Decisions, Decisions...

Given the Chargers overall disappointment after nine games played in the 2011 season, one would think that a team underachieving so woefully would be all but eliminated from playoff contention. On the contrary actually as the Bolts along with the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos are just one game out of first place in the division behind the leading Oakland Raiders.

Despite the fact that all is not yet lost for the current campaign, plenty of unrest and speculation has encompassed the team’s General Manager A.J. Smith and his right hand man in Head Coach Norv Turner. Smith has been the man behind the scenes who resurrected this Bolts squad from the ashes in the early 2000’s turning a perennial doormat into a club that is currently riding a streak of seven consecutive seasons at .500 or better since 2004.

That impressive track record hasn’t been without some significant speed bumps however given the way that former Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer was dismissed in 2006 following a 14-2 regular season record as well as the team’s notoriously slow starts of 2-3 for four straight seasons under Norv Turner. Until this year that is with the Bolts sitting at an impressive 4-1 heading into their week 6 bye just four short weeks ago and everyone in the league feeling like the team had finally turned the corner.

Those sentiments have been short-lived unfortunately with four losses in a row to bring the Chargers back down to reality in a difficult to swallow fashion. A collapse against the New York Jets, an even more unthinkable meltdown versus Kansas City, and then just two teams outclassing the Bolts with Green Bay and Oakland recently imposing their will has left the Chargers to re-evaluate and try to pick up the pieces before this week’s showdown with the suddenly consistent Chicago Bears.

What appears to be happening in San Diego is that the once young and promising lineup that GM Smith had assembled is quickly becoming an aging group with waning potential. This realization can be awfully sudden sometimes, but this is Philip Rivers’ eighth year in the league and sixth as the full-time starter. Age has crept up on tight end Antonio Gates in a hurry as well in his ninth season with San Diego and several nagging injury issues plaguing him for the better part of the last two years.

Defensively, the Bolts have an all-star team of serviceable guys who would make outstanding backups or rotation players, but the days of Shawne Merriman, Antonio Cromartie, and Jamal Williams are clearly in the past. This defense still has it’s moments of being a formidable unit capable of bottling up opponents, but since Wade Phillips left, the club has been more bend but don’t break rather than let’s just break our opponents. Those philosophical differences have left the Bolts vulnerable at times especially in two minute drill situations defensively rather than applying the pressure, the defense has chosen to play passive zone coverage and let things come to them

Many thought that bringing in Greg Manusky from the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason to replace the departed Ron Rivera would help the defense regain its aggressive nature, but the team actually may have become even more passive especially on third downs. The lack of pressure generated by the Bolts’ pass rush can’t all be faulted on Manusky’s schemes with Larry English lost for the year and Shaun Phillips missing the last three ball games, but personnel should dictate scheme and Manusky has failed to make any adjustments to being short-handed thus far.

Whether you choose to blame the coaches or the players, one thing remains the constant in this equation and that is the fact that A.J. Smith is the man running the show. The coaches on the sidelines are his coaches and the players between the lines are his hand-selected players. Ownership has declined to come out with neither a ringing endorsement nor a condemning disapproval of Smith’s future with the club, but those questions are only going to get louder if things don’t improve quickly in San Diego.

As an apologist for Smith in most cases, it seems necessary to say that this time it is clear that he has hitched his wagon to the wrong horse in Norv Turner. The two are and should be inexorably linked at the hip given the manner in which Schottenheimer was dismissed by Smith in favor of Turner following the 2006 season. From his decision to hire Norv to his refusal to re-sign Darren Sproles and even his reluctance to draft any solid offensive linemen in recent years, it seems Smith has sealed his own fate if the Bolts don’t turn this season around in a hurry and make a late push for the playoffs.

Now let your opinion be heard! After a 4-1 start to the year, who is most to blame for the rapid decline over the past month; Norv Turner, the players, A.J. Smith, Dean Spanos, and why? Do you think the lack of aggressiveness on defense has more to do with the personnel or with the coaches in charge? Could the Chargers actually be getting old before our eyes or do they still have some years left to succeed? Have injuries been a big contributor to the defense’s struggles? If the team doesn’t turn things around, will/should both GM Smith and HC Turner be fired at season’s end? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

November 16, 2011

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