Full warning: There's going to be some real shaky math below. Sorry.
The Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers have been compared to each other a lot in the last decade. Perhaps it's because the similar 3-4 defenses that they were running, both installed (and run for a time) by Wade Phillips. Perhaps it was their misunderstood, often hated, QBs that could put up great numbers but had little to no playoff success. Perhaps it was just the fact that both teams would be hyped up before every season and find ways to disappoint due to injuries and poor coaching.
Last year, the Cowboys separated themselves a bit. After going 8-8 for three consecutive seasons, the Cowboys finished 12-4 and looked prepared to make a run into the playoffs behind one of the most dangerous offenses in football.
How did they do it? They rebuilt their offensive line from the ground up, focusing on run blocking, and played ball control. Their defense, which was not very good, was well rested and focused more on creating turnovers than getting stops.
Here's a fun stat that I'm definitively going to misrepresent: Offensive snaps vs. Defensive snaps
Watch how this shift happens for the Cowboys, who got better behind an improved offensive line, and the Chargers...who got worse behind a worse offensive line.
2013 Cowboys: 1025 Offensive vs. 1148 Defensive
2014 Cowboys: 1082 Offensive vs. 1028 Defensive
2013 Chargers: 1128 Offensive vs. 1017 Defensive
2014 Chargers: 1089 Offensive vs. 1047 Defensive
Like magic! More offensive snaps and less defensive snaps equals a better overall record!
Now, these stats are a bit of a mirage. Of course a team that has the lead often will run the ball more often, trying for long, methodical, clock-killing drives. As a result, that team will have more snaps.
However, this is the same philosophy that the Chargers and Cowboys have been trying to employ from the opening whistle. Long, methodical drives to keep the defense off the field and to win the field position battle as well as the time-of-possession game. Last season, the Cowboys did it a lot better than the Chargers did, and that's why they got to the playoffs (and won a game).
This season, I think the Chargers have caught up. They didn't even have to build from the ground up, they just moved around some parts to create a juggernaut of a run-blocking line.
- Orlando Franklin is a massive improvement at Left Guard. We haven't talked about that enough. He is going to be a huge help.
- Chris Watt looks ready to take over for Nick Hardwick, finally. He won't be the same player, at least not right away, but he can be a competent center.
- And, the final piece, D.J. Fluker at Right Guard (and, as a result, Joe Barksdale at Right Tackle).
- All of the bullets above will support the extra talent in the backfield that last year's team didn't have: Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead.
The last time I can remember a line this complete in front of Philip Rivers? 2009, a season in which the Chargers finished 13-3 and won the last 11 games of the regular season.
That 2009 offensive line had issues, too. Jeromey Clary wasn't the world's best Right Tackle, and Scott Mruczcowski ended up as the team's starting center for most of the season. However, they were so talented at LT (Marcus McNeill), LG (Kris Dielman), and RG (Louis Vasquez) that it almost didn't matter.
Snap back to today, and you can see some similarities between the 2015 Chargers and the 2009 Chargers, including a mediocre defense for both teams. However, I keep coming back to that offensive line and what the Cowboys did last season.
The Cowboys had to get somewhat lucky last year. The offensive line had to stay healthy, DeMarco Murray had to stay healthy, and Tony Romo had to learn how to play without the weight of the team on his back. It all played out exactly as they wanted, and they wound up being a tough out for an incredibly talented Green Bay Packers team in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
If the Chargers get that same kind of lucky this year, needing good health from the offensive line and some quick learning-on-the-job from rookie RB Melvin Gordon, they could easily finish the season with one of the highest win totals in the league.
Now, about that "playing without the weight of the team on his back", I've got another stat comparison for you....
Romo - 3rd Down (2013): 64/126, 735 pass yds, 8 TDs, 4 INTs
Romo - 3rd Down (2014): 85/128, 1097 pass yds, 11 TDs, 2 INTs
This is what happens when your offensive line can protect you, the defense is still afraid of your RB on 3rd down, and you've created a lot of "3rd and short" situations for your team.
Rivers - 3rd down (2014): 101/159, 1381 pass yds, 9 TDs, 3 INTs
Now, those are some absurdly good numbers on 3rd down. Rivers has always been great on 3rd down, though. It's part of why he's such a good QB. It's really hard for his numbers to get any better than that. Even in 2013, when the team around him was better, they were about the same.
Rivers - 3rd Down (2013): 101/156, 1368 pass yds, 9 TDs, 3 INTs
Look at that! LOOK AT IT! You couldn't get that close if you tried, and he did it!
What's my point? I'm not sure! I guess it's that Rivers playing as if they weight of the team is on his back is kind of a thing of the past. He hasn't been that guy since Norv Turner left. He's playing really great, somewhat conservative, football. He just needs the rest of the team to catch up, and the adjustments to the inside of the offensive line should allow for that to happen.
Thank you, Based God, for moving D.J. Fluker to guard. #SuperBowlOrBust