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In a recent interview with Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego Chargers GM AJ Smith expressed his extreme disappointment and embarrassment over the way the Chargers have performed this season. Smith puts the blame squarely on his own shoulders, and identifies a set of five questions he'll ask himself as the 2008 comes to an end. I'll do my best to address his questions as best as I can, and I ask all of you to contribute to this post by sharing your thoughts as well:
“1. What happened between 2007 and 2008?”
Well a number of things happened:
Defensively, losing Shawne Merriman had a tremendously negative impact on the team. With Merriman out for the entire season, guys who previously came in situationally were now being counted on to play on the base defense. Not only was Merriman a tremendous pass rusher, he was also a dominant run stopper. Without Merriman, guys had to step in and at times were playing out of position. While they still could generate decent pressure on the passer, there was a significant drop off in run defense. For example, I am very high on the future of Jyles Tucker, but he is a guy who could certainly have benefited from developing another year in a situational role.
On the back end of the defense, we didn’t see the improvement we were expecting from what was essentially the same core group of guys. Marlon McCree was a veteran leader last year, and losing him might have had a negative impact on the young group, not only from a mentorship standpoint but also from mental and schematic standpoint. McCree was well versed in coverages and did an excellent job lining his guys up. Eric Weddle is a first year starter and has made some big plays but also some costly mistakes. Antonio Cromartie is also in his first full year as a starter and he has struggled with nagging injuries, leading to what some have called “confidence issues.” As Cromartie improves as a tackler, it is important to have a hard-hitting safety (valve) to clean up his leftovers. On the bright side, Antoine Cason has performed at a high level as the third cornerback and there has been no drop off in losing Drayton Florence. As far as coaching is concerned, promoting Ron Rivera was absolutely the right move and I would not dismiss him as a possible candidate for the head coaching job here in San Diego.
On the offensive side of the ball, Norv Turner has made it clear in his second year as the head coach that he is changing the offensive philosophy of the team. His first year as head coach, he preached “continuity.” But just a year later the offense is almost recognizable. Chris Chambers was brought to San Diego to help the team win a championship. Antonio Gates and Ladainian Tomlinson were supposed to be the best players at their position. The Chargers offense was supposed to be unstoppable; no team in the league was going to be able to contain such playmakers. It turns out the team that rendered such high profile and productive players relatively useless were largely the San Diego Chargers themselves.
2. “What's happened to the defense on third-down conversions? It seems automatic for the offenses now. It's been much too easy. They're dangerous, because they can break your spirit.”
Everyone looked at the Chargers and said "this team needs to generate more pressure on the QB." Well, there's a difference between pressure and sacks. If an NFL Quarterback cannot deal with pressure, then they shouldn’t be on the field. Pressure isn’t good enough. The defense needs to get sacks. Negative plays. Pressure was never the problem with this defense. Guys were close to getting sacks way too often. What the failed to do was to actually sack the QB.
3. “The offensive line. We lack a running game. This is a deficiency. If we don't fix the running game and stop the passing assaults on third down, a championship will not be coming to San Diego any time soon.”
The Chargers are now a passing team and no longer play the physical brand of football that was a hallmark of Marty Schottenheimer. The offensive line are not allowed to get into a grove running the ball and with opposing defensive lines going relatively unpunished throughout the game, the Chargers have a had time controlling the line of scrimmage. All season long, teams have dictated what the Chargers can do offensively. The Chargers have struggled to start fast – they do not play sixty minutes of football with a fourth quarter intensity. Instead of taking control of a game early, the San Diego Chargers offense is constantly trying to play catch-up, completely throwing off any sort of offensive rhythm.
4. “Is our talent base overrated, or is it just an off year for them? Are some of the players starting to decline?”
This is an interesting question because physical talent is worthless without the drive and passion to perform. I think we should be asking if the talent base is responding to the coaching. Are these guys giving 100% on each play? Is the locker room dividing? Are the players buying into the team's philosophy and playing together? Are there individuals on the team going through the motions?
I certainly feel that this team has weakness at certain positions. Heading into the 2008 NFL season, I identified the Chargers top four draft needs.
1. Defensive Tackle
2. Offensive Tackle
3. Running Back
4. Strong Safety
The interesting thing is that these four positions are still need-areas heading into offseason. Outside of Jamal Williams' return to dominance, the Chargers defensive line has not generated plays. The team signed Ian Scott and activated Keith Grennan on a few occasions because they needed the depth. The defensive line has probably seen more individuals rotating in and out than any other position on the team. Drafting a top defensive linemen could have helped in this area and possibly provided more big plays.
Offensive Tackle/Offensive Guard will continue to be an area of improvement. The Chargers offensive line is not dominant and has not dominated the line of scrimmage like in years past. Tomlinson is having the worst season of his career. Certainly the team needs to bring in another offensive lineman, and while they did draft Corey Clark late, he bounced around from the active roster to the practice squad and back.
Running Back; it was a glaring need heading into this season, and it remains a position under intense scrutiny. Is Jacob Hester the heir apparent to Ladainian Tomlinson? Will he be at least what Michael Turner was to this team? Is he going to play fullback or not? Why was Marcus Thomas drafted only to be cut? The team obviously thought enough of the guy to draft him, so why couldn't he stick around? Did he not fit in schematically? Didn't the front office already know that there wasn't going to be a place for him on the roster?
I thought it was obvious that the strong safety needed a serious upgrade, especially considering Antonio Cromartie isn't a very good tackler. And for some reason people are just now noticing that opposing Tight Ends are shredding our defense. I pointed this out two years ago! Wanna beat the Chargers? Attack the Safeties. I've been very critical of the Chargers revolving door at safety over the years. It's time we got a playmaker at the position; something we haven't had since Rodney Harrison.
5. “When a losing period enters a football team, how do the players react? Do they split away and divide the team? They're easy to find.”
The answer to this question remains to be seen. The Chargers need to find reasons to keep playing hard, not the least of which should be to win for the fans.
“I have three months to ask myself these questions and answer them,” he said. “Now is the most dangerous time to evaluate. I don't want to go down the list and say, 'Out! Out! Out! Out!'
“I'll take it all on my shoulders. I'm judged on a week-to-week basis. This business is about winning championships. That's it. I think we're a playoff-caliber team that did not play playoff-caliber football.” - AJ SMITH
San Diego Union-Tribune: 'It's very, very difficult, very, very painful,' says GM Smith
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