It’s official. The Chargers’ Super Bowl “window of opportunity” has closed. The Norv Turner era is, although not officially announced as of this date, coming to an end in San Diego. All indications are that, at the conclusion of the season, General Manager A.J. Smith will be fired as well. What seemed like a solid administrative combination at the time they were hired, just didn’t pan out for numerous reasons. Whether it was poor game planning, questionable playcalling, erratic player performance, the inability for players to stay healthy or simple misjudgment of player talent in the draft and free agency- the reality is that the time has come to chart a new course moving forward. The new Chargers administrative regime will first need to take a long, hard look at the current roster. The team doesn’t need a complete overhaul. There are a number of solid, up-and-coming youngsters that show tremendous potential. In this first installment of a twelve-part series of articles devoted to analyzing the team, I will begin by focusing on the centerpiece of any football organization…the quarterback. He is the leader, the motivator, the very heart and soul of a franchise. It is his voice that is heard in the locker room and at the press conferences. He is the face in the huddle that players look to for confidence and belief in critical moments of games. The importance of this position cannot be overstated. I humbly submit, for your consideration, my evaluation of the Chargers quarterbacks as the team moves into the first off-season in the rebuilding process.
Starting QB: Philip Rivers
When Marty Schottenheimer coached Rivers during the 2003 NCAA Senior Bowl, he was impressed with Philip’s strong arm and quick delivery. Mostly though, Marty was smitten with his leadership skills. His command of the huddle and fiery demeanor on the field enticed Schottenheimer to pursue Rivers despite the fact that the Bolts had Drew Brees returning as the starting quarterback the next season. Marty felt that Philip had that “it” factor that would, one day, take the Chargers all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
After playing backup for two seasons, in 2006 Rivers was given the starting job when Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent. The Philip Rivers era had officially begun. Rivers, along with future hall of fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson, helped lead the Chargers to an incredible 14-2 season. In his first full season as the starter, Rivers completed 61% of his passes, accounting for 22 TDs and only 9 INTs. The Chargers would lose to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs that year, costing Schottenheimer his job.
Enter Norv Turner in 2007. Pairing Turner and Rivers would seem to have been a match made in heaven, and initially the two worked well together. Over the first four seasons under Turner, Rivers averaged 28 TDs, 12 INTs with a completion percentage of 64% per season. In 2007, Rivers led the Bolts to the AFC Championship game while playing with torn ligaments in his right knee. Rivers leadership qualities were on full display as he played through the pain, sporting an enormous brace on his injured knee. Despite the courage, the Bolts lost to the Patriots in chilly New England. Since that loss, Rivers and Turner have compiled a playoff record of 1-2 and have missed the playoffs entirely the last three seasons.
The decline in Rivers’ play has been difficult to witness for Chargers fans. Philip’s fire and hard-nosed determination on the field earlier in his career made him a fan favorite. There are some devoted fans, to this day, that refuse to acknowledge that his skills are diminishing. He simply does not possess the arm strength he once had. His footwork has regressed as his offensive line has deteriorated the past two seasons. His decision making has become flawed under the constant pressure to “make things happen” while leading a dysfunctional offensive system that is not geared to the talent (or lack thereof) within it. The “snowball effect” of all of these issues has been a dramatic increase in interceptions and an ever growing disgruntled fan base.
Can Philip Rivers still get it done? Is he just too far gone at this point? How will he respond to a new offensive direction under whomever takes the reins next season? Given the fact that this year’s crop of draftable and free agent QBs is relatively weak, Rivers will be afforded a chance to right the ship. I believe that the new head coach will not be as patient as Turner was however. Rivers may have one season to attempt to reestablish himself as the Chargers quarterback heading into the future. I, for one, will be pulling hard for him to do just that.
Backup QB: Charlie Whitehurst
Whitehurst is on his second tour of duty with the Chargers. Drafted in 2006, Charlie’s main job was to send in the plays from Turner to Rivers and to chart plays throughout the game. Whitehurst has always demonstrated enough during preseason games to make the coaching staff feel like he could hold down the fort in a pinch. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks made a trade with the Chargers for Whitehurst, in hopes that he could step in and handle being the full-time starting quarterback for their franchise. In two seasons with Seattle, he totaled 3 TDs and 4 INTs- playing in just 9 of 32 games. The Chargers resigned Whitehurst when Seattle let him go last spring.
Whitehurst is under contract for next season, but his position as backup is tenuous at best. Perhaps another solid preseason showing next fall may earn him one more season backing up Rivers, but a long-term relationship with the new head coach seems unlikely. Head coaches generally prefer choosing their own quarterbacks rather than hanging onto somebody the previous coach employed…
Third-String QB: Jarrett Lee
Lee spent this season on the Chargers practice squad. Jarrett’s senior season at LSU was impressive. He totaled 14 TDs and just 3 INTs with a completion percentage of 62.3 and an overall QB rating of 152. Beyond that, there really isn’t much to judge Lee on yet. His preseason performances were inconsistent, showing real promise at times and looking like a typical, overwhelmed rookie at other times. He’ll need a strong showing next preseason in order to impress a new head coach that hadn’t selected him in the first place…
In terms of overall “rebuilding” need, on a scale from 1 to 10 (with 1 being “no need” and 10 being “replace at all costs”), I’d rate the quarterback position as 6. Rivers may bounce back under a new system and coach, but Rivers production has declined enough the last two seasons that his future with the Chargers is not guaranteed. The #2 quarterback position, in my opinion, needs to be upgraded. I have ZERO confidence that Whitehurst could lead our team effectively over an extended period of time. It’s too early to make a definitive assessment of Jarret Lee yet.
Change can be a scary thing. In the Chargers case though, maintaining the status quo is far scarier… The time has arrived to rebuild the Bolts.