After 12 games and another turbulent loss, I figured it’s about time I join the discussion and voice my opinion about the 2013 Chargers.
With the new regime, a different system, and all the player changes, I personally didn’t really know what to expect. The season hasn’t been boring, that’s for sure. Characterized by inconsistent results, the offense has been surprising and mostly explosive, the defense disappointing. Furthermore, a few of the losses came with such a bad ending that it still has fans talking about it.
As could be expected, responses on social media have been equally up and down depending on whether the Bolts won or lost. With the season nearing its end, a negative record, and the Chargers playoff chances as slim as a new San Diego stadium, the comments have become harsher. I get it, I’m passionate about my favorite team too and you want them to win, so if they don’t, it’s frustrating.
Lets not forget, however, that these Bolts are a team in transition. It’s essentially a ‘rookie’ season for the new coaching staff and players as they have to adapt to a new environment and changes respectively. It’s also the season in which inherited players are being assessed, whether they still are a fit. These processes take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I see many positives in the 2013 Chargers, which I’ll elaborate on below.
Mike McCoy / Ken Whisenhunt
Mike McCoy came to San Diego with the reputation of creating a system around the strength of (key) players instead of forcing them into a specific preferred one (Norv). It’s not too soon to argue that he has lived up to said reputation with the Chargers as well. Together with Ken Whisenhunt he has installed a new offensive scheme, initially based on shorter throws and a quicker release, that has helped thrive Philip Rivers. More on him later. It has also improved the run game and all in all had the Bolts produce some interesting numbers so far this season:
- A total offense of 401.6 Yds/G (4th in NFL); compared to 297.2 Yds/G in 2012 (31st!) *
- 23.2 Pts/G (16th); compared to 21.9 Pts/G (20th) last year *
- Rank 2nd in 3rd down efficiency: 46.4%; compared to 37.8% in 2012 (15th) *
- Rank 1st in Yds/Dr and Plays/Dr, 2nd in time of possession/Dr, and 4th in Pts/Dr **
- A Drive Success Rate of .753; which is 2nd in the league only behind Denver **
So why haven’t the Chargers won more despite these overall impressive numbers and a second best Drive Success Rate? Looking on offense, one of the immediate indicators is the only marginal increase in Pts/G. It’s relative, but compared to their top rank in Yds/Dr and Plays/Dr the offense ‘only’ ranks 7th in TDs/Dr and a low 21st in TDs per Red Zone appearance (51.2%)**. Another reason is their middle of the league 17th rank in turnovers per drive.
Still, except for the game in Oakland and arguably the one against Denver, all losses have been close. Compare this to last season when they had some blowout wins, notably against weaker defenses lacking an effective pass rush, but also suffered a few blowout losses and seemed totally incompetent against stronger opponents. This year is different, the Bolts under Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt have proven they can score against any team. Time and and a new offseason can only make it better.
The resurgence of Philip Rivers is remarkable. After becoming one of the highest critisized quarterbacks in the league over the past three years, he’s managed to get back on top of the food chain. The NFL Around The League Crew rank Rivers at no. 2 in their latest QB Index. Lets take a look at some of his 2013 stats:
- 3633 passing yds in 12 games; compared to 3606 yds total(!) in 2012 ***
- That’s 302.8 yds/game (4th in NFL); compared to 225.4 yds/game in 2012 ***
- Leads all starting QBs with a 70.0% completion percentage; 64.1% in 2012 ***
- Average QB rating of 104.1 after 12 games; finished 2012 at 88.6 ***
Where some, both experts and fans, had written him off already, many must have held the hope Rivers could find some of his old self back under a new coach and system. I suspect not many had expected him to flourish and improve this much, I know I didn’t either.
Somewhat simplified, under Norv Rivers had little responsibilty (deep read first) and high pressure to succeed the play if the intended receiver wasn’t available, whereas under the new McCoy/Whisenhunt schemes it’s the exact opposite. With the shorter and quicker reads he has more options to get rid of the ball in time – less pressure – and with the new playcalling style Rivers also has an increased ability and flexibilty to audible.
It turns out Philip is extremely capable of handling extra responsibity. He’s reading opposing defenses and adjusting plays at the line as well as Peyton or Brees. Philip Rivers is more “El Capitan” than he ever was before. The beauty is that age isn’t so much a factor for quarterbacks, he should have a few more good years with the Bolts ahead of him.
Every great quarterback needs good receivers to be really successful. When Danario Alexander got injured during the preseason and Malcom Floyd early in the season, all eyes were on Vincent Brown to grab the opportunity and step up as the go-to WR for Philip Rivers.
Contrary to those expectations it’s third-round draft pick rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen who has emerged as the real stud, also capable of making important clutch catches when they count.
He leads the team with 843 receiving yards on 58 reception, which is a third high among the Bolts. He also has produced five 100+ yds game so far***. Even though he hasn’t caught a TD since week 9 these numbers do show how legitimate a threat in the passing game #13 has become for Rivers and opposing defenses obviously have to prepare for him now.
