The first link, NFL.com’s 2010 team stats page, reveals that the San Diego Chargers had the league’s top-rated offense and defense last season. The second link, NFL.com’s 2010 standings page, reveals that the Chargers failed to make the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record.
At the risk of sounding like Jackie Chiles, it’s almost unfathomable. It’s unprecedented. And it’s criminal. But that’s what a nightmarish start and abysmal special-teams play can do to a franchise in a league where your annual fate is determined in just 16 games.
But the Chargers have overhauled the special-teams unit, starting with the addition of Rich Bicaccia, who leaves the Bucs to take over as the special teams coordinator. He has a sterling rep and won a Super Bowl in Tampa. One year after giving up four return touchdowns and having four punts blocked, the team also made a conscious effort to draft players who can contribute immediately on special teams.
That’s been San Diego’s primary problem, and they’ve addressed it, but it’s hard to tangibly address the other problem that has plagued them in recent years: slow starts. Here’s how the Bolts have begun their last four seasons: 1-3, 3-5, 2-3, 2-5.
The Chiefs and Raiders have become too strong. The Chargers can’t have mental lapses this year, and they can’t stumble again out of the gate. This is probably Norv Turner’s last chance to do something big with a very talented roster.
All of the pieces are in place, but we’ve heard that before…
2010 in a nutshell: Thanks to the aforementioned problems, they fail to win the AFC West for the first time since 2005.
Three predictions for 2011:
1. Philip Rivers will make a run at some records: Rivers led the league in passing yards last year. He’s smack dab in the middle of his prime and he has increased his passing numbers in four consecutive seasons. Last year, he managed to compile a ridiculous 4,710 yards through the air despite only having Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson in small chunks. Jackson is ready to go from the get-go this year, and Gates should be healthy. If things can stay that way, Rivers will make a strong push for offensive player of the year honors, and maybe even Dan Marino’s single-season passing yards mark.
2. The defense will be just as good despite losing Ron Rivera: With Rivera in Carolina, Greg Manusky comes from San Francisco to take over a defense that has been tweaked quite a bit. But they’re good tweaks, and Manusky appears to be perfect for the job of toughening up a sometimes timid group. Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders might not have much time left on their biological football clocks, but they’ll bring a fierceness that didn’t always exist in San Diego. Plus, top pick Corey Liuget is already getting rave reviews — the Chargers think they’ve landed a future Pro Bowler at the all-important 3-4 end spot. If recent high draft picks Larry English and Donald Butler can step up on the left side of the D, they’ll have a chance to improve in 2011. And there wasn’t a lot of room for improvement to start with.
3. They’ll miss Darren Sproles more than expected: It won’t be a game-changer, but Sproles’ presence as a back who could also contribute as a stellar receiver will be missed. The team obviously has high hopes for 2010 top pick Ryan Mathews, but the former Fresno State back has had trouble staying healthy and failed a physical at the start of training camp. With Mathews a question mark, battering ram Mike Tolbert will probably become the undisputed top back this year. The duo should get the job done, but neither player is as versatile as Sproles was.
The final word(s): They’re clearly the best team in the division, but I’m still a tad concerned about how they’ll start with the Patriots, Jets, Packers and Chiefs (twice) in the first half. I’m going to give them the AFC West, but not in a landslide.