Friday, June 27, 2014

San Diego Chargers 2014 Preview: The NFL's Stealth Bomber Flying Under The Radar

Charger OLB Dwight Freeney is healthy again - chargers.com 
San Diego is known for its defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman, builders of the legendary aircraft known as the Stealth Bomber, which is designed to penetrate dense defenses and fly undetected. San Diego is also known for its San Diego Chargers, which is similarly designed to penetrate dense defenses and fly undetected. 

Despite a new coach and general manager, a rejuvenated Pro Bowl quarterback, consecutively stellar drafts, shrewd free-agent and in-house signings, an improbable late run last season and a 27-10 playoff road win in January against the Cincinnati Bengals, who hadn't lost at home all season, the Chargers are the Stealth Bomber of the NFL: They're a potentially lethal machine that is flying way under the national media's radar. 

The league's know-it-all pundits aren't saying much about or expecting much from this group. In Sporting News' splashy 228-page season preview, for example, the Chargers aren't even mentioned until page 24, where they're preposterously picked as the 23rd best team in league. Really, Sporting News? If their editors did send a reporter to the Chargers' facility this off-season, that correspondent must have spent more time enjoying his employer's expense account at one or more of the Gaslamp District's finest restaurants than studying the Chargers' workouts or meetings.

If NFL beat writers paid closer attention they'd discover what the Charger faithful already know: this team is ready to fly. If a few key players like outside linebackers Dwight Freeney (above) and Melvin Ingram can stay healthy, the Chargers will contend for the AFC Championship, which was in sight last year before a close but disappointing playoff road loss to the Denver Broncos, a team San Diego dominated in Denver earlier in the season with an impressive ball control offense.

There's every reason to believe the Chargers will be better this season than last, despite a tougher schedule. The virtually unstoppable offense returns all 11 starters and now boasts another veteran running back in Donald Brown. The offense will also benefit from the courageous return of wideout Malcolm Floyd, who nearly broke his neck last year. 



QB Philip Rivers loves beating the Chiefs at Arrowhead - chargers.com
Even more importantly, the holes in San Diego's defense appear to have been filled (more on that in a minute). That few football sages outside San Diego recognize this is probably just the way general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy want it. Telesco, 40, who last year replaced the pompous A.J. Smith, and McCoy, 41, who last year replaced the hapless Norv Turner, are quietly but steadfastly making this team a contender again.

In other words, let the haters hate and the doubters doubt. Meanwhile, Telesco, who spent 15 years with the Indianapolis Colts in various positions including vice president of football operations, is a smooth and tireless operator who has resided over two superb drafts. Among others, Telesco last year picked Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen, a burgeoning superstar who Sporting News named its NFL Rookie of the Year in 2013. And this year Telesco selected TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, who has the tools to become a difference-making defensive back, which is what San Diego needs.
 

Telesco is also responsible for such smart free-agent acquisitions as cornerback Brandon Flowers and linebacker Freeney, and for the important re-signings of such key Charger starters as linebacker Donald Butler and offensive guard Chad Rinehart.

Meanwhile, McCoy deploys an effective coaching style that stresses discipline, toughness and accountability but also embraces a family-like environment. The only knock on the stoic first-time head coach is his sometimes dismissive posture with the media. But if he keeps winning, I can live with that. I expect McCoy to have a long and very successful NFL head coaching career. If he could just loosen up and lighten up a bit with reporters, it wouldn't hurt.

Pro Bowl Quarterback Ready for Deeper Playoff Run

The Chargers already had an elite quarterback in Philip Rivers, who as I predicted returned to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time last season after suffering behind arguably the worst offensive line in football for two prior seasons. Last year, that 'O' line was rebuilt, Rivers was given more responsibility, and more short and medium-range passes were plugged into the offensive scheme. The result was a thing of beauty.



Chargers face Bengals in road playoff win in January - chargers.com
Despite losing Danario Alexander and Floyd, the team's two starting wide receivers, to injuries last season, Rivers shined. Proving his clueless doubters wrong, Rivers led the league in completion percentage, threw for 4,479 yards and 32 touchdowns, and tied a career high with a 105.5 passer rating. As I wrote last December, he easily could have been named the league's Most Valuable Player over Manning. His overall numbers were bested only by Manning's gaudy stats, but Rivers had less to work with.

With a record of 5-7 at one point and seemingly out of the playoff race, Rivers and his team caught fire, winning five in a row. They probably would have beaten the Denver Broncos in the playoffs if they had only a slightly better secondary. Despite playing in that game without workhorse running back Ryan Mathews, who had his best season overall but injured his ankle, Rivers and wide receiver Allen found their rhythm in the second half. The Bolts scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and Bronco fans feared the worst.
 

San Diego's defense forced two turnovers and held Denver to fewer than than 30 points for the third time last season. But ultimately it came down to a third-and-17 from Denver's 20-yard line with 3:06 left. As ESPN correctly reported, a "miscommunication in coverage" by Charger defensive backs allowed Manning to connect with tight end Julius Thomas on a 21-yard pass. And that was pretty much it.

Final score: Denver 24, San Diego 17.


Confidence Building at Charger Headquarters

Despite that bitterly disappointing loss, Charger players and coaches gained a ton of confidence last season. After the Denver game Charger defensive lineman Corey Liuget, who played all of last season with a torn labrum but is healthy now, told ESPN maturely, “We just have to learn from it. And next year, when we come into this type of environment, we know what we have to do.”

Added cornerback Shareece Wright, “We have high expectations now. We expect a lot from this team, and each player. We're looking forward."
 

