Can the San Diego Chargers rebuild on the fly? That's really the question facing Mike McCoy, as he begins his first season as the team's head coach.
Despite missing the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and posting a combined 15-17 mark over 2011-12, the Chargers never really hit the reset button. Instead, they were convinced that making a few tweaks around Philip Rivers could set them back on course, returning them to their spot as the class of the AFC West.
The franchise again will try to find its footing this season, with many of the same cast members that flopped in 2012. But the changes they have made appear to be significant, with a mix of rookies and veterans jumping into the fray.
Will 2013 be a turning point for the Chargers? Or will McCoy have to rework even more of the roster heading into 2014?
• Biggest Storyline: Can Mike McCoy find the old Philip Rivers?
The Chargers remain fully committed to Philip Rivers for a bare minimum of one more season. Backup Charlie Whitehurst is no contender to steal the starting job, and behind him is seventh-round project Brad Sorensen and journeyman Nathan Enderle.
What exactly will rookie head coach Mike McCoy find in his No. 1 QB, though? Rivers won 46 regular-season games from 2006-09, led the league in TD passes in 2008 and in passing yards in 2010. He's also thrown 48 interceptions -- an average of one per game -- over the past three years. His struggles went hand-in-hand with the demise of Norv Turner in San Diego.
The belief out west is that McCoy, who helped bring out the best in Tim Tebow as the Broncos' offensive coordinator, can restore Rivers to his former glory. Early returns have been promising in camp, but it's impossible to judge this marriage until the regular season.
Plus, even if Rivers raises his game, the Chargers' lingering questions along the offensive line could make it a moot point.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Left tackle.
And while we're on the subject on that offensive line ...
San Diego's front was a complete sieve in 2012, allowing 49 sacks of Rivers and what felt like about 10 times that many pressures. They made a gaggle of moves this offseason to remedy that problem, including adding tackles King Dunlap, Max Starks and rookie D.J. Fluker. It's Fluker who is expected to start at right tackle (even if some would argue Fluker should be playing guard), leaving Dunlap and Starks to battle it out on the left side.
Simply showing up and wanting to play each week would boost Dunlap and Starks over the Chargers' former left tackle, malcontent Jared Gaither. He played just four games in 2012 before shutting it down for the year, forcing San Diego to use a horribly overmatched Mike Harris, among others, in his place. Dunlap and Starks at least have starting experience, so the Chargers should be in better shape no matter which way they turn.
• New face, new place: Derek Cox, CB.
The San Diego secondary received an overhaul this offseason, too, with former starters Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason departing. One of the keys to replacing that duo will be former Jaguar Derek Cox.
The 26-year-old cornerback has struggled to stay healthy but has been a tough DB for offenses to deal with nonethless. Cox picked off four passes in 2012, just as he did in 2009 and '10. He received a four-year deal worth $20 million from San Diego, and it's fathomable to picture him as a No. 1 or No. 2 CB for the duration of that contract.
The Chargers need him to live up to those expectations, because the rest of the cornerback group is unsettled. Shareece Wright, with zero career starts, looks like he'll win the job opposite Cox, with Saints bust Johnny Patrick, 2013 fifth-rounder Steve Williams and several undrafted players vying for time.
• Impact rookie: Manti Te'o, LB.
The rookie performance of Te'o will garner plenty of attention -- though, fortunately for him, not as much as if he'd landed in, say, New York or Dallas. For the Chargers, there is way more at play here than just giving Te'o a chance to redeem himself after a stunning and embarrassing close to his Notre Dame career.
Te'o needs to be an anchor in the middle of San Diego's 3-4 defense. He is inheriting the spot left vacant by the departure of steady veteran Takeo Spikes, a 16-game starter for each of the past two seasons in San Diego. McCoy said way back in May that he wants Te'o to take on three-down duties, which could put him on the field even more than Spikes was last season.
Should Te'o deliver as a reliable linebacker, the Chargers' linebacking corps could sneak up and be one of the league's better units. Remember, Dwight Freeney's also in San Diego now, adding some pop to the pass rush.
• Looking at the schedule: The first seven weeks, before the Chargers' bye, will be sink or swim.
The chance to put together an encouraging start is there, with a Monday night home game vs. Houston in Week 1. San Diego then heads to Philadelphia and Tennessee -- both winnable games -- and comes home to host Dallas in Week 4. A stretch of at Oakland, vs. Indianapolis, at Jacksonville follows.
There are plenty of landmines there, and yet the Chargers may not be prohibitive underdogs in any of those games.
A coaching change and the resulting scheme transitions, however, do not often lend themselves to quick starts. The Chargers also may spend the early weeks finding their footing at several key spots, including the O-line, secondary and wide receiver, where Danario Alexander recently was lost for the year. (Keep an eye on the versatile Keenan Allen there.)
So, per usual, the pressure will fall on Rivers to put this team on his back. McCoy has to make sure he's up to the task.