For the past six seasons, the Chargers have virtually owned the AFC West.
In that span, San Diego has posted a 67-29 record — nearly a .700 winning percentage — while racking up an impressive 28-8 divisional record and capturing five AFC West titles. It has been sheer dominance in a division that used to be considered one of the league's most competitive.
But could the club's reign of terror be coming to an end? Based on the early returns this offseason, it's very possible.
Perhaps no team has lost more since the end of the 2009 campaign — one that saw the Bolts tear off 11 consecutive victories only to collapse in their first playoff contest and fall to the underdog Jets. In the past month, the Chargers have parted ways with possibly the greatest player in franchise history in RB LaDainian Tomlinson and run-stuffing defensive stalwart NT Jamal Williams, traded '06 first-round CB Antonio Cromartie to the Jets and lost TE Brandon Manumaleuna (Bears) and three-time Pro Bowl special-teamer Kassim Osgood (Jaguars) in free agency.
And what have the Bolts done to replace all these significant departures? Well, they've scooped up little-known RB Marcus Mason. That's it. While GM A.J. Smith is never one to make a run at big-name free agents, his lack of activity thus far has been somewhat surprising.
The numerous personnel losses leave the club very shaky at some key spots. Already thin along the defensive line, the release of Williams opens a gaping hole in the middle of the "D" that needs to be filled adequately for the 3-4 scheme to be effective. The team has some in-house options, but none of them jump out as instant stars. This is clearly a position that will have to be addressed on Draft Day.
While some within the organization might view the Cromartie trade as addition by subtraction — the corner had worn out his welcome toward the end — they can't deny that the Bolts' secondary becomes visibly weaker without him. His likely replacement, Antoine Cason, is viewed highly as a former first-round pick but remains an unknown commodity, having never played consistently on the outside.
And of course, the backfield is a glaring weak spot. Although Tomlinson wasn't exactly getting the job done last season, at least he was someone who could handle 20 carries a game and take some pressure off the passing attack. Now, San Diego has Darren Sproles, a restricted free agent who's expected to return after receiving the highest tender, and nothing else. It could use a first-rounder on a running back, but it's no guarantee that he makes an immediate impact. It doesn't help that the team lost its best blocking tight end in Manumaleuna, either.
Obviously, the Chargers' cupboard isn't left bare. They still have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Philip Rivers, star pass catchers in Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates, a mountainous left tackle in Marcus McNeill a Pro Bowl left guard in Kris Dielman, an impact defensive end in Luis Castillo, a lockdown corner in Quentin Jammer and ferocious OLBs in Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.
But even this group has some question marks. Jackson is an RFA who's likely to be back in 2010 but is facing a league suspension for DUI charges. Merriman, also an RFA, should return but has not been the same player since undergoing knee surgery early in the '08 season. And Smith still needs to work out long-term deals with McNeill (RFA) and Gates (contract up after '10 season) or chance losing them next offseason.
While it's too early for Bolts fans to panic — Smith still could put together a terrific draft, as he has been known to do — it's not too soon to be concerned that the team's stranglehold on the AFC West might be coming to an end. The Broncos have done a decent job adding some pieces through free agency, although the potential loss of WR Brandon Marshall looms large. The Raiders are finally beginning to cut some of their excess baggage and would be much improved if QB Bruce Gradkowski is given a chance to start from Day One. And the Chiefs are moving in the right direction under GM Scott Pioli, having added RB Thomas Jones and likely picking up more key elements in the coming months.
The Chargers remain the favorites to finish atop the division in 2010, but beyond that, the outlook is cloudy. It's not as though San Diego had much playoff success during its strong stretch from 2004-09, appearing in just one AFC title game, and that was with one of the NFL's most stacked rosters. Beginning in '11, the club's talent level is just about guaranteed to go down, making a deep postseason run even more difficult.
The Bolts would be wise to make the most of the upcoming campaign, as it could be their last realistic chance at a Super Bowl for the foreseeable future.
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