The Chargers’ nose is pressed up against the window, like a pint-sized kid looking at candy at the local market: that sweet taste of the playoffs is being devoured by others and the Chargers don’t have a seat at the table.
Instead, the Chargers got a head start on the offseason, as their 9-7 mark left them shy of their fifth straight trip to the playoffs.
There is plenty of blame to go around and there should be. A team that had won four straight AFC West titles and is coming off a 13-3 season is expected to play late into January.
A team that led the NFL in offense, defense and sacks, is expected to play late into January.
A team that has a quarterback who threw for more yards than all but nine other people in an NFL season, well, you get the idea.
Instead the Chargers were done in by yet another slow start (2-5), some of the worst special teams play in NFL history and a roster which while in flux was consistent: the Chargers never knew what they would get, from one week to the next.
How else to explain the team’s disinterested effort in Cincinnati, in losing to a three-win team with everything on the line in late December?
How else to explain getting pushed around for 251 rushing yards in a nearly must-win game by the Raiders in early December?
How else to explain losses to the Seahawks and Rams; a 3-5 road record?
People long ago have said you are what your record is and that is so true with the 2010 Chargers.
While leading the league in countless categories, they also were tops in missed opportunities.
And while the players and coaching staff have been on the business ends of barbs, don’t overlook dour general manager A. J. Smith.
He decided to draw a line in the sand with two of his best players in the offseason, left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) and wide receiver Vincent Jackson(notes).
Both had reached the end, and outplayed, their rookie contracts. And guess what - the two Pro Bowlers wanted the market rate coming into this season, with the security that tags along with it.
But because of a quirk with it being an uncapped year, the Chargers were only required to offer both roughly $3 million and predictably, the players balked.
Did the Chargers break any rules in doing so?
Was it the right thing to do?
With Smith puffing out his chest and proving who was boss, he alienated not only McNeill and Jackson but soiled a locker room and fan base that was disappointed in his actions.
Again, what Smith did was within his rights. But the bigger picture shows an unyielding executive more out to prove his point than to better the club.
So the McNeill-Jackson - and to some degree early on, Shawne Merriman(notes) - distraction was with the Chargers leading into the season and through most of the season.
Did it hamper the Chargers in making the playoffs? Hard to say with any certainty as we must note Jackson had to serve his three-game suspension by the league before he played.
But even when both signed, they had to miss three games because they didn’t sign their restricted free-agent by a certain date. Smith didn’t have to invoke that, but he did, and just maybe it cost the Chargers a playoff spot.
The Chargers are a talented team, but they’re not at the same talent level they were a couple of seasons ago. When they went 14-2 in Marty Schottenheimer’s final season in 2006, they had 11 Pro Bowlers.
Now, no more than three players - quarterback Philip Rivers(notes), tight end Antonio Gates(notes) and left guard Kris Dielman(notes) - can be considered elite players.
The Chargers, though, are standing pat.
Team president Dean Spanos said Turner, who has won one playoff game in three years, will return, as will the man hiring Turner, Smith. But both are on notice from San Diego football fans that have lost its patience with the way the front office does its business and the product on the field.
In what could be their last season in San Diego, the Chargers need to get it right in 2011. That window of opportunity which seemed to be so wide open for so long in San Diego has but a small crack remaining.
What has to happen is Smith rediscovering his Midas touch in the draft because since 2007, they have been ordinary. Smith might also have to tweak his philosophy of not chasing significant free agents.
Whatever happens, the Chargers have to re-find that swagger that they once produced by the barrel. The Chargers have quickly fallen from being mentioned among the NFL’s elite teams to being just another club.
• Rookie RB Ryan Mathews(notes) admits his first NFL season was an eye-opener. “I learned a lot this season by just being patient, being able to read defenses and pick up blocks and stuff like that,” he said. “It can only get better. The more you know, this is what the offseason is for - just to get better and work on all the little things, and just try to perfect everything.” Mathews rushed for three touchdowns and 120 yards in his final game.
• CB Antoine Cason(notes) showed his versatility this year returning punts when giving Darren Sproles(notes) a breather. Cason had one return for 62 yards in the win over Denver. But Turner is reluctant to put his starting cornerback in harm’s way. “He played at a high level,” Turner said of Cason’s work defending the pass. “I’m not sure you can afford to have him be your punt returner next season.”
