Published August 21, 2012
| Sports Network
"Hey, didn't you used to be the San Diego Chargers?"
That phrase probably wasn't uttered, but the brass surrounding the NFL's southernmost team in California couldn't really complain too much if that very line, or something like it, was on the minds of Chargers fans as they headed to training camp to watch preparations for the 2012 season.
After all, the Bolts have only borne a resemblance in uniforms to the juggernaut that dominated the AFC West to the tune of five division championships in six years from 2004-09 over the last two seasons, in which they've won a combined 17 games and missed the playoffs in both, .
Four of those playoff tickets were punched with double-digit wins in the regular season, including a high watermark of 14 triumphs in 2006.
Of course, none of those voyages into the postseason earned the Chargers a much-coveted Super Bowl trip, so even though the schedule has ended shortly after Christmas in two subsequent years, it hasn't seemed like all that much of a departure. In fact, the early endings might have been less traumatic on the fans.
But not on the front office.
"We have lost our respect in the league and our credibility in the league," said general manager A.J. Smith. "We were an elite team. You miss one year in the playoffs? OK. You miss two? You deserve everything that's being said about you."
The heads of both Smith and head coach Norv Turner were squarely positioned on the chopping block following an 8-8 record last season, but both were granted a reprieve by owner Alex Spanos, who decided Turner's five-year total of 49 wins and three division titles warranted one more chance.
And with fewer glaring questions that the rest of the AFC West field, plus the plethora of new talent Smith brought in to replace some departed stars, it might turn out to have been a wise choice.
Canton-bound running back LaDainian Tomlinson is a distant memory and stud receiver Vincent Jackson is now gone as well, but the Chargers landed wide receivers Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish and running back Ronnie Brown in the offseason to add to a toolbox still stocked with prolific names like quarterback Philip Rivers, running back Ryan Mathews and tight end Antonio Gates.
The additions make Rivers more likely to challenge the league-best 4,710 passing yards he racked up in 2010 or the 34 touchdowns he threw in 2008, rather than the 20 interceptions and 88.7 passer rating he slumped to last season.
The arsenal was trimmed some when wideout Vincent Brown suffered a broken ankle in a preseason game, but Rivers nonetheless remains committed to reducing the mistakes that plagued him in 2011 after he'd logged no more than 15 picks in five previous years as a starter.
"I made some poor throws," he said. "Not so much the wrong read, but poor throws. At some points, [I was] trying to do too much. You've got to keep the same mentality, the same aggressiveness. But at the same time, it's being smart with the football. Rather than panic, it's like 'Let's move on to next year, but throw completions.'"
Turner, long known as one of the league's quarterback gurus, sees the progress.
"We've addressed it," said Turner of Rivers' 2011 turnover problems. "It's not going to happen again, but you never assume anything. Part of it is to run the ball better, play better defense and get teams off the field on third down, and then [Rivers] won't feel like he needs to do as much.
"You drive yourself crazy if you're comparing yourself to what someone else is doing. Everyone's situation is totally different. I think he's shown he's capable. But for all of us, it's a matter of getting ourselves back in position where we can make a run."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the San Diego Chargers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 8-8 (tied 1st, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2009, lost to N.Y. Jets in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Norv Turner (49-31 in five seasons with Chargers, 107-113-1 in 14 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Hal Hunter (seventh season with Chargers, 1st as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: John Pagano (11th season with Chargers, first as DC)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Philip Rivers, QB (4624 passing yards, 27 TD, 20 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Eric Weddle, FS (88 tackles, 7 INT, 11 PD)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 6th overall (16th rushing, 6th passing), tied 5th scoring (25.4 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 16th overall (20th rushing, 13th passing), 21st scoring (23.6 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Robert Meachem (from Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (from Ravens), SS Atari Bigby (from Seahawks), QB Charlie Whitehurst (from Seahawks), RB Ronnie Brown (from Eagles), RB Jackie Battle (from Chiefs), FB Le'Ron McClain (from Chiefs), WR Eddie Royal (from Broncos), WR Roscoe Parrish (from Bills), WR Micheal Spurlock (from Buccaneers), TE Dante Rosario (from Broncos), OG Rex Hadnot (from Cardinals), OT Mario Henderson (free agent), DE Kendall Reyes (2nd Round, Connecticut), NT Aubrayo Franklin (from Saints), OLB Melvin Ingram (1st Round, South Carolina), ILB Demorrio Williams (from Chiefs), S Brandon Taylor (3rd Round, LSU), S Corey Lynch (from Buccaneers)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Vincent Jackson (to Buccaneers), LT Marcus McNeill (released), DE Luis Castillo (released), OLB Travis LaBoy (released), SS Bob Sanders (free agent), QB Billy Volek (released), RB Mike Tolbert (to Panthers), WR Patrick Crayton (free agent), WR Bryan Walters (to Vikings), C Scott Mruczkowski (to Panthers), DE Tommie Harris (free agent), ILB Stephen Cooper (free agent), ILB Na'il Diggs (free agent), CB Dante Hughes (to Giants), S Steve Gregory (to Patriots), S Paul Oliver (free agent)
QB: While Rivers (4624 passing yards, 27 TD, 20 INT) remains San Diego's No. 1 man under center for good reason, the drop-off to No. 2 was made a little less precipitous by the offseason re-acquisition of Charlie Whitehurst (298 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), who was drafted by the Chargers in 2006 and appeared in nine games with Seattle over the past two seasons. With the team releasing journeyman Kevin O'Connell early in camp and veteran Kyle Boller retiring one day after signing as a free agent, rookie Jarrett Lee is the top candidate if San Diego opts to keep three quarterbacks.
