When the 2015 NFL season ended, the San Diego Chargers knew they had to change their formula to become competitive again. After a 4-12 record, both players and coaches were on the hot seat.
Their general manager, Tom Telesco, is a disciple of former Indianapolis Colts President, Bill Polian. Polian was a huge proponent of building a winning NFL team through the draft and always shied away from being major players in free agency. So it was no secret how Telesco envisioned himself building this San Diego Chargers team when he was hired back in 2013. However, a lot can change in three years.
Determined to get his team back to relevancy, Telesco decided the Chargers needed to be more active this offseason. San Diego had to make some big signings and made perhaps its biggest splash signing on the first day of free agency; literally.
To be more specific, the Chargers made a 6-foot-1, 315-pound splash by signing Brandon Mebane, the former nose tackle of the Seattle Seahawks. Most fans will probably recognize Mebane for his infamous belly roll, but he is really known for being a selfless player who helps occupy space so that his teammates can do their jobs and wreak havoc on opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks. The Chargers haven’t had a nose tackle of this ability since Jamal Williams. However, besides his large body frame and his ability to take on double teams with ease, Mebane brings much needed leadership to a San Diego defense that lost their vocal leader in Eric Weddle this past offseason.
Dec 20, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (92) sacks Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
The former Seahawks defensive lineman is a respected veteran who has been in the league for a while, so he certainly raised some eyebrows recently when he compared his current teammates to Seattle’s vaunted defense that dominated the NFC West for years. In his recent interview with ESPN.com’s Eric Williams, Mebane expressed his admiration of the talent on the defensive side:
“There is so much talent on this team, it’s unreal. I was telling guys there is more talent on this defense than there was in Seattle. If you look at the draft, you’ve got four first-round draft picks and you have five second-round draft picks all on defense.”
What he is referring to, is that over the last five years, the Chargers have invested heavily on the defensive side via the draft. Management has given defensive coordinator John Pagano all the tools needed to build a disruptive defense. The Chargers spent either a first or second-round pick nine times in the last five years on players like Corey Liuget, Melvin Ingram, Manti Te’o, Jason Verrett, Jeremiah Attaochu, Denzel Perryman and now Joey Bosa to help bolster up his defense.
This of course doesn’t include players acquired through free agency like corners Brandon Flowers and Casey Hayward. So over the last couple of years, why have the Chargers been routinely at the bottom of the league when it comes to their defense?
“There is so much talent on this team, it’s unreal. I was telling guys there is more talent on this defense than there was in Seattle. If you look at the draft, you’ve got four first-round draft picks and you have five second-round draft picks all on defense.“-Brandon Mebane
Pagano has been with the Chargers for over 14 years. He started with the team back in 2002 as an assistant linebackers coach and worked his way up to defensive coordinator in 2012. The Chargers’ defense has been nothing but inconsistent during his reign as defensive coordinator. The common theme for San Diego over the last couple of years has been their porous run defense. Under Pagano, the Chargers have let up almost 120 rushing yards per game during a three-year stretch and have finished no higher than 26th against the run since 2014.
Not only has a Pagano-led defense been inadequate in stopping the run, but they have also been unable to generate pressure or create turnovers. In 2014, the Chargers blitzed 29.4 percent of the time, which ranked them 17th in the NFL. However, their effectiveness on those blitzes were another story. According to Pro Football Focus, Pagano’s blitzes were only able to produce nine sacks, 15 quarterback hits and 42 quarterback hurries, which earned the Chargers a No. 28 overall league ranking in pass rush productivity. This was actually an improvement from No. 31 overall the year prior.
As for 2015, San Diego was once again ranked as the 28th-worst pass-rushing team by PFF. This is not a surprise when you consider the Chargers dropped their best pass rusher in coverage far too often. Last year, Pagano dropped Ingram into coverage 24 percent of the time. That is 141 plays where instead of having their most gifted pass-rusher attacking the quarterback, he is aimlessly trying to cover the flat or middle of the field. That is just poor coaching and use of Pagano’s assets.
Dec 7, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) is pressured by San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (54) while making a throw during the third quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
I mentioned in an earlier posting that the best offseason move was the firing of Frank Reich and replacing him with Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. Reich’s offensive schemes were too predictable and one dimensional. Whisenhunt will bring much-needed stability and creativity to a Chargers’ offense that is loaded with talent.
So if San Diego had the foresight to terminate a coordinator that failed to be productive for numerous years, why didn’t they follow suit and fire Pagano this offseason? It was perplexing when the news came out that the Chargers would hold onto Pagano as defensive coordinator. Why? What did Telesco see in Pagano that made him want to give him another chance?
Telesco had a good offseason this year but fell short when he failed to alleviate Pagano of his duties as defensive coordinator. Make no mistake, if the Chargers don’t improve on the defensive side significantly this year, Pagano will definitely be on the unemployment line come 2017.