For the first time in at least two years, the Chargers enter an offseason with some semblance of stability in their coaching staff – particularly at the top of the totem pole. There seem to be no questions about the work Anthony Lynn has done as the head coach and, barring head coaching offers from outside of the organization, there is probably a better than average chance that both Ken Whisenhunt and Gus Bradley will return as coordinators.
If there is any uncertainty, it’s among the ranks of the assistants. Should the team retain Gus Bradley as the defensive coordinator, and I expect that to be the case, it’s entirely likely we’ll see secondary coach Ron Milus and defensive line coach Giff Smith interview for, if not leave for defensive coordinator positions. It would hurt because of the miracles they’ve worked with several young players on the Chargers roster, but it would be well deserved and no one could fault them.
The most intriguing decision, at least in terms of fan perception, may take place with special teams coordinator George Stewart. Most fans assume it to be a foregone conclusion that Lynn will dismiss Stewart, under whom the worst special teams unit in 2016 may have actually gotten worse, but that may not be as simple a proposition for Lynn as we think it is.
I’ll go far as to say this: I don’t think the Chargers will fire Stewart as long as it’s Lynn’s decision to make.
From a factual, statistical standpoint, the Chargers will likely trumpet Stewart’s work on the kick and punt coverage teams, where Derek Watt, Austin Ekeler, and Michael Davis finished among the top ten in total special teams tackles, as evidence of his success. They will also point to the improvement of punter Drew Kaser, who finished in the top five in both gross and net punting average.
They’ll likely absolve him of the blame for the team’s pathetic 66% success rate on field goal attempts based on the revolving door at placekicker, which was more a failure in the personnel department than a reflection of Stewart’s tutelage (or so they will convince themselves). And it wouldn’t be too difficult to excuse the shortcomings in the return game because he inherited the coward otherwise known as Travis Benjamin through no fault of his own.
But none of that is what is driving the decision. The decision will likely be driven not by on-field performance, but by personal relationships and what I believe is an attempt by Anthony Lynn to pay forward what Rex Ryan did for Lynn while they were coaching the Jets. Not following? I’ll explain.
Anthony Lynn and George Stewart go all the way back to 1996 when Lynn played for the 49ers as a third-year running back and special teams player. His special teams coordinator? You guessed it – George Stewart. Lynn would move onto Denver in 1997, but he has always pointed to his time in San Francisco as having shaped him as a person, player, and coach, and he no doubt views Stewart as a mentor.
Then you realize that Lynn made Stewart, a career special teams coordinator and wide receiver coach, his assistant head coach despite having two former head coaches on his staff. Does that sound familiar?
Yep, you guessed it, it’s the same thing Rex Ryan did for Lynn when they were with the Jets – elevating a career running backs coach to assistant head coach in hopes of propping him up and preparing him for a future as a head coach. At the time Lynn had been an assistant for 14 years with no experience as a coordinator, while Stewart had 28 years of coaching experience without ever ascending to a coordinator role.
So, no; I don’t think George Stewart will be fired this offseason if the decision is left up to Anthony Lynn, which it most certainly should be considering the way the team finished the 2017 season.
As much as I think Stewart probably should be fired, I find it hard to believe the team would cut Lynn off at the knees by forcing him to fire his mentor after such a successful first season. It would seriously undermine Lynn with his staff and it would send a complicated message about how much they trust the judgment of their head coach in spite of having won nine of his final twelve games in 2017.
While I think a compelling case could be made for moving Stewart back to wide receivers coach based on the complete lack of progress we’ve seen in the games of Tyrell and Mike Williams (forget Travis Benjamin, he’s hopeless), there is probably only a very small chance of that scenario actually unfolding.
Unfortunately for those who long for an efficient and productive special teams unit, all signs likely point to the return of special teams coordinator George Stewart. The front office will likely accept the blame for playing musical kickers all season and defer to Anthony Lynn as it relates to Stewart’s future with the team, which means he will be back and the search for a kicker, a return game, and basic discipline on special teams continues for at least another year.