The problems the Chargers have on offense reach well beyond a banged-up offensive line. Granted, Philip Rivers deserves to be anointed for sainthood having to play behind such a hot mess.
Let’s be real, kids. The offense is a complete mess and here’s why:
• Tom Telesco drafts kids who do not fit in this offensive “scheme”.
• Mike McCoy and Frank Reich refuse to change their “scheme” to fit the personnel Tom Telesco has given them.
• Frank Reich is clueless and predictable at the same time.
The first and second points go hand in hand. I give you Melvin Gordon as case in point. Melvin is a 21 or 22 personnel grouping back. This means two running backs, a tight end and two wide receivers (21 personnel) or two RBS, two TEs and a WR (22 personnel). He is not, nor ever has been, a spread formation back. He ran primarily out of 21, 22 or 12 personnel groupings (single setback two TEs on the line, not in pass formation). Sure, Melvin ran effectively out of other personnel groupings, but his strength is as an I-formation back.
When you move up in the draft to get the player you covet, you don’t make him fit your scheme. You adjust your scheme to his skill set. The Chargers don’t even possess a legitimate fullback on the roster. The closest thing to a fullback they have is tight end David Johnson. The last real fullback this team had was Lorenzo Neal. Once AJ Smith and Norv Turner kicked him to the curb, the fullback position has been an afterthought and the running game began its decline.
Gordon’s lack of production isn’t his fault alone. He doesn’t fit the scheme, rather the scheme doesn’t fit him. Blocking has been horrific, that’s on personnel and coaching. Injuries to D.J. Fluker, Orlando Franklin, King Dunlap and others hasn’t helped. Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has to do a better job coaching up this line. Chris Watt gets destroyed on a regular basis at center. Move him to guard and he gets pushed back into Rivers’ face.
Make no mistake, the 2015 Chargers’ offensive front will never be mistaken for Marcus McNeill, Kris Dielman, Nick Hardwick, Mike Goff and Shane Olivea. They just aren’t that good overall. I like the Orlando Franklin acquisition, but he’s hurt. Dunlap is solid and his return will help Rivers sleep a little easier. Moving Fluker inside was a positive and, by far, an upgrade over Johnnie Troutman. Barksdale at right tackle is an upgrade over Fluker playing the position. I said it before, but it bears repeating: Watt is horrible. Telesco and McCoy have failed miserably to assemble a line that is worth its salt.
Apparently, Dean Spanos needs to hire Bill Polian so that Telesco can be good again. He’s looking like the classic example of the master making the apprentice look better and smarter than he really is.
Nobody will ever mistake Frank Reich for Ken Wisenhunt — or even Cam Cameron. His idea of attempting to run the ball is give it to Melvin from the shotgun, up the gut behind the aforementioned Watt and the one-legged Fluker. In D.J.’s defense, on one leg he’s still better than Troutman. That run nets two yards, so it’s back to pass, pass, pass behind an O-line that can’t protect a ham sandwich, let alone an immobile Rivers.
I realize this is a pass-first league. To that, I say “so what?”
Newsflash, Frankie-boy, this line is not your Buffalo K-Gun line. This line couldn’t pass protect against a pee wee football team! You and Mike McNorv talk about balance, so do it! Don’t continue to be an idiot. All that will do is get you charged with murder when Philip finally can’t get up after being hit while trying to throw the ball.
Due to having only five draft picks this year, the Chargers added 20 undrafted free agents to bring their roster total to the 90-man maximum (It was 21 but the team released Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt when they signed Chase Rettig). Historically, they have had great success finding key contributors in undrafted free agent rookies. Names like Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd and Kris Dielman immediately stand out. You can even throw in players like Jahleel Addae and Branden Oliver. Both are younger players, but they have been key contributors in their short careers.
In part one of this two-part look at the undrafted free agents signed by the Bolts, there is a list of the 20 undrafted rookie free agents acquired by the team. The second part will highlight some of the signees that will have a good shot at making the team as a member of the practice squad or the 53-man roster.
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)
At the start of the Chargers 2013 season my hopes were pretty low. I have to admit a 9-7 record and a playoff victory did not in any way seem realistic. My biggest concern coming into the year, like many of you, was the offensive line. In 2012, Philip Rivers was running for his life. And that is not a pretty sight. He took 49 sacks that season, fourth-worst in the league. Let’s not forget that the team ranked 27th in rushing in 2012 with a measly 91.3 yards per game average. The conventional thinking was that the team’s woes were rooted in a lack of continuity. The Bolts used nine different starters on the oline and never had the same starters for more than three games in a row. This clearly affected Rivers whose total QBR dipped to 40.6 which was the worst of his career since ESPN created the stat in ’08.
