The past seven Charger seasons have been mindnumbingly crazy. Ever since 2004 when they came out of nowhere and won the AFC West with a 12-4 record after going 4-12 the year before, being a Charger fan has been like being best friends with a schizophrenic. You really never know what you’re going to get. They won our hearts with regular seasons where they’ve looked unstoppable (2006, 2009). They’ve given us hope with seasons like 2007 when we believed they would eventually break through and win a Super Bowl. And of course they’ve squatted over us with seasons like 2010, 2005 and 2008 where they looked like world-beaters for one game and like holy hell the very next week. (One day I’ll look back at those years as the years that may have potentially turned me into an alcoholic).
This year’s Chargers have a bit of a different feel to them. Maybe it’s the lockout or because they missed the playoffs last year or because they are no longer considered an “elite” team; but it’s been hard for me to figure out the ’11 squad. Some questions need to be answered and here are the five that will tell us what type of team these guys will be by the time they break camp.
1. Is Ryan Matthews the 2011 version of Albert Haynesworth?I’m overreacting of course, but we’re on Day 3 of the Ryan Matthews watch and it’s starting to have a bit of that feel from last summer where everyone wondered if Haynesworth would be in good enough shape to practice or not. It’s also interesting that Matthews was drafted and touted as a “high-character” guy yet in his second season, he irresponsibly shows up to camp out of shape even though he’s pegged to be the starting RB on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Say what you want about Vincent Jackson’s off the field problems, but he sat out the first 11 games of last season and came back ready to play. Matthews so far has had a fumble problem that he couldn’t shake from last season and came to camp without his legs to start this season.
2. Who’s going to pressure the QB?I spent the weeks leading up to the draft praying that the Chargers would draft an OLB who can get to the QB and I’ve spent the past two weeks practically begging them to sign one. As it stands, the Chargers are placing a lot of hope in Larry English, a guy who really hasn’t earned the right to be the starting OLB. First they need English to stay healthy — something he hasn’t been able to do in his first two seasons in the league. Next they need him to be good — something we’re not exactly sure he is. If English isn’t both of those things the Chargers pass rush will count on Shaun Phillips being able to consistently beat double teams and the combo of backups Antwan Barnes and Travis LaBoy making an impact. When they have been good, the Chargers defense has relied on the front 7 masking a suspect secondary. This year, unless English pans out, the secondary looks as though it will have to be good enough to conceal a subpar pass rush.
3. Where’s the depth at WR?On paper the Chargers look fine at WR, especially since they have Antonio Gates at TE. You have Gates, with VJ and Crayton on the outside and rookie Vincent Brown working the slot. However, am I the only person who remembers that last season when Gates, Crayton and Malcolm Floyd were hurt, the Chargers at one point had Kelley Washington and Seyi Ajirotutu starting at WR? The situation screams for the Chargers to bring in another veteran WR. I realize the Chargers are not done. Ideally they bring back M80 but other names out there include Jerricho Cotchery and Steve Smith of the Giants. Whatever they do, they need to bring in some depth at WR because if we see Phil Rivers showing Tutu or Washington how to run routes in the 4th quarter of a close game you know it will be a long season.
4. Is Corey Liuget legit?Of course Liuget needs to get to camp so we can find out. As @Joosef pointed out on Twitter the other day, isn’t the new CBA supposed to prevent rookie holdouts? Apparently, old habits are hard to break for AJ Smith whose reputation for reaching for 1st round picks and then not signing them in time for camp has become borderline ridiculous. The Chargers drafted Liuget to help a D-Line that wore out during some games last season (see @STL) and got punked in others (see OAK). If he doesn’t pan out or isn’t in camp in time to be effective early, the Chargers are basically bringing back the same D-Line rotation as last season. Four out of their first five games are against teams that love to run the rock: MIN, KC, MIA and @DEN with John Fox. Liuget needs to be ready to go and it’s a shame that AJ Smith doesn’t recognize this.
5. Who will be the other ILB?It was a shrewd move by AJ Smith to bring in Takeo Spikes who provides veteran leadership and toughness at ILB that we haven’t seen since the days of Randal Godfrey and Donnie Edwards. Almost as important, Spikes should be a terrific mentor to young ILBs Donald Butler and Jonas Mouton. However, while both have potential neither are ready to start and the Chargers have a gaping hole at the other ILB spot they need to fill before the season starts. The price for Kevin Burnett was too high, they passed on Nick Barnett and don’t like Lofa Tatupu. Now, the Chargers are hoping for a veteran to get cut who they can sign on the cheap. Unfortunately, hope isn’t a plan and the Chargers are negating a great move they made with Spikes with a bad move by not getting a veteran to play alongside him.
However you slice and dice it the Chargers will never stop being in the Super Bowl conversation as long as they have Rivers throwing the rock to guys like Gates and Jackson. However, in the next few weeks as these questions get answered, we’ll find out if these guys can get past just being part of the conversation and actually be contenders for the title.
Follow me on Twitter @KenCaminiti21