The news of the week for the San Diego Chargers was the acquisition of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The Bolts claimed him off waivers Tuesday and released quarterback Bryn Renner to make space on the roster.
With Mettenberger in the fold that makes three quarterbacks at camp vying for the back-up quarterback position behind Philip Rivers. Kellen Clemens and undrafted free agent Mike Bercovici are the other quarterbacks filling out what will be a very interesting camp battle.
Mettenberger, 24, was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Titans. Standing 6’5″, 224 pounds, Mettenberger was a standout quarterback at LSU. Moving into the starting lineup in his junior season, Mettenberger excelled right away. In leading the Tigers to a 10-3 (6-2 in the SEC) season, Mettenberger went 207-352 for 2,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. They lost by one point in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to Clemson 25-24. LSU finished 12th in the Coaches Poll and 14th in the Associated Press Poll that year.
In his senior season, Mettenberger made another quantum leap forward. Although they duplicated their record from the previous season at 10-3 (5-3 vs. the SEC), Mettenberger went 192-296 for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. The Tigers finished 14th in the AP and Coaches Poll as a result.
According to his 2014 draft profile on numerous NFL sites including NFL.com and WalterFootball.com, Mettenberger’s strengths are his outstanding arm strength, size, field vision and working from a pro-style offense in college. In his senior season he had a new offensive coordinator in Cam Cameron calling his plays. Cameron had just left the same position for the San Diego Chargers that offseason. Cameron’s arrival was key in Mettenberger’s senior year explosion.
Mettenberger’s perceived weaknesses were his footwork, work-ethic, long delivery and needing to improve his accuracy. For all intents and purposes Mettenberger had second-round talent. The main catalyst in his plunge into the late rounds was an ACL injury he suffered in the final game of the 2013 regular season. The injury prevented Mettenberger from participating in the NFL Combine. He did shine at LSU’s Pro Day where he completed 90% of his 125 passes.
The discussion of who the heir apparent to Philip Rivers should be has raged on for multiple seasons. We all know Scott Tolzien, Brad Sorensen, Kellen Clemens and Charlie Whitehurst were never going to be the answer to that question.
Mettenberger already has the advantage of knowing the system of new Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt was the head coach for the Titans for both of Mettenbergers’ years in Nashville. The last time the Chargers made the playoffs was the one year Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator. The Chargers leaped from 31st to 5th in total offense in that season. Tennessee offered him their head coach position immediately after the season. He was fired halfway through his second season as head coach.
Whisenhunt brought John McNulty with him from Tennessee to be the Bolts new tight ends coach. McNulty was Mettenbergers’ quarterbacks coach in Tennessee. In a new interview with Ricky Henne of Chargers.com his had this to say about reuniting with his old coaches:
“I was definitely relieved to come to a situation where the future looks good for me. That was a long 24 hours to be waiting so it was great to hear his voice.” Mettenberger was speaking of Ken Whisenhunt, who called Mettenberger immediately after the waiver claim was official. Mettenberger continued. “The first thing he asked me was if I still remember the playbook. Fortunately, I know it really well. He was really excited to get back to work with me. He was the one who drafted me, so it’s worked out really well. It’s awesome to be back with Coach Whiz and Coach McNulty.”
Did the Chargers just stumble onto their quarterback of the future?
Pessimists will point to the fact that Mettenberger is 0-10 as a starting quarterback in the NFL. That is true. What also can’t be disputed is how awful the Tennessee Titans have been over the past two seasons. The Titans were 2-14 the season Mettenberger was drafted and 3-13 in 2015. The Titans ranked 25th or lower in the NFL in rushing yards, passing yards, points for and points against.
Mettenberger had a better offense at LSU than he had in Tennessee. At least at LSU he had Pro Bowlers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. to catch the ball. Alfred Blue and Jeremy Hill were chewing up yards running the football.
Mettenberger is in an ideal situation in San Diego. With his knowledge of the offense and coaches he already has a leg up on Clemens and Bercovici. He now has a better team and an elite, veteran NFL quarterback as a mentor. Rivers’ contract ends at the conclusion of the 2019 season. In three seasons Mettenberger will be 27 and ready to step into the starting spot. There is no pressure to produce right away as there was in Tennessee.
We’ve seen this situation play out with great success when you consider stars like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Rivers himself. All of them watched from the bench for a season or more before their number was called. All of them will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio one day.
The reset button has been pushed on Zach Mettenberger’s career. For the first time since the departure of Drew Brees there appears to be a capable second-in-command waiting in the wings. Is Mettenberger that man? Post your thoughts in the comments below.
