AFC West Preview – What Lies Beneath the Real San Diego Chargers
The AFC West is one of the hardest division in the league to figure out this year. Not because there are a bunch of good teams who are going to battle it out for 17 weeks before deciding an ultimate champion. Rather, it’s hard to figure out if any one of the four teams in the division will be even good enough to finish over .500. At first glance it may look like this won’t be a problem for the West division, but it is important to consider the schedule, too. Each team in this division will face one of the toughest schedules in the league this year and that is sure to keep the division packed tightly all year long. Since there is no clear favourite, let’s opt for the process of elimination.
The San Diego Chargers are receiving plenty of buzz this pre-season for being a strong contender in the AFC’s West division – same old, same old. There is plenty of talk about the strong additions they have made to the defense and many are optimistic the offense can again rank amongst the elite units in the league this year. I think by focusing on the small additions the team made the real problem in San Diego is masked.
In the 2009 regular season the Chargers finished 13-3, but made no noise in the playoffs. The following year they finished 9-7 (2nd in the division) and followed that up last year with another second place finish, at 8-8. During that time they didn’t suffer significantly debilitating injuries and they weren’t beat-out by a juggernaut from within the AFC West. In fact, the division has been quite weak. In 2009, the Kansas City Chiefs won the division at 10-6 but only had a DVOA good enough for 17th overall. Last season was even worse. The Denver Broncos won the division with the unimpressive record of 8-8, and ranked a very unimpressive 22nd in total DVOA.
The Chargers simply weren’t good enough to capitalize, in spite of having the best quarterback in the division in Philip Rivers. Now the division is turning a corner. Peyton Manning has come to town to play for the reigning division champs. The Chiefs are looking to improve on last year’s seven win season with a much healthier team. The AFC West will be tougher than in past years and the fact of the matter is that San Diego has the worst team they have had in many years – a recipe for turmoil.
San Diego has had little turnover at some of its key positions in the past several years. They still have Phillip Rivers, Antonio Gates, head coach Norv Turner, and GM AJ Smith. Oh, and they still have those enticing powder blue uniforms. All of this presents the illusion that the Chargers are still that 13-3 team from three seasons past, but really they are just a poor facsimile of that team. Gone are the glory days of Ladainian Tomlinson. Gone is Darren Sproles. Gone is their top wide receiver, Vincent Jackson. Gone are many of the players who made up a solid defense that helped San Diego dominate the division in the mid 2000′s (Jamall Williams, Shawne Merriman, Stephen Cooper, Antonio Cromartie, Kevin Burnett).
I am not convinced the Chargers have adequately replaced these players. Malcolm Floyd and Robert Meachem have been tabbed as the Chargers starting wide receivers this year. Neither is a bad player, but neither has had a distinguished career either. Floyd is a long-time Charger who will turn 31 during the season, in spite of his age he has never started 10 games or caught 50 balls in a single season. Meachem, a former first round pick, was picked up this offseason from New Orleans. He contributed to a potent offense in New Orleans but was never the focal point, and he ,too, has never caught 50 passes. These two will have a tough time replacing the production of two time pro-bowler Vincent Jackson.
Making their job tougher will be the recent loss of running back Ryan Mathews. The Chargers play-action offense is much more effective with a commanding lead back. Mathews has a broken collar bone, an injury that could see him return as early as week 1. However, I am skeptical. With a collarbone injury a player is totally sidelined, you cannot lift weights and cannot run until it is healed, and only once it is totally healed are you ready for any sort of contact again? This is devastating for a RB who has had an injury in every year of his career so far and has already suffered through conditioning issues in his rookie season. Even if Mathews can return healthy he hasn’t done anything to prove he can handle a full-time workload. The defense has similar issues. Except for Eric Weddle, any standout from years past is aging rapidly or has already been jettisoned. While the Chargers have invested several picks in the defense recently their can be no guarantee they will be ready for prime time.
The 2006-2009 Chargers were one of the most dominating teams in the league. They had one of the leagues top QB’s and had all-stars at several other key positions. They probably should have won a Superbowl at some point, but this team is far removed from that opportunity now. If the Chargers haven’t had what it takes to win the division each of the last two seasons with a roster superior to their division opponents then why can they be trusted to do it now?
A pick against the Chargers is always a risky one. They own the division’s best quarterback, and if he stays healthy, possibly the division’s best player at any position, Antonio Gates. In a division that lacks a clearly dominant team those two guys are enough to give the Chargers a chance to win any game. While having Philip Rivers may make it tough for the Chargers to finish the season in last place, their inconsistency and diminished roster lead by coach Norv Turner almost guarantee they won’t finish in first either.
For other team previews, click here.
Feel free to leave your comments below and follow me on twitter @LastWordBrown