Keenan Allen has the talent and potential to grow into one of the league’s elite wide receivers and a trusted target for #17.
Another player who has made a breakthrough lately is second-year tight end Ladarius Green. With his tall athletic build and explosive speed he’s recently shown what kind of a mismatch he can be for the opponent’s defenders. His receptions per game have still been limited to 2 or 3, but he did make two long TD catches in the past two games. With Gates still seeing a lot of double coverages and an increased focus on Keenan Allen this might not be a coincidence.
Against Cincinatti Green and Gates both played around 90% of the snaps in a two TE-set^, indicating that McCoy/Whisenhunt have realized that Ladarius Green needs to be involved more in the passing game and are committing to him. It doesn’t seem likely this will be Gates’ final season, as he’s having a pretty solid year himself, but it sure looks like the Bolts have found a quality successor for #85 when he does. Future!
Most likely the best offseason free agent signing, good call by Tom Telesco and staff, is versatile running back Danny Woodhead. It only took a few games before he had claimed a pivotal role in the Bolts offense. Brought in as a change-of-pace back on passing downs his rushing yards have been modest, but he’s currently second on the team in receptions and also racked up 5 receiving TDs.
In recent games there’s a trend visible in which his snap count and production have decreased^. Maybe this is because other receivers have stepped up, it’s only speculation though. I do hope the coaches will find a good mix and balance to use him. He’s one of the best playmakers on the team and in a Darren Sproles-type role Woodhead provides and adds a diverse and necessary dimension to the Chargers offense.
The Run Game
Looking league-wide, the Chargers rank 21st in rushing yards (109.2 yds/G), one could question why I’m adding it to this article, but in comparison to last year when they ranked 27th (91.3 yds/G) the run game has definitely made some progress*.
There’s a somewhat unknown Offensive Line stat at NFL.com called Rush Power, which is the percentage of rushes on 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go that achieved a first down or TD. It also includes rushes on 1st/2nd-and-goal from the opponent’s 2-yard line or closer. Comparing these numbers from this year with last year the rush power to the left and center especially have improved, while the success rate to the right has stayed the same.
Ryan Mathews, meanwhile, is performing a lot better as well. In an offense centered around Rivers and the passing game Mathews has proven, when healthy, he’s explosive and skilled enough to be the feature back. Given that he only played in 12 games in 2012 this is a convenient point in the season for an assessment.
His number of carries are almost the same while his average yards have gone up from 3.8 t0 4.4. Mathews has rushed for 100+ yards in three games this year, last year he didn’t have any***. He has 3 rushing TDs compared to only 1 in 2012, which could (should) have been more if Whisenhunt would put a little more faith in him. In my opinion Mathews is the best goal line back we have. Use him!
All in all these are signs to me that the combination of an improved O-Line and new zone blocking schemes are a step in the right direction.
Following reasonably high expectations, the Chargers first round draft pick is having a fairly successful rookie year. While ProfootBallFocus has him ranked at an average position he’s graded out better than his fellow rookie tackles picked at a higher position^. Given the pressure that was put on him I’d say he has performed more than admirably. He’s obviously a beast in the run game and his pass protection has been better than anticipated.
What really sets him apart is his mentality, positive attitude, and uncondional effort. Whether he’s asked to start at RT or LT doesn’t matter either. For a rookie he’s been very vocal not only in the locker room, but also on the field. It’s a trait a player has or doesn’t and the Chargers really need a leadership type like him. It’s not unrealistic to assume D.J. Fluker will become the cornerstone of a solid offensive line in a way Tom Telesco must have had in mind when he selected him.
As a side note: Five of the six 2013 draft picks are on the 53-man roster. If CB Steve Williams wasn’t injured (IR) he’d undoubtedly be on the roster too. Also, four of them are starters. The days of GM bashing regarding the draft picks seem to be over. Contrary to AJ it looks like TT does know what he’s doing.
As I conclude this article you’ve noticed that everything I’ve mentioned above is related to the offense. This doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any positives on the defense, but the 2013 Chargers D is a totally different story and could be material for a separate piece.
For the coaches it’s still a process of tweaking and fine tuning, finding out what works, who fits and who doesn’t. Philip Rivers has been on a journey of his own having to adapt to new schemes and looking for new reliable (end zone) targets besides Antonio Gates. With the emergence of those new playmakers and as long as they can avoid personal mistakes, the loss against the Bengals was a bit ironic, I truly believe this Chargers offense is already of a playoff caliber.
Despite the maybe disappointing win-loss record and prospect of missing the postseason for the fourth consecutive year I can’t consider this season a failure. For those who prefer to linger in disappointment and frustration: Patience… and take those Silver Linings!
Rock’n The Bolt While We Rant! #BoltUp
* stats via http://www.footballdb.com
** stats from http://www.footballoutsiders.com
*** player stats via nfl.com
^ info from rotoworld.com