Looking forward, indeed. There's an infectious optimism now at Chargers HQ, and it's not just because of the playoff win. It's also because the team addressed each of its alleged deficiencies. And because they are a much healthier bunch now. Anyone who watched the Chargers last year knows they were just a couple players and a little bit of confidence short of being a championship contender. 


Former Chiefs DB Brandon Flowers is now a Charger - kcchiefs.com
San Diego's weakest links were the secondary and the pass rush, which of course work in tandem. Bolt defenders gave up the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL last season, and had just 11 pics, which was the fifth-fewest in the league. But the 2014 secondary should be the team's most improved. 

Wright improved his game demonstrably in the last half of the season, and San Diego drafted the speedy and athletic Verrett in the first round. He could be a starter as soon as late September, although Wright will challenge him. It'll be one of the more interesting battles at training camp, which begins July 24.

An Enormous Free Agent Signing This Week


But the biggest news of the Chargers' entire off-season came this week, when the Bolts signed former Kansas City Chiefs' cornerback Flowers to a one-year contract filled with incentives. This is a huge get that should give San Diego what it needs to catch Denver in the AFC West.

Flowers, who's only 28, made the Pro Bowl last season, but the truth is he struggled in the Chiefs' new press-man scheme. However, there's no question he is a talented DB with huge upside and a lot left in the tank. He fits Charger defensive coordinator's scheme much better, and he's charismatic and a little cocky, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. These are are all things San Diego's ill-defined defensive unit desperately needs. 

The fact that Flowers agreed to a one-year deal is a statement that he knows he has to prove he is worthy of a new long-term contract. Whether he's a slot corner or an outside cover guy, I think Flowers will be all over the field this year. He has the ability and the desire. He'll be a game-changer. 

Pass Rush Will Be Much Improved

As for the Chargers' pass rush, it wasn't pretty last season. In past years SD's outside pass rushers often gave the team an edge over Peyton Manning dating back to when he was with the Colts. But
San Diego tied for 23rd in the league in sacks last season with 35, and had just 10 sacks on third down, which was second worst in the NFL. 


Freeney, for whom the Bolts paid big bucks for a two-year deal, looked good for the first three games, but his season ended in the fourth game when he tore his quad tendon. Freeney is healthy now and itching to show that his career is not done. Charger fans are obviously hoping that Freeney, a class act who is very well liked off the field, lasts more than four games this season.
 

Freeney is bookended by two other quality outside linebackers who've battled injuries but are good to go: former Baltimore Raven Jarret Johnson, who missed five games for the Chargers last season because of hand and hamstring injuries, and Ingram, who was stalled 16 months ago by a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). He played the last four games last season and is expected to be 100 percent when the Bolts play their first game at Arizona on Monday Night Football, Sept. 8.

The Chargers also drafted an athletic outside linebacker in second-rounder Jerry Attaochu from Georgia Tech, who ate quarterbacks for lunch in college. He'll likely get a fair amount of playing time this season, as well, to keep Freeney, Johnson and Ingram fresh. If the three experienced pass rushers can stay off the disabled list, and rookie Attaochu and the several other linebacker options the Bolts enjoy play as well as expected, this unit will be the team's biggest surprise to those who aren't paying attention.


Is the Charger Defense Catching Up to the Offense?

Overall, San Diego's much-improved D is working to catch up to an offense that is one of the league's best. If the offensive line plays as it did last year, and it should, the Charger offense will be scary good. One of the few football writers who's been writing about this is ESPN's Eric Williams, who recently noted that in off-season workouts, Rivers picked up right where he left off last season. 

"Few balls hit the ground during two-minute drills, as Ladarius Green, Keenan Allen, Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal made catches all over the field," Williams wrote. "Add to that a diverse group of running backs in Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown in playing behind an experienced offensive line, and the Chargers should have one of the best offenses in the NFL for a second straight season."

Well put, Eric. Despite that astute observation, though, the Chargers aren't getting much love. They aren't mentioned much in discussions of post-season possibilities, let alone potential Super Bowl contenders. Sporting News doesn't even think the Bolts will make the playoffs. But they will. 

If just a few things go right, this team will not only make the playoffs, they'll shock the football world and be the AFC's representative in Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona next February, perhaps against the San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of Super Bowl XXIX in 1995. By then, maybe the Chargers will even show up on the media's radar. Meantime, keep your eyes open for the 2014 San Diego Chargers, pro football's Stealth Bomber.

16 comments:

  1. your stories are amazing! thank you for writing!

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  2. Very good article. Loved every bit of it!!!

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  3. Thanks for showing our team the love that the national media never does! Should be a great season in 2014!

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  4. Great stuff Jamie. It's a shame more people don't realize how much of a threat San Diego is, but perhaps it is better that way. It'll feel just as good to see the surprised looks on their faces. And besides, TT and McCoy probably prefer to stay out of the national spotlight for now anyways.

    I look forward to whatever you post in the future!

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  5. Great article. Fun read. Nice to have some love thrown our way for a change..

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  6. Nice article! You said what all of us Charger fans know, this team is going to sneak up on people and be this seasons big surprise! Thank you!

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    1. you're welcome. thanks for reading!

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  7. You nailed it. SD beat Cincy at home last yr in the play offs. Something no other team did in the regular season. SD2014 is vastly improved. Anything less than a play off win or two will certainly be a disappointment.

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  8. Yes, hardly any coaches dismissive of the media are in the HOF . NOT ! McCoy keep doing what you are doing .

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    1. great coach. just needs a better attitude when dealing with the press. deal with it.

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  9. Replies
    1. pretty tacky plug, shadia, whoever you are. at least you could have pretend ed that you actually read my blog! :)

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