Remember San Diego? Plucky little bunch, won a playoff game and took the eventual AFC champs to the wire? Yeah, they're back and feeling all kinds of confident heading into 2014. Plus, notes on the playbook 'scandal' and more
From appearances, the Chargers’ offseason seems rather tame. There were no expected starters signed in free agency. The draft was fairly status quo, with only a trade up in the second round (from No. 57 to 50) to draft Georgia Tech outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu. Ho-hum, plodding along.
But that’s exactly the way general manager Tom Telesco envisioned and executed it. That might not be the greatest of signs for San Diego's AFC West rivals. The Chargers, who won their final four regular-season games after a 5-7 start and knocked off the Bengals on the road in the playoffs before losing by seven at Denver, appear to be very confident where they’re headed.
“Your definition of ‘not doing a whole lot’ might be different than ours,” said Telesco, who is in his second year of heading the Chargers. “I don’t look at it like if you sign a big-name player that everyone knows from another team (then that) means you’re doing a lot. If you re-sign some of your own guys or some other role players that you did sign in free agency, it doesn’t means you didn’t do any work. I don’t look at it like that."
Most think it’s a foregone conclusion that the AFC West is the territory of Peyton Manning and the Broncos. They forget the Chargers beat them at Denver in Week 15, 27-20, and then were one third-down stop from having a chance at tying the game in the divisional round.
Last season was the first for coach Mike McCoy, the former Broncos’ offensive coordinator. After six years under Norv Turner, San Diego altered its usual course of starting well, fading and then coming up short in the end. The Chargers were up and down until they caught fire at the end. They think that was no fluke.
“Our guys worked extremely hard last year and luckily we started to see the results of that at the end of the year,” Telesco said. “During the course of the year, some weeks we played really good football, other weeks we looked like a team that was still in transition and getting to know each other. As we got later in the year, things started to jell, people started to understand their roles and then all of a sudden we got on a roll. Part of getting better is developing what you have. That’s what the offseason is for. Hopefully that all adds up into taking the next step this year.”
Telesco had the golden touch, for the most part, in last year’s free agency with key starters King Dunlap (left tackle) and Chad Rinehart (guard), a key contributor in Danny Woodhead (running back), and a valuable reserve in Rich Ohrnberger (offensive line). Cornerback Derek Cox was a mistake, and the Chargers are looking for big things with outside linebacker Dwight Freeney returning from a torn quad (two games played).
“Well, it will certainly help,” said Telesco, who wanted to add some more team speed and playmaking ability to John Pagano’s defense. “Before [Freeney] got hurt last year he was looking extremely good. Right now, his rehab is coming along very well, so he’s right on target, he should be ready to go for camp.”
Offensively, the Chargers return a lot of firepower. Antonio Gates, Woodhead and sensational rookie Keenan Allen all caught more than 70 passes, with receivers Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown at 40-plus apiece. They’ll get Malcom Floyd back at receiver, and the team's almost giddy about the prospects for third-year tight end Ladarius Green. A backfield of Ryan Mathews, Woodhead and free agent Donald Brown (Colts) is well stocked. The offensive line, which battled numerous injuries, allowed the third fewest sacks. So, yeah, quarterback Philip Rivers should be a happy camper.
It’s a little concerning that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt departed to take over the Titans, but the Chargers thought that was a possibility. Frank Reich was promoted from quarterbacks coach to run the Chargers’ offense. This isn’t a case of Whisenhunt taking his system and leaving—he was running the Chargers’ system, which is based in McCoy’s teachings and nuanced by the coordinators. Few know Reich better than Telesco, who was around him when Reich was playing with the Bills and Panthers, and then as an assistant coach with the Colts.
“I’ve known Frank a long time and when he first started coaching with the Colts, you could tell at some point he was going to be a coordinator. You could see he had that in him,” Telesco said. “We’re going to run the same Charger system that we ran last year but Frank will be in control of it. I know Frank well enough that he’s not looking to put his imprint on anything, he’s running the Chargers’ offense. Will we see some wrinkles? Sure, but that’s between Mike and Frank and as a result of the offseason, what we think we have to work with, and self scouting.”
The Broncos may be the current kings of the west, and the Chiefs were right there for much of the season, but keep an ear out for the quiet Chargers.
“I think we can compete with anybody, so that’s our mindset, take that for whatever it’s worth,” Telesco said. “Last year was a good start, we built a foundation but we have to take the next step.”
1. A few words on the playbook “controversy” that came from my profile of Browns coach Mike Pettine. (If you want to learn the inner workings of building a team and a defense, and how a man rose from being a high school head coach 13 years ago to Browns head coach—you know, 95 percent of the story—please go read it. I assure you, you will learn something about the game.) If Pettine said Pittsburgh instead of New England, people would laugh about a rivalry love tap and move along. But because it’s the Patriots, some people (mostly in the New York-Boston corridor, and those with anti-Patriots bias) read way too much into an anecdote that I thought was entertaining and harmless because it’s a bunch of rivals busting each other’s chops. I’m sorry, I refuse to treat one team with kid gloves because of how a few may react related to something that may or may not have happened seven years ago (no one knows the truth except for commissioner Roger Goodell). When exactly is it okay for anybody to rib the Patriots about anything … do we have to wait until Bill Belichick retires? Can I get a statute of limitations ruling? I mean, it’s ridiculous.
2. I should have explained to the general public that having playbooks means absolutely nothing—especially a defensive playbook (there are only so many ways to run an open fire zone blitz, and they’re all on tape anyway). I am also in possession of a few Jets playbooks, along with many other NFL teams, including the Patriots. Funny thing is not one person on Twitter asked me to explain the significance of that small part of the story, until a story was posted some four hours after my story was out. If you cover the NFL and think that having another team’s playbook (outside of an individual weekly game plan, which no one said anything about) has any relevance, either you’re new on the beat, don’t know the sport you cover very well, or just grab any appearance of controversy for clicks without regard of the actual facts. Coaches share playbooks and their philosophies all the time. Players go from team to team every offseason with real information—why teams use certain techniques against certain opponents, the weaknesses they were targeting a previous matchup, etc.—in their head. Rob Ryan, Rex’s twin brother, coached under Belichick with the Patriots. Mike McCoy went from offensive coordinator of the Broncos to head coach of the Chargers. Chuck Pagano went from coordinating the Ravens’ defense to facing them as Colts coach in one season. Think they had a few playbooks? Just about everybody runs the same plays. A game is determined by tendencies, matchups, timing, game-specific tactics, and about 50 other things. Sure, coaches don’t love their information being out there without their approval, but any insinuation that anybody acted improperly is so ridiculous and irresponsible that it didn’t even enter my mind that it could happen.
3. What an unbelievable stretch of bad luck that second-year running back Johnathan Franklin became at least the ninth Packers player since 2000 to suffer a significant neck injury (Franklin announced he’s leaving football): Gary Berry, Terrence Murphy, Tony Palmer, Jeremy Thompson, Nick Collins, Sean Richardson, Jermichael Finley, Johnny Jolly and Franklin (credit to Jason Wilde and Rob Demovsky for those names). Only Richardson has returned to play.
4. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson told Tom Pelissero of USA Today that the team “would take a heavy hit—for real,” from the fan base if the teams moves on from him at some point. That may be true, at least in the short term, but it won’t matter if the Vikings are winning, something the Vikings haven’t done a ton of since 2009. And once the Vikings get the personal seat license money for the opening of their new stadium in 2016, the economic ripples felt by Peterson’s possible exit likely wouldn’t be much of a problem.
5. This seems like a good time to take a vacation. See you in a month.