• While Philip Rivers has been selected to play in the Pro Bowl before, injuries or the birth of his daughter have derailed his plans to participate. Not so this year, and with him being somewhat of a Pro Bowl rookie, Gates, another Pro Bowler, said he was charging every expense to Rivers’ room. “I told him to hold on a second, that just because I haven’t been doesn’t mean I haven’t made it,” Rivers said. “I’m technically not a rookie, so he should charge stuff to his own room.”
• Rivers threw for an NFL-best and career-high 4,710 yards this season. But it’s a bittersweet reminder of what might have been with the Chargers missing the playoffs. “I think I got better this year,” said Rivers, who also threw for 30 touchdowns. “I think in a lot of ways I played my best football. But then again, I gauge it on winning and losing, so from that standpoint I feel like I could’ve made plays to win more games. I’m a better player this January than I was in the past, but I didn’t do enough to get this team into the postseason.”
• Turner has a good feeling about two things heading into the offseason: that there will be a labor agreement reached in time for next season, and if there is a delay, his players will do right by staying in shape. “The one thing I have pretty good confidence in, and I probably shouldn’t say it, but I’m going to say it,” he said. “I was coaching with the Rams a long time ago when there was a strike and people talked about not having football. I’m pretty darn confident that they’re going to play football in the National Football League next year. And there may be a lot of things that happen between now and when we actually start playing, but I’m pretty confident that football will be played in the National Football League and we’ll have a plan for our guys to be ready and our guys do as good a job in the offseason as anybody. If we can’t monitor that plan in terms of what happens, I know our players are capable of having a plan to get ready.”
• Veteran ILB Stephen Cooper(notes) isn’t one to wrap himself around statistics. The only one that matters is the won-loss record and on that count, the Chargers didn’t do well enough. “We’re really unfamiliar going into the offseason not being in the playoffs and competing for a Super Bowl,” Cooper said. “It’s really tough to swallow but at the same time we’re a 9-7 team, we’re sitting on the outside looking in and it’s our own fault.”
Quote To Note: “Obviously I’m as disappointed as you can be with the fact that we’re 9-7. We didn’t get done the things we wanted to get done.” - Coach Norv Turner on the Chargers’ dismal season in which they failed to reach the playoffs.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
While the Chargers could have as many 21 free agents to contend with, their most pressing concern is Norv Turner’s coaching staff.
Special teams coach Steve Crosby wasn’t invited back after presiding over one of the worst special teams showings in the history of the NFL.
And of even more concern is the attention defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is receiving. Rivera directed the NFL’s top-ranked defense and has long been in the candidate pool for filling a head-coaching vacancy; he’s interviewed for at least nine jobs.
The Panthers have asked and received permission to speak with Rivera, and it could be the first of several teams to seek an audience with him.
Wide receiver: With Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd(notes) and Legedu Naanee(notes) expected to become free agents when and if the new CBA is forged the Chargers could need some targets for Rivers. Jackson could be franchised as him and the club agreeing on a long-term deal could be farfetched.
Inside linebackers: Stephen Cooper battled a knee injury most the year and was on injured reserve for the final game and Kevin Burnett(notes) had one of the best seasons of his career. But Cooper and Burnett could flee as free agents. Backup Brandon Siler(notes) is considered to be just that.
Safety: Please don’t remind Chargers general manager A. J. Smith he passed on drafting Troy Polamalu(notes) for the likes of cornerbacks Sammy Davis(notes) and Terrence Kiel. The Chargers continue to search for a strong safety to strike fear into opposing receivers when coming over the middle. That hasn’t been the case since the Chargers chased away Rodney Harrison(notes).
Medical Watch: TE Antonio Gates (foot) is looking at rest instead of surgery; there is a chance he will play in the Pro Bowl.
— Ilb S tephen Cooper battled a chronic knee injury that never really did get healthy and was placed on injured reserve for the final game of the season. But it’s believed Cooper won’t have surgery.
• OLB Larry English(notes) continues to have foot issues. But rest is what the doctors are ordering.
• WR Patrick Crayton(notes) dislocated his wrist, which derailed his season. He should be OK with more rest; he nearly played in the final game.
• WR Buster Davis (groin) should be OK for the offseason workouts. Although whether the Chargers have this former first-round pick back or not is another question.
• RB Mike Tolbert(notes) sustained a neck/shoulder injury in the next-to-last game. But team doctors seemed to think there will not be any complications and he will be fine after resting for several weeks.
• LS David Binn(notes) had a torn hamstring early in the season but wants to return.
• ILB Donald Butler(notes) (Achilles’ tendon) is expected to be ready for offseason workouts.
• FB Jacob Hester(notes) (knee) just needs some rest, it is believed.