The artistically painful ways the Chargers have managed to re-invent losing this season have been hard to watch, and we may just be thankful for each and every mistake when we look back.
At this point in the NFL schedule, and possibly even as early as two months ago, supporting the Chargers has provided the disappointing realization that they are not building on the 12-4 team they were from last season.
A team that had just finished a season with the best record in the conference, equipped with a young head coach, essentially entered the year with the same roster as last year’s with the exception of productive role players Tyrell Williams (41 receptions 653 yards 5 TD) and Darius Philon (50 tackles 8 tackles for loss and 4 sacks). While both were quality players in their time with the Chargers, their role and production was far from irreplaceable.
When you factor in a draft class where the Chargers addressed two of their biggest needs in the first two rounds to pair with a team loaded with young pro bowlers, including a secondary that featured 3 pro bowlers in Casey Hayward, Derwin James and Adrian Phillips, you raise expectations. By the way, nickel corner Desmond King, who wasn’t mentioned, earned All-Pro honours instead that year, forcing Derwin James to settle for All-Pro second team. The roster has featured almost the same embarrassment of riches at running back and appeared to only have weaknesses in a couple of areas, namely the offensive and defensive tackle spot.
Fast forward to December of 2019, and not only are the Chargers are eliminated from playoff contention, they are currently on pace to have the 10th pick in the NFL draft in April. Could this unexplainable drop off have to do with luck? Absolutely. At least partially. The Chargers annual tradition with injuries has been no different, as critical players to each side of the ball sustained injuries that cost them most or all of the season in both 2018 and 2019. Where the team may have been “lucky” is that in 2018 it happened to Joey Bosa, who Isaac Rochell filled in admirably for, and the Chargers could count on Antonio Gates to ditch his walker and still get a few catches every week when Hunter Henry went down. Whereas this season’s catastrophes have doubled down at safety, where Derwin James is replaced by Adrian Phillips, who 2 weeks later is replaced by an undrafted free agent Roderic Teamer. The already paper thin offensive line, who had only two quality starters, saw both of those players miss more than half the season with a series of auditions for replacements.
I’m not proud of myself for referencing 1-possession game stats, because how teams handle close games in the 4th quarter is what makes teams good or bad, and chalking it up to mostly up to luck is useless. However, the Chargers won six of their twelve games last year by a single possession, and every single one of their eight losses this year were by one possession or less. On a larger scale this team almost always plays to its level of competition, and while their glaring weaknesses make this roster not as complete as a 12-4 record would suggest, it’s also far from the kind of roster that teams at the bottom of the league are tempted to blow up. While Anthony Lynn has made decisions that put his future up in the air at this point and should be held accountable for his mistakes, the coaching situation is a whole other conversation that has many more questions than answers at the moment.
Which leads to the very sad conversation that I believe Philip Rivers no longer gives the team the best chance to win the Super Bowl and should not be extended. I began following this team and the sport as a whole during his first year as a starter and Philip will forever be one of my favourite players of all time. The idea that first Tomlinson, then Gates and now seemingly Rivers career will all end without the championship ring they each deserve is not one I like to dwell on. At the end of the day however, while I believe Rivers could redeem himself with even mediocre protection if he were to come back for a victory lap, it is no longer the smartest move.
Rivers has been dealt some terrible offensive lines over the decade, and mastered everything involved with stepping up in the pocket, throwing with pressure in his face and using anticipation, but we’re no longer seeing those traits with the same consistency.
His once flawless pocket presence now either has the clock going off in his head too early, or too late. His arm strength has noticeably declined since the midway point of last year and when he’s not able to step into his throws with constant pressure, his ball floats like the final buzzer-beater in an Air Bud movie. Not only is he the most one dimensional quarterback in the league as far as not being a threat running the ball, he’s barely able to make a throw on the run at this point. An offensive line that can’t protect, and a quarterback that runs like a man who’s never tried a sport is not a winning formula.
Warren Sharp also provides a fair amount of context to the fact that the Chargers chronic inability to convert on short yardage situations probably has a lot to do with their refusal to run the very most effective short yardage play. Keep in mind, these numbers were posted in the summer and the team has not called a single sneak this season, so these numbers are even worse today:
There is NO BETTER play in short yardage situations than the QB sneak.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) July 24, 2019
78% of the time they convert 1st downs
Since 2015 many QBs have ~25+ total sneaks. But one QB refuses to use them.
Never missing a game, Rivers has ONE in 4 yrs!
The very exciting silver lining in all of this has already been mentioned earlier. The team is slated to pick 10th overall before today’s week 14 games shape things.
If they lose to Jacksonville, the season’s final opponents consist of the Vikings, Raiders and Chiefs. The Chargers have already lost to the Raiders and Chiefs and the Vikings are having a better season than both of them. Essentially, there’s a very realistic chance the Chargers could be picking near the top 5 this year, and with other teams near the bottom like the Giants and Redskins seemingly set at Quarterback after drafting them early last year, being near the 5th pick projects to leave at least one of the top 3 QB prospects available in Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert.
While it’s entirely too early to pretend we have an accurate idea of how the draft will unfold, going that route would be far and away the best case scenario. They should not only have their quarterback of the future who can escape from pressure better than Rivers is at this point, but the team they would be paying the rookie roughly $15 million less this way and be able to directly apply those savings to better protection.
The Chargers rank in the upper half of available salary cap space this upcoming offseason, with only Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler to consider paying sizeable money to for extensions. I don’t expect Thomas Davis, Brandon Mebane or Denzel Perryman back and moving on gives the team $16M more in cap space. Russell Okung is on the books for $17 million, and if he doesn’t decide to retire after his health scare that deal will likely be re-worked just as Melvin Ingram and his 16.6 million cap figure will be too.
This team has a world of talent on the defensive side, talent at all the skill positions around the quarterback and while a big renovation to the offensive line is required, this team is not far at all from having a very QB friendly constructed roster, and potentially, a Quarterback who doesn’t need the help.