players disciplined.
In addition to moving back to zone blocking, the Chargers will still need to fill in some gaps on the line. King Dunlap should be 1b to Brandon Flowers 1a on the teams' free agent priority list. After that, the team will need find a replacement for Rinehart, as well as a new right tackle. A switch in scheme would allow the front office to address the offensive line without using their best resources (big money free agents, early draft picks). A couple of mid-grade free agents and a mid-round pick would go a long way in stabilizing the line and reverting it back to 2013 form. They will have some flexibility with Chris Watt and whether they view him as a guard or center moving forward, but either way this team needs two new starting linemen, as well as some more depth.
The Running Backs
The ground game was non-existent in 2014, with the exception for the 74 times Ryan Mathews carried the ball. As attractive as a 1-year deal for Mathews sounds, it's not worth it anymore. The Chargers would be better off fixing the offensive line (see above) and finding a back somewhere in the draft. A zone blocking scheme puts an emphasis on the running back's vision and decision-making more than any of their physical traits, which I bad news for Mathews.
The Chargers offensive backfield looks a lot better behind even an average offensive line. Danny Woodhead returning will be a huge boost in 2015 as he was sorely missed in the passing and running game. To replace Mathews, the Bolts should look in the middle rounds of the draft (anything but a first-rounder really) for a steady, reliable running back with the vision and patience to excel as a runner. Pass catching will not need to be an emphasis, considering all 3 of the running backs on the Chargers' roster are strong in the passing game.
The Passing Game
Another reason for the offense's decline is the Yards after Catch. The Bolts averaged 6.02 YPC in 2013, good for 7th in the NFL. In 2014, they dropped to 20th overall with 5.46. A lot of this has to do with scheme as well as the offense went away from a lot of the quick passing game , which means it may be a good thing to see Frank Reich find himself a head coaching job. Hopefully, that would result in seeing more of what worked in 2013.
For example, no QB had a higher completion percentage (76.6) than Philip Rivers when throwing the ball in 2.5 seconds or less. He also had the 4th highest QB rating (108.3) on such passes. When he holds on to the ball for 2.6 seconds or more, those numbers drop to a 54.5% completion percentage (16th out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks) and a 76.5 QB rating (16th as well). Unfortunately for the offense, Rivers had almost as many longer dropbacks as quick ones (306 to 319). We've seen what works, so let's see a lot more of it.
It's not Tom Telesco's style to make a huge splash in free agency, but he has plenty of money to work with this season and an offense that could use one more playmaker to put it over the top. Here is a breakdown of the free agents at wide receiver, and there is one I have had my eye on all season. The Green Bay Packers drafted two receivers in 2014 and recently signed Jordy Nelson to an extension, meaning Randall Cobb would be the odd man out. He can replace Eddie Royal in the slot but has shown the ability to line up out wide and even in the backfield. He has the speed and quickness to rack up yards after the catch and take some pressure off of Keenan Allen. Cobb's playmaking ability is the perfect solution to an offense that was flat for most of the second half of 2014. He can also return kicks and punts, another area where the team has lacked explosion.