Ask Chargers fans to dole out blame for the car wreck that has been the 2012 season, and head coach Norv Turner likely would get the brunt, followed by GM A.J. Smith. Heck, those two might share all the blame, with maybe some going above their heads to owner Dean Spanos.
The front-office and coaching failures have been on full display this season in San Diego, as the Chargers are heading for a third consecutive postseason at home and are well on their way for their first losing season since 2003.
Turner and Smith didn’t get any help from their franchise quarterback, Philip Rivers, who in turn, it can be argued, didn’t get much help at all from the parts around him. But the great quarterbacks make their teammates better, and that cannot be said about Rivers this season.
In 2011, Rivers threw a career-high 20 interceptions and entered this season intent on rectifying that. The mood around San Diego was positive in the summer. Smith signed WRs Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem to add to Rivers’ arsenal, TE Antonio Gates looked rejuvenated and expectations were through the roof for RB Ryan Mathews.
All was well in the Chargers’ first two games, going 2-0, as Rivers threw four touchdowns and only one interception. Those two teams, though, the Raiders and Titans, have a combined record of 7-17.
The downward spiral began in the fourth quarter of the Chargers’ Week Five game against the Saints, and didn’t stop, save for a 31-13 win over the woeful Chiefs in Week 10. A common thread in the losses is how they have ended — on a Rivers turnover. Rivers has thrown 15 interceptions — he is on pace to surpass last year’s career mark — and lost five fumbles. Most notably, 13 of his 20 turnovers have occurred in the fourth quarter, sealing the Chargers’ fate in close games. He leads the league with nine fourth-quarter picks.
Since drafting Eli Manning, then acquiring Rivers shortly thereafter on Draft Day 2004, the Chargers have used two draft picks on quarterbacks — a third-rounder on Charlie Whitehurst in 2006 and a fifth-round pick on Jonathan Crompton in 2010. Whitehurst rejoined the team this offseason and is Rivers’ backup after a failed tenure as the Seahawks’ starter. Meanwhile, Crompton has never played in an NFL game.
The Chargers have benefited from Rivers’ success and durability — he has started every game since 2006, playing well in the majority of them, giving the franchise no reason to invest in more than a capable backup. With a new head coach and offensive staff likely coming in, combined with another year of Rivers’ struggles, it might be time for the Chargers to seriously look for his successor in April.
Looking at San Diego’s roster, there are not a lot of high-priority holes to fill. The O-line could use some major upgrades, but if it was healthy all season long — I'm looking at you, Jared Gaither — it would have held up better. The defensive front seven is very good and young, with budding stars Corey Liuget and Donald Butler. The corners are getting up there in age, but the Chargers have youngsters Marcus Gilchrist and Shareece Wright waiting in the wings.
Malcom Floyd, Danario Alexander and Vincent Brown — who has not played this season because of an ankle injury — are a solid foundation at receiver. Mathews has disappointed this season, but he still should be the running back of the future.
Rivers will be the Chargers’ starting quarterback in 2013, and maybe a new coaching staff is what he needs to rediscover his Pro Bowl form. The prevailing thought in August was that the fact that the Chargers were finally under the radar, the offense would go out and surprise people. Instead, it ranks 26th in the NFL — the Chargers haven’t ranked worse than 20th in total offense since 2000 and were first in 2010 — and Rivers has his second-lowest passer rating since becoming a starter in 2006 — 85.1.
Rivers has been with Turner since 2007, though, and a brand new coach and offensive philosophy could have a negative impact — though, it’s hard to envision things being worse than they have been this season.
In his career as a starter, Rivers has never had to worry about his job, and he’s never needed to. The problems with the Chargers this season do go beyond their signalcaller, and things won’t be easier in Week 14 with three O-line starters sitting out with injuries.
Fans long ago ran out of patience for Turner, and for all the success Rivers has had in his career, his play has been the complete opposite of clutch this season. Having a backup better than Whitehurst to be not only an heir apparent, but also someone who can apply a little pressure, wouldn’t be a bad thing for the 2013 Chargers.
Follow Kevin Fishbain on Twitter