The Greg One
The 2014 version of the Chargers offense was not what San Diego fans have grown accustomed to watching. Chargers fans are used to dominant running backs and a high flying passing game that few teams can match. That was not the case in 2014. Last season’s offense scored less than 20 points on six different occasions, including a shutout in Miami, and a pathetic week 17 effort against Kansas City that only posted seven point, keeping the Bolts out of the playoffs. There were signs of greatness throughout the season, but no consistency to be found. Why is that? Well, the obvious answer was all of the personnel changes on the offensive line. The Chargers went through centers with the frequency that a doctor goes through rubber gloves. You just never knew who would be blocking for Rivers from week to week, or even play to play. That has to be it! Or does it? Will fixing the offensive line cure what ails the Chargers offense? I’m not so sure.
Not being a huge fan of history when I was in school, I have found in my old age that it truly is important to study the past when trying to predict the future. If you follow proven successful strategies, you tend to succeed. If you make the same mistakes that your predecessors make, you will most likely fail. I believe the Chargers have gotten away from what works. It may not be an intentional change, but there has been a change nonetheless. Let’s take a look back and see why previous Chargers offenses were so successful. There were two eras that stand out in my mind when I think of great Chargers offenses: “Air Coryell” and “Marty Ball”.
Despite the annual snubbing by the Hall of Fame toward Chargers coaching legend, Don Coryell, everyone agrees that when he was the Bolts coach, the offense took off! “Air Coryell” brought the passing game to the forefront and left the three yards and a cloud of dust offense far behind. Scoring points was rarely a problem for Coryell’s teams. But why were they so effective? Two reasons: A great offensive line and outstanding offense weapons at the skill positions.
Looking at the Chargers line from those days it is no wonder why Dan Fouts is in the Hall of Fame. Billy Shields holding down left tackle, Doug Wilkerson and left guard, Don Macek at center, big Ed White at right guard, and Russ Washington was at right tackle week in and week out. You could count on these behemoths to be there for you on a weekly basis protecting the star QB and opening holes for the running backs. They stayed together for many years and got to know what to expect from each other. That kind of talent and cohesiveness is huge for an offensive line. When you have to switch the lineup and put guys in positions they are not used to, it creates great challenges that are often nearly impossible to overcome in a short period of time.
Some would look at the formidable offensive line that Air Coryell possessed and figure that they were the reason that the offense was so great. I agree, to a point. I think without that line, the Chargers offense would have been above average, but not as devastating as they were. Give Dan Fouts time to throw and he will carve you up like a Thanksgiving turkey. What they had that put them over the top was very talented weapons in the skill positions. Let’s take a look at some of the players who benefited from great O line play, a brilliant offensive coach in Don Coryell, and a lot of talent:
Quarterback: Dan Fouts (HOF)
Wide Receiver: Charlie Joiner (HOF), John “JJ” Jefferson, Wes Chandler
Tight End: Kellen Winslow (HOF)
Running Back: Chuck Muncie, Gary Anderson, Lionel “Little Train” James, James Brooks
If you were fortunate enough to watch these guys play, you know that this is not a list of average players who would not have had success without the help of the offensive line. These players were special talents who did benefit from the great line, but also helped the line look better by getting open faster, hitting holes faster and harder, and throwing with quickness and decisiveness. Air Coryell was truly a gifted and complete offense.
Okay, that was a long time ago and the game has continued to evolve. So let’s take a look at a more recent offense: “Marty Ball”
Marty Ball was different than Air Coryell as it was more of an old school approach to moving the ball. Coach Marty Schottenheimer loved to run the football and impose his will on opponents. Having a top-notch offensive line was a very large part of Marty Ball. As Chargers fans have witnessed in the last couple of years, if you can’t open a hole, backs are rarely successful. Schottenheimer’s line could open holes and the backs could certainly hit them. Of course it never hurts to have one of the best running backs of all time on your team.
What did Schottenheimer’s offensive line have in common with Coryell’s? They were big, nasty, and reliable. They were there opening holes every Sunday for many years. Shane Olivea at right tackle, Mike Goff at right guard, Nick Hardwick at Center, Kris Dielman at left guard, and Marcus McNeill at left tackle were a formidable bunch who were not intimidated by defenses. They knew if they did their job, the Chargers would score and score often.
But again, would the Bolts have put up the huge numbers they did with average skill players? I highly doubt it. Here are some of the skill position players that benefitted from the O-Line:
Quarterback: Drew Brees (future HOF), Philip Rivers
Wide Receiver: Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd (younger version), Eric Parker
Tight End: Antonio Gates (younger version – future HOF)
Running Back: LaDainian Tomlinson (future HOF), Lorenzo Neal, Michael Turner
As you can see, both of these exceptional offenses have one thing in common; they were both filled with talent. They did not just have a strong offensive line and average talent that was able to excel due to large holes and great protection. They were able to dominate defenses because they were able to take advantage of their great offensive line by using above average to great talent at the skill positions.
