A while back, Bolt Beat writer Arnie Gordon wrote a piece on here about how the Chargers needed to establish a team identity. It was a great article, and I want to follow up on that theme, one year later.
The team was seriously lost, and had been for some time. It seemed like nobody was steering the ship, and they were drifting through the high seas of the NFL, with no direction. The biggest reason for this was due to the fact that we had an arrogant GM, and a head coach that had less personality than the sole of my shoe. Not to mention, key players were allowed to walk out the door (for better or worse), and took their “mojo” with them. Whether we liked them, or not, is a different story. But, there is no denying that when Ladanian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles, and Vincent Jackson headed off to other teams, their talent wasn’t the only things that they took with them. A little piece of the team’s identity went with each of them.
Since then, new life has been breathed into the team. We have a young GM, who is having great success in choosing up & coming talent for our roster. He practically “gutted” the team when he got here, and some of the player departures were tough to swallow. It wasn’t easy to watch Luis Vasquez, Aubrayo Franklin, Shaun Phillips, or Quentin Jammer leave. There are mixed opinions about whether letting these players go was a good thing, or a bad thing. But, nobody can deny that they all made solid contributions to this team, while wearing a Charger uniform. Other players will not be missed for the mark they left on this team, such as Jared Gaither & Robert Meachem. But, Telesco got rid of them, and has managed to bring in fresh talent. He has a plan for replacing those players, and has successfully done so… give or take a few players.
Along with having a new GM, who has a refreshing attitude, we have a rookie head coach. McCoy has a plan, love it or leave it, and it seems to be working. He sometimes comes across as repetitive, and robotic. But, you won’t hear people accusing him of “lacking fire”, or describing him with terms like “milquetoast”. I don’t always agree with his conservative decisions, but anybody with a pair of eyes can see the difference in the coaching. This roster was new, lacked proven depth, and was described as a “group of back-ups”. There may not have been a lot of recognizable talent on the roster in 2013, but great coaching made the players “buy in” to the plan. Some players didn’t make the cut for this season, but all of them are better players for having been a part of this system.
So, what was the old identity? Or, maybe I should ask “What was the lack of identity”? There were many things that were wrong. Not all of it has been fixed, but you can see that they are trying to fix them, even if they aren’t quite there yet. Obviously, there were numerous reasons, but here are the main reasons:
Playing down to our competition:
There were games last season that we most definitely should have won, without a doubt. But, there wasn’t a game that made me feel as disgusted as that game we dropped to the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Getting beaten by a team that routinely picks in the single digits of the draft order was downright embarrassing! I will never forget that game. Nor did we have a game like we did against the Carolina Panthers (later that season), where we got destroyed in our own stadium. Especially, on the heels of going into Pittsburgh, and blowing the Steelers out the previous week. Even if we dropped a game or two, the roller coaster seems to be evening out, and we are gradually moving toward winning games that we should win.
Taking our foot off of the gas, and blowing games. “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”:
When game one of the 2013 season was underweigh, and the Chargers trotted onto the field in their “White Out” uniforms, there was a lot of excitement. The Texans were coming off of a hot 2012 campaign, and we had a huge lead going into the locker room at halftime. We all were punched in the gut, yet again, as the Chargers took their foot off of the gas, and blew another game in brutal fashion. To make it worse, Houston picked first in the draft this year, and ended up being the worst team in the league. After that game, they didn’t blow another lead like that, as we had all become so accustomed to (like the meltdown @ Denver in 2012). They did let teams hang around too long in a few games. However, they didn’t completely dominate the first half, and completely shoot themselves in the foot too many times after week one. Let’s hope that trend continues in 2014.
Lacking toughness, or being viewed as soft:
There were, and still are, a lot of accusations of this team being too soft. I wouldn’t say that we are the “bullies of the block” just yet.. and maybe we never will be.. but, we are starting to move away from that reputation of being soft. The addition of players like DJ fluker is giving this team a little bit of nastiness. Despite the success of the Charger’s arial assault under Norv Turner, teams were checking the Bolts off as an “easy win” on their schedules. “On any Sunday” is always a factor in the NFL, but the Chargers lost their level of intimidation right around the time that LT left. Going on the road, and beating the top-seeded Denver Broncos last season let’s teams know that the Chargers can’t be overlooked any longer. Not even by the best teams in the league. Victories against other playoff teams like Indianapolis, Philidelphia, Kansas City (twice), and Cincinatti let’s teams know that they can expect a fight. That will play an extremely big role this season, as we face a schedule packed full of the league’s best teams.
