The San Diego Chargers finished out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season. An 8-8 season was good enough to finish in a three way tie for first place in the inept AFC West, but the team lost out to the Denver Broncos on tie breakers.
Despite finishing in a tie for first, the 2011 season was considered a major failure by fans of the team. The team started strong with a 4-1 record, but then proceeded to lose six straight games to fall to last place in the division with a 4-7 record. To their credit, the players rallied to win four of the last five games to end up with the .500 record.
The team has clearly regressed over the last four years as talent has left the team in free agency because of abrasive nature of General Manager A.J. Smith, who has failed to replace it in the annual league draft. One needs look no further than running back Darren Sproles who Smith considered expendable after the 2010 season. Sproles signed with the New Orleans Saints and went on to set an NFL record for the most all purpose yards ever in a season. To the disgust of fans, there are many other stories like this one. It is unclear if they would even want their Chargers tickets for next year.
Head coach Norv Turner has never been a favorite of the fans. Taking over a 14-2 team after Marty Schottenheimer was fired in a power struggle with A.J. Smith, Turner did well his first couple of seasons, but the team has seen its record drop from 13–3 in 2009 to 9-7 in 2010 and now 8-8 in the 2011 season. This downward spiral has really hurt the demand for SD Chargers tickets in the off season.
To the shock of nearly everyone, the team decided to bring back both Smith and Turner this year. In an effort to appease fans, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was held up as the scapegoat, fired and replaced by John Pagano. There is now a fan revolt with talk radio and calls for a potential boycott being discussed. Turmoil indeed!
This team is built with the same approach used by the Green Bay Packers. The money is put into the offense. The defense gets second billing with the hope that if it is just average, the offense will score more than enough to win most games. This approach has worked well in the past, but ran into big problems in 2011.
In a shocker, the biggest problem was star quarterback Philip Rivers. To put it succinctly, he was terrible for a good part of the year. Rivers through a staggering 20 interceptions and fumbled frequently. An example of his year long struggles occurred in one game against Kansas City when he fumbled away the ball while trying to take a knee for a field goal attempt to wrap up the game. The good news for fans is he played much better at the end of the season, which is hopefully a good sign for the 2012 season.
A second major problem was the offensive line. While the talent was present, injuries decimated the line. The entire left side was lost when tackle Marcus McNeil suffered another neck injury and guard Kris Dielman suffered a major concussion that eventually resulted in seizures. Hopefully these two players will come back next season at 100% and cause some type of spark.
On defense, the Chargers were actually pretty much what one expected – average. The team finished with the 16th best defense in the league, the exact middle of the rankings. There are no stars on this defense. Safety Eric Weddle played very well to justify his new contract, but nobody else really stood out. This was neither a good nor bad thing as the money on this team is put into the offense. All and all, the defense did its part.
While A.J. Smith and Norv Turner will remain with the team for another year, many players will not. The team has already announced there will be “significant” changes to the roster. It appears the team will try to retain star wide receiver Vincent Jackson, but will jettison McNeil and Dielman from the offensive line and possible center Nick Hardwick as well. On the defensive line, Luis Castillo, Jacques Cesar and others may be gone. A weak linebacker core will see players trimmed, including first round bust Larry English.
The team has a stated preference for building through the draft. However, this year may be different as A.J. Smith and Norv Turner know this is their last chance. Given this, many expect the Chargers to be big players in the free agency market in an effort to bring the talent level back up to where it was in the years the team was challenging for a Super Bowl birth.
So, what does the team need for 2012? Philip Rivers needs to be protected above all else, so look for the offensive line to be the initial focus. The team also needs to retain wide receiver Vincent Jackson, its only real deep threat. On defense, the team needs to find a strong safety, a rush line backer and improve the overall talent level. Given the frugal ways of the Chargers, that is a lot to ask for one offseason. If they could pull it off, I am sure owning tickets will become a hot commodity.
It is difficult to know what to think about the team moving forward. The offense is still potent, but this is going to be an offseason of change. The AFC West has no dominant team, so one can easily see a health Chargers team taking the division championship in 2012. As for having a realistic chance to compete for a Super Bowl, it appears that ship has sailed since the talent level is not up to snuff.