In 2014, the Chargers offense looked great at times and then dropped off to a shell of what people hoping to see. Injuries on the offensive line were a major reason for the decline in effectiveness, but was that the only reason? I don’t think so. To see the whole picture, we need to look at the season and take a very hard look at the roster.
Coach Mike McCoy did not have the luxury of sending out a dominant offensive line like some of his predecessors. Nick Hardwick was his center in week one, but failed to make it back to the lineup the remainder of the season. That was a big blow as the center is responsible for reading the defense and calling out the blocking assignments for the line. That is a skill that takes time to develop. Throughout the remainder of the season, four other players got to take a shot at center due to a plethora of injuries at that position. In fact, the player who ended the season looking like the front runner to be the starter in 2015, Chris Watt, had never played the position before.
Along with Hardwick Et Al., at center, the Chargers had DJ Fluker at right tackle, Johnny Troutman at right guard, Chad Rinehart and left guard, and King Dunlap at left tackle. With the exception of Dunlap, this was a very inexperienced line and injuries plagued them throughout the entire season. But who was there to help them out?
Quarterback: Philip Rivers (Arguably future HOF)
Wide Receiver: Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen (missed two games), Eddie Royal, Seyi Ajirotutu (special teams players forced to get snaps at WR), Dontrelle Inman (rookie discovered in last couple weeks)
Tight End: Antonio Gates (aging, but still solid, Future HOF)
Running Back: Ryan Mathews (6 games, 74 carries), Donald Brown (13 games, 85 carries), Danny Woodhead (3 games, 15 carries, 5 rec), Branden Oliver (14 games, only 582 yards to lead team in rushing)
Comparing the 2014 Chargers offensive players to Air Coryell and Marty Ball makes it easy to see the problem with the current offense. Not only was the 2014 offensive line hampered by injury, it wasn’t great to start! Once Hardwick went down, there was little hope that the line would be able to work together like the lines of old. Too little experience and too many injuries really limited the offense and what plays they could run. That being said, would the 2014 Chargers offense have been one for the ages if the line had stayed healthy from week one? Honestly, I seriously doubt it.
Along with their inexperienced offensive line, the 2014 Chargers simply did not have the skill players needed to score points like Chargers teams of the past. They are lacking a deep threat at wide receiver. Malcom Floyd had a very nice season and can still get deep at times, but he does not strike fear in defenses like he did when he was younger and lined up opposite of Vincent Jackson, a deep threat in his own right. Keenan Allen is a nice route runner and makes a lot of catches, but only averages 10.2 yards per catch. The Chargers will need to add a true deep threat if they want Allen and Floyd to be dangerous weapons in 2015.
Running back is the most trouble for the Bolts moving forward. Most Chargers fans will argue that if the line could run block, the backs will gain yards. I have argued that myself! Looking back, I see where Ryan Mathews came back from injury and ran quite effectively behind a poor offensive line. He even put up over 100 yards (8.8 ypc) against a highly touted Rams front seven. So it can be done, if the back is good enough to make defenders miss or run through them.
One argument that I have not broached is that the 2014 offense did not compare favorably with the offenses of the past because Offensive Coordinator (OC) Frank Reich does not match up with Don Coryell, or Cam Cameron (OC under Schottenheimer). Perhaps we will tackle that topic another day.
Another argument is that you can’t load your offense up with three or four future Hall of Fame players anymore because of the salary cap. If you spend that kind of money on offense, your defense will suffer and your team will not be balanced enough to win championships. This argument has merit, but I say if you draft well, you will not have to pay the future stars big money for their first four years with the team. If they are worth big money for their second contract, there are many things that can be done to spread out the money over time and not kill your cap space. Other teams do it, why not the Chargers?
So, bringing this back to the original question, will fixing the offensive line fix the Chargers offense in 2015? My answer is no. That being said, I believe it will greatly improve the offense, just not get It to the elite level that we have seen in San Diego in the past. Until a deep threat and a true number one running back can be brought in, I don’t see this offense being any better than above average with occasional flashes of brilliance. Philip Rivers can only do so much at quarterback. The man needs talent around him.
Thanks for reading and please leave your comments below.
(Thanks to the following sites for the pics: thelandryhat.com, outdoor-wholesale-dropship.doba.com, spokeo.com, m.theepoctimes.com, and hillnholler.net)