The offensive line was the root of so many of the team’s problems thus it is hard to know where to begin. Rivers and Charger fans were spoiled by years of pro-bowl service from Nick Hardwick, Marcus McNeil and Kris Dielman. It is easy to crucify the old regime for the debacle of the Jared Gaither contract in hindsight. But if you remember what happened when he entered the line (pre-contract) it seemed like the man was what the team needed. I know “that one GM” should have done his homework on his work ethic and it looked like disaster would continue to punish the team for years.
Consider how Evan Silva of Yahoo sports felt when ranking all 32 O-lines before the 2013 season. He ranked the Chargers dead last. It is kinda comical reading in hindsight, “The Chargers are a good sleeper for the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft because they can’t protect their quarterback, and can’t rush other team’s quarterbacks. GM Tom Telesco’s first season is going to be a long one. Both projected starting tackles are heavy-footed waist benders who will get destroyed by Von Miller, Justin Houston, and Tamba Hali in the AFC West.”
What is my point in bringing all this up? Old news, right? Sure, but I want Charger fans to understand that Joe D’Alessandris was our unsung hero last year. My MVP of the 2013 season and every bit as important a change as Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy.
Joe D’, as the players call him, has a coaching background that includes time in the CFL and he told Chargers.com, “Up there it’s only three downs so you’re throwing the ball quite regularly and you have to pick up the blitz because it is a big blitz league. So that was a great, great experience. When I look back on my career that was a good move.”
Nick Hardwick has commented several times that Joe D’Alessandris belief is the hogs upfront need to practice at every position. That is why his squad excelled last year playing in multiple combinations. While coaching for the Bills in 2011, D’Alessandris started eight different offensive line combinations and the 23 sacks allowed was the third-fewest in team history during a 16-game season.
Certainly no one saw this coming. Sure, we drafted DJ Fluker but who thought that King Dunlap who was dumpster dived from the Eagles would play so well? Who expected Chad Rinehart would play well? At the end of the season Profootballfocus.com ranked the Chargers 18th, ten spots up from the spot they held with the same site the year before. Hardwick looked the best he had since his 2006 pro-bowl season, taking 1,075 snaps last year and allowed zero sacks. As a unit last year Rivers was sacked 29 times, 20 less sacks is of course a huge deal (8 of which were coverage sacks, and not obvious oline mistakes). The running backs were tackled for no gain or a loss on just 12 percent of carries, the lowest rate in the NFL in 2013.
Philip Rivers is a pocket passer and the foundation of our offense comes down to protecting him. And as seen last year, the running game certainly benefited from having Joe D’ on the Charger coaching staff. I think it is easy to undervalue the impact of Joe D’Alessandris. Is there a way to sign him up for life?
The San Diego Charger offensive line has been in flux ever since losing tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Kris Dielman to injury/retirement in 2011. Over the past several seasons there have been two lineman who’ve managed to stay in the starting rotation, center Nick Hardwick and guard/tackle Jeromey Clary.
Hardwick isn’t going anywhere this season, but the same might not be said for Clary. The guard position is beginning to get crowded through the offseason maneuvering of General Manager Tom Telesco, and Clary is due some substantial non-guaranteed money. The sum of which is 4.5 million dollars to be exact.
Chad Rinehart, Rich Ohrnberger and Johnny Troutman all saw time at guard last season, along with Clary. Through the draft, Telesco took Notre Dame guard Chris Watt in the third round. Watt has been practicing at rookie mini camp at right guard, Clary’s current starting position with the team. Early this week, the team signed Craig Watts, an undrafted rookie free agent guard out of West Texas A&M, after an impressive invite try-out.
Granted, the team needs depth on the line, but no matter how you slice it, it’s more than likely that the team won’t carry six guards.
Although it appeared that the offensive line had truly come together toward the end of the 2013 season, Clary had the third lowest run-block rating for all guards, according to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus. An argument could be made for Clary’s versatility, as he was the team’s starting right tackle for some time. That argument is dashed fairly easily due to the dominance and youth of DJ Fluker, and due to anyone having watched Clary turn the right tackle position into the right turnstile.
Offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris is known throughout the league as one of the best in the business, and is likely the one responsible for the renaissance of the line play last season. If Joe D can turn young wattage into high boltage, (sorry for that) then Clary becomes immediately expendable. As it is, rookies and all, it’s looking that direction anyway.
Clary is obviously happy to be a Charger, is well-liked, and is good for the locker room; when chasing a championship, however, sometimes tough decisions need to be made. Saving the 4.5 million would put the Chargers in a much nicer place when it comes to some thoughts on roster versatility. It’s unclear whether Telesco is considering bringing in any other depth. The option to attempt to trade Clary also exists. Clary is still certainly capable of starting at guard in the NFL and could yield at least some future late round draft pick(s).