RB: The bulk of the ball-carrying load presumably goes to Mathews, who had shared time with workhorse Mike Tolbert before the latter signed with Carolina in the offseason. Mathews has been prolific when he's played, having gained 1,091 rushing yards and scoring six touchdowns on 222 carries last season, but has faced a significant challenge in staying healthy. A broken collarbone in training camp leaves him absent for the initial part of the regular season and adds value to Ronnie Brown, who gained just 136 yards in limited action with Philadelphia last year but has a 4.2 yards-per-carry average over a seven- season career. Free-agent pickup Le'Ron McClain (14 receptions, 1 TD with Chiefs) tops the depth chart at fullback.
WR/TE: Losing Vincent Jackson and his 1,106 receiving yards in 2011 hurts, but the additions of Meachem (40 receptions, 6 TD with Saints) and Royal (19 receptions, 1 TD with Broncos) help fill the gap, as does the deal to bring in ex-Bill Parrish. Vincent Brown (19 receptions, 2 TD) also will see balls thrown his way upon returning from his ankle injury and Gates, coming off his eighth career Pro Bowl nod, jumped from 50 catches in 2010 to 64 last season while scoring seven times. With Jackson gone, taking over as the No. 1 big- play threat is gifted speedster Malcom Floyd (43 receptions, 5 TD), who's averaged 17.9 yards per catch on 177 receptions as a role player since 2004. Floyd's 19.9 yards-per-catch average last season was the league's best.
OL: Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman retired in the offseason, leaving free- agent pickup Rex Hadnot (from Cardinals) and holdover Tyronne Green to battle for the right to start in that spot. The winner will be flanked by Jared Gaither at left tackle and Nick Hardwick at center. Hardwick didn't surrender a single sack last year, while Gaither played well while subbing for the injured and since-released Marcus McNeill after signing with San Diego following a midseason release by Baltimore. The right side of the line also returns intact, with Louis Vasquez the first-stringer at guard and Jeromey Clary at tackle.
DL: The Chargers lost some statistical steam on defense when coordinator Ron Rivera left following the 2010 season to become the head coach at Carolina, as the unit dropped from first overall in team defense during Rivera's final year to 23rd in the league in sacks (32) and 28th in yards allowed per pass attempt. They used a second-round pick in this past draft on end Kendall Reyes (Connecticut) and see him as a future starter and immediate producer, though San Diego figures to at least begin the season with a front three of Antonio Garay (57 tackles, 2.5 sacks) in the middle and Corey Liuget (19 tackles, 1 sack) and Vaughn Martin (47 tackles, 1 sack) on the ends. The trio weighs in at a combined 928 pounds and combined for 123 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks in 2011.
LB: San Diego selected rush linebacker Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) at the No. 18 overall pick in April's draft and expect him to start strong in the pros from the right outside position, where the rookie will rotate with ex- Raven Jarret Johnson, who made 56 tackles and had 2 1/2 sacks while with Baltimore last season. Veterans Shaun Phillips (42 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT) and Takeo Spikes (106 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are back on the left side, while Donald Butler (96 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) again holds down the top spot on the inside right after a strong all-around 2011 season.
DB: A secondary generally considered ordinary will rely on the increased mayhem the Chargers hope to produce up front. Safeties Atari Bigby (free agent) and Brandon Taylor (3rd Round. LSU) are new to the backfield and are competing for one starting spot, while corner Quentin Jammer is 33 years old and coming off a rough 2011 season in which he had 53 tackles and no interceptions. The other corner is Antoine Cason, who also had 53 tackles while adding a pair of interceptions. Free safety Eric Weddle is the big hitter and playmaker of the unit and had seven interceptions to go along with 88 tackles in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Chargers were historically bad on special teams in 2010 and could point to the unit as the reason enough games got away to eliminate a playoff chance that year. The improvement was dramatic in 2011, when only one kick was returned for a score by an opponent and San Diego had no punts blocked. Newcomers Royal and Parrish, who own a combined six career return scores between them, could provide an instant upgrade in that part of the game, though returnee Richard Goodman averaged a very solid 27.5 yards per runback on kickoffs last year. Kicker Nate Kaeding returns after missing nearly all of 2011 due to injury and will battle replacement Nick Novak, while punter Mike Scifres had a 47.5 yards-per-kick average and placed 17 punts inside the 20.
PROGNOSIS: Though they'd fallen off the playoff map the last two seasons, it's not as if the Chargers have to go through a full-scale rebuilding process to get back near the AFC elite. Rivers is still in his prime years and remains motivated by the fact that several draft mates -- namely Eli Manning and his two Super Bowl rings -- have been more successful as professionals. In fact, the rest of San Diego's offensive cast still reaches as high as much of the rest of the conference when stacked together. If the defense can get somewhere closer to its 2010 rank than its 2011 numbers, this Chargers season won't end in December.