I don’t know how this happened – how the football world turned itself upside-down so quickly. It seems like only yesterday that I approached each season starry-eyed, knowing full-well that I could pencil in two wins against the Raiders — an advantage that consistently rendered the playoffs well within reach.
I can’t pencil those wins in any longer.
The Raiders have quickly transformed into one of (if not the most) the most talented young teams in the league, and with Tuesday’s announcement that Bruce Irvin will join their already ferocious defensive front, anyone who has watched the Chargers pass protection over the past few seasons is likely cowering at the thought.
The AFC West, seemingly save for the Chargers, has become the premier pass-rushing division in football. In a league so dependent on quarterback play, it seems, with these four teams, that the road to playoffs will be decided not by the best quarterback (Philip Rivers enters 2016 as easily the most polished of the lot) but by the offensive line most capable of keeping him upright over the course of sixteen games.
The group up front, which has been, and will continue to be, constantly under the microscope, actually boasts some solid talent. From DJ Fluker and King Dunlap to Orlando Franklin and the recently re-signed Joe Barksdale, on paper, it would seem that this unit is capable of competing with the absolute best.
Unfortunately, this has seldom been the unit available to protect “Number-Seventeen” come Sunday.
A lot has been made of free-agency and the draft. Of which one player is most likely to take this team over the top. The truth of the matter is, this team, at its core, needs more than just a player – it needs depth.
Where consistently elite clubs (Patriots, Packers — the list goes on) seem able to weather the injury bug and employ the all-too-often-quoted “Next Man Up” philosophy, the Chargers have been tortured by a reality far to the opposite side of the spectrum.
Now, some of this simply comes down to bad luck. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team more hampered by weekly injuries in 2015 than the Chargers. But, it seems this has become something of a trend in San Diego, and though I may not have an immediate solution, I’m sitting here, hours from the beginning of free agency, crossing my fingers that Tom Telesco keeps a couple things in mind:
Ignore the big signings. Ignore the headlines. What you need are pieces – the ability to smile at a press conference and utter the words, “Next Man Up,” with confidence should injury strike – and just as sure as we’ll still be talking about Deflate-Gate this time next year, injury will strike. It always does.
Don’t make a move just for the sake of making it. And this includes the draft. If you find yourself on the clock at #3 and the all-too-ridiculous idea of picking a quarterback in the first-round has invaded your mind, TRADE DOWN. Understand, as you always have throughout your career, the value to be gained by having more mid-round picks — especially in this draft, where quality offensive linemen, defensive tackles and even quarterbacks, are as plentiful as they have been at any time over the past few years.
Look at each player you bring in as a potential starter – not just as a practice player/special teamer. Of late, this team has been the NFL’s best example of Murphy’s Law (okay, maybe it’s the Cleveland Browns) — things will go wrong. People will get hurt. Ask yourself before you once again stack the roster with journeymen tight ends how each player will fit in if circumstance dictates his number being called.
If you get the chance to sign a sure thing player, by all means do it (with any luck, you’re on the phone with Alex Mack’s agent right now, and will be until he signs on the dotted line) but now is not a time for big risk — at least, not if it comes at a price that hinders you from bringing quality depth on-board.
Remember why you caved and gave Philip Rivers the contract extension you did: the Super Bowl window for this team is not closed – and if you keep Rivers upright, no matter the injuries in front of him, he just might be able to find a way through it.