Having one of the worst offensive lines, and one of the worst secondaries in the NFL:
It was rough watching the Charger’s “once proud” offensive line disintegrate right in front of our eyes a few years back. We watched Dielman and McNeil succomb to career ending injuries, and AJ had neglected to stock the team’s depth with players capable of stepping up. Once they were gone, we painfully watched Rivers thrown to the ground like a ragdoll, game after game. Gaither, Green, Dombrowski, Clary, Harris, Hadnot, Baxter, Haslam, and Schilling composed one of the worst lines known to man. Hardwick & Vasquez were the only bright spots, but couldn’t tow the line alone. Rivers was hit so much that he started imagining pressure, and was galloping around like a spooked horse.
Then Coach Joe D’Alessandris came to the rescue, and brought a mentality that made this group respectable again. Rivers went from seeing ghosts, to regaining his status as one of the league’s most lethal quarterbacks. In fact, Hardwick, Clary, and Harris are the only remaining linemen from that unit, except for Troutman, who wasn’t available to play in 2012. Solid pieces, such as Chad Rinehart, King Dunlap, Rich Ohrnberger, and DJ Fluker have stablized this group. Even Harris played well, before injury. Troutman is also being groomed for the future. Now, we have drafted another key piece in the third round , just days ago. Chris Watt will strengthen the interior of this line for years to come. There is still work to be done, but we are light years away from the “hot mess” of a line that we had in 2012.
The secondary is also a work in progress, but is starting to be addressed. Last season was extremely rough to watch. Our backfield was almost as hot of a mess as the 2012 offensive line. But, Telesco had to fix the o-line first, and had limited resources to fill a lot of holes. He missed pretty bad by signing Derek Cox in free agency, but he has admitted his mistake, and Cox is now a Viking. Furthermore, he made the cornerback position his first priority in the draft.
He brought in an extremely talented player in Jason Verrett, who will be a fixture in our pass protection for the future. He also scooped up Chris Davis in UDFA, and I believe he will make the team. Steve Williams is returning from an unfortunate preseason injury in his rookie debut, but will most likely be a solid nickelback. Shareece Wright seems penciled in as a starter for the duration of his contract, and had moments of brilliance last season, even if he was inconsistent. Richard Marshall was brought back, and knows the system. He didn’t play “lights out”, but he filled in admirably when Derek Cox folded. Addae came on strong at the end of the year, and is turning heads. One thing that is certain, is that he is a far better option than Gilchrist, Taylor, or even Atari Bigby are.
Most of all, Telesco has brought in a TON of guys who will push the competition for a roster spot in the secondary. They may not be the best guys, but there is a high risk vs. reward element to some of these guys, even if they aren’t going to be the best in the league. We just need to get better at these positions in 2014, until Telesco can address them permanently.
Turning the ball over at an alarming rate, and at the absolute worst times:
Remember those horrifying moments when you would see Rivers chuck up a duck, and you would yell “PHILIP!!!!! NO!!!!!”? Or, when the Chargers would be marching down the field, and Ryan Mathews would put the ball on the ground? Well, I’m not going to say those times are totally gone, as Antonio Gates seemed to take his turn doing it last season. But, these costly turnovers happen much less than they used to. This is because the o-line has kept the sacks down, and they are supporting the run game much more effectively. Also, the short passing game has helped Philip get away from those awful seven-step-drops, that Norv loved so much. Mathews has clearly stepped his game up, and they are both making better decisions now. We aren’t totally out of the woods yet, but as time goes by, and this team gets it’s feet underneath it, I expect to see the ball being turned over less, and less.
In conclusion, this team is starting to show signs of establishing it’s own identity, and is getting away from their old reputation. It’s not easy to build a new identity from scratch. It takes time, and there will be some pitfalls involved. You only have to look at the Washington, Tennessee, Oakland, and Miami games to know that there is still a lot of road ahead of this team. But, I can see that they are moving away from the bad habits of seasons past. There were definitely games that they should have won out of those seven losses last year. However, they are learning, and a couple of those games were just a tweak away from a possible victory.
We face some pretty heavy competition this season, but this team is capable of competing for another playoff run. If they don’t make it, we all know that Telesco & McCoy are developing good talent right now, that will allow us to be a force in the NFL soon. If they do make it, we know that the Chargers can push any team to the limit, and have beaten good teams before. They are not just going to roll over, and get bullied by anyone. They are going to fight for four quarters, and are starting to play all 60 minutes. I am happy with that, until they catch up.
Keep Bolting Toward Excellence.