Gut-check time in San Diego

Posted Nov. 15, 2010 @ 5:31 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

It happens every fall around this time.

The days grow shorter, the checkout lines at shopping malls grow longer and — after always seeming to take their sweet time the first 2½ months of every NFL season — the Chargers get much stronger.

Like clockwork, it hasn't taken long in recent times before San Diego is perched atop the AFC West, which is where it has finished the past four seasons.

In 2006, the Chargers won their last 10 games. In 2007, they won their final six games. In 2008, they won their last four games. In 2009, they began their customary stretch run a little sooner, winning their final 11 games.

This season, entering their bye week with two straight wins after having started off a disappointing 2-5, the Chargers look as though they may be starting to heat up.

That said, they also are still looking up at the surprising 5-4 Chiefs and 5-4 Raiders, both of whom registered victories over San Diego in Week One and Week Five, respectively. 

Although league observers have begun to stand up and take notice of the Chargers, paying particular attention to the MVP-caliber performance being turned in so far this season by QB Philip Rivers despite a depleted supporting cast, the locals have hardly gone loco, as evidenced by blackouts in three of San Diego's first four home games.

NFL insiders have their share of theories as to why the Chargers are the most enigmatic team in the NFL, beginning with the well-documented absences much of the season of two key players due to contract holdouts — WR Vincent Jackson and OLT Marcus McNeill.

"They had some distractions because of the new collective-bargaining rules," said one league executive. "Take out Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill, and you're going to lose some explosiveness from your offense. Take the left tackle away from any team, and see how they handle it. It affects the way you roll protection. It's not a simple fix.

"Jackson was commanding double coverage last season. He's an explosive, big-play threat. (GM) A.J. Smith has done an excellent job identifying talent and loading the roster. (But) one of the problems with assembling too much talent is that you're not going to be able to keep everyone happy."

Head coach Norv Turner also continues to be an easy target.

"You can say Norv is not a motivator," said another league personnel evaluator. "It could be the coast bias — it's a lot harder to travel across four time zones and not lose something. It could be a combination of a lot of things — not having key players early in the season.

"But there's one constant," the evaluator concluded. "This is a team that is big and physical and built to play in November and December. When other teams are starting to wear down, they get better."

It doesn't hurt to have a quarterback like Rivers, who has arguably done his job better than any other signalcaller in the league so far this season, racking up 2,944 passing yards in nine games despite operating a good part of the time without his top four receivers (Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis, who is on injured reserve).

Completing passes to 14 different targets, Rivers is on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season league-record of 5,084 passing yards by 150 yards. 

"He is so gutsy and competitive," the talent evaluator said of Rivers, who despite also missing star TE Antonio Gates, connected with eight different receivers for 295 yards and four TDs (two each by undrafted rookie Seyi Ajirotutu and supposedly washed-up TE Randy McMichael) in a 29-23 Week Nine win at Houston — San Diego's first road victory of the season. "He knows when and where to go with the ball, and he gets rid of it so quickly. He's a lot like Marino. He's got that edge to him and the quick trigger. He's not mobile in the pocket, but he can make the first defender miss.

"Norv Turner changed their approach last year and went to more of an aerial attack late in the year. I expect to see more of the same. Rivers is their horse. He's got Jackson coming back now. He's developed a rapport with some of the younger receivers. The passing game is explosive."

And it could get even more explosive with Jackson set to come off the team's roster-exempt list after next Monday night's game against Denver, and Floyd and Naanee expected to return for the Denver game from the hamstring injuries that have kept them in mothballs in recent weeks.

The Chargers will need the extra boost with Gates, Rivers' most trusted target, hampered by toe and foot injuries.

But even with all of their firepower, there is one huge problem the Chargers must overcome to have a shot at a fifth straight division title — a special-teams corps that has been putrid so far this season.

San Diego's special-teams woes immediately made their presence felt in Week One, when Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster's 94-yard punt return for a TD proved to be the difference maker in the Chiefs' 21-14 upset victory.

Four blocked punts and a fifth that traveled one yard after a deflection have compounded the special-teams agony.

"They could have started the season with five straight wins if it were not for special-teams breakdowns, if you really go back and look at it," said one league executive who did just that. "They gave up the long return against Kansas City, two against Seattle (TD returns by Leon Washington) and had those two punts blocked against Oakland.

"Miami ran off their special-teams coach (John Bonamego) after they collapsed (against New England on Monday night in Week Four). It looked like (Chargers special-teams coach Steve) Crosby might be next. But if you look at his track record, he has been one of the most consistent coaches in the league.

"I wouldn't pin it on the coaching. A big part of it is personnel. They lost their ace in the offseason. Kassim Osgood signed with Jacksonville. They are on — what — their fifth long-snapper this season? Those are two huge losses."

Early this past week, Turner went out on a limb with the prediction that there would be no more blocked punts the rest of the season, in addition to issuing a strong vote of confidence in Crosby.

"There's about five guys I'd let go before him, and that'd be the five guys who've had mental errors and given up blocked punts," said Turner. "He's not out there doing it. He gets them ready to play. ... He does a great job getting these guys ready."

Now the question becomes just how ready the Chargers are to do what they always do this time of year, with the biggest obstacles on their remaining schedule figuring to be their Week 12 road game against the Colts, followed by pivotal rematches at home against the Raiders and Chiefs.

Let the muscle-flexing begin.