As Charger fans saw last offseason, it’s good to have a plan B for key contributors on the roster as unfortunate things can happen during training camp or early in the season. That being said, there are still some quality veterans seeking employment whom would likely fit nicely into the range of extra cap space generated by cutting ties with Clary. Let’s explore some options.
WR Santonio Holmes:
Pros- Big play wideout with a lot of big experience, including one very memorable Super Bowl winning catch from Ben Roethlisberger. Versatility with differing offenses/QBs.
Cons- Does not fit the Chargers’ locker room mold. Known to be selfish and disruptive. May want more money than he’s worth. Santonio has also fought injuries lately.
DE Brett Keisel :
Pros- Coming off of a long and prosperous career as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Keisel would add significant experience and depth along a thin, albeit talented, defensive line. Could be a big time rotational player and mentor, and has a nasty streak.
Cons- There must be a reason the Steelers chose to not bring back this team and fan favorite. Lack of versatility and aging speed likely put Keisel out of the Steelers’ future plans. Can push up field, but likely not effectively get off blocks if the play isn’t coming right at him. Injuries are also a concern.
DT Aubrayo Franklin:
Pros- Spent a productive season with the Bolts in John Pagano’s defensive scheme in 2012. Quick and powerful and lots of experience in 3-4 schemes. Familiarity with some of the young roster and coaching staff. Could line up at end or tackle.
Cons- A hired gun who’s been floating around the league year to year, may not offer much to a young and impressionable locker room. Could be part of an unwanted old regime attitude and culture.
CB Asante Samuel:
Pros- Has a career full of highlight reel plays in big games. Is a ball hawking veteran who could play on any down and be trusted in many situations at least as much as current potential starter Richard Marshall.
Cons- Instincts may still be sharp, but speed and durability may be a factor late in his career. Takes a lot of risks, and can get burned. May be a gamble when Marshall is still productive.
Other possible options:
DT Kevin Williams
DT Isaac Sopoaga
The other lingering option is for Clary to restructure his contract, as some other Charger players recently have done. The truth is that through the good, the bad, and the ugly of his career, Clary has always been a good Charger. If he wants to stick around to see this new team through, he’ll simply have to do it at a more team-friendly price. If Clary is on this team week one, it must speak very strongly of his intangible value to the team, but it will still be all but certain that the clock is ticking in San Diego.
I think everyone would agree that the 2013 season was a success. Very few people truly anticipated our Bolts would finish 10-8, grab the #6 seed or advance to the AFC Divisional Round before finally having injuries catch up with them.
Philip Rivers is now deemed “fixed“. Rather, Philip adapted and thrived in the changes to the offensive scheme implemented by Mike McCoy, Ken Whisenhunt and Frank Reich. Ryan Mathews ran harder and with more confidence than any other time in his brief career. More importantly, he overcame his label of being fragile and fumble prone. He played his best football with a high ankle sprain and he only fumbled twice, losing only one of those to the opposition.
Chargers #1 pick, D.J. Fluker got better as his rookie campaign progressed. He has a mean streak that I love and that has been lacking since the old days of Mike Goff, Kris Dielman and Nick Hardwick playing side by side. #2 pick, Manti Te’o also improved as the season went on, learning on the job after missing most of training camp with a foot injury. #3 pick Keenan Allen came out of nowhere and impressed the most jaded of fans and prognosticators. Last year’s #1 pick, Melvin Ingram made his presence felt when he returned from knee surgery in Week 13.
So, where do the Chargers go from here? NT is sorely needed to protect Te’o and Donald Butler. They need a space-eating NT to keep the opposing offensive linemen off our inside linebackers. Second in line is CB. We need someone who can cover effectively. Eric Weddell and Jahleel Addae can only protect weak corners to a point. Derek Cox certainly wasn’t the answer, and I’m not convinced Richard Marshall is either. They’ll get Johnny Patrick and Steve Williams back, but will that be the answer?
After that, pass rush depth is needed. They need to cut ties with Larry English. Will Dwight Freeney be able to come back from his injury? Will the Chargers bring him back? The best way to help your secondary is with a strong pass rush and consistent pressure on opposing QBs. Depth along the OL is needed. We don’t know yet if Nick Hardwick will be back. Can King Dunlap hold up for an entire season? Can Rich Ohrnberger play 16 games at C if Hardwick does hang up the cleats? Who plays behind Ryan Mathews? Ronnie Brown isn’t the answer, they need to get younger here. WR depth is another concern. If Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd don’t return, who plays opposite Allen and who will command Rivers’ attention?
Tom Telesco and McCoy have their work cut out for them this spring and summer. I’m confident in what they will do in 2014 considering how they worked with what they had in 2013.
I know I’ve raised more questions than answers. I’d love to hear your thoughts!