Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Chargers, who have an immensely talented roster that seems to suffer from perplexing in-game decision-making, intensely bad cosmic energy and the injury bug year after year.
1. What went right this year?
Justin Herbert will take home the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, having already tied the rookie record for touchdown passes with two games still remaining on the season. The least celebrated of the top-three passers taken in the 2020 draft, Herbert instantly flexed his powerful arm and unflinching pocket presence after being thrust into duty early in the season. Herbert has a 75% on-target passing rate and a bad throw percentage below 20%, despite receiving pressure on nearly 30% of his snaps. It’s worth noting that, statistically, he’s not that far from Josh Allen in Buffalo. The pair have similar touchdown and interception totals, despite Herbert playing one fewer game. This, while Allen is creeping into the MVP conversation.
2. What went wrong this year?
Many of the Chargers’ best players wound up on injured reserve, though it doesn’t excuse a chilling trend of tight losses that seem to come down to a handful of plays. In the past, losing seven of nine games by one score or less could be evidence of progress, of a team playing hard. In Anthony Lynn’s case, he has had a reasonable runway of time and a roster packed full of talent. Where does the blame go when a team has a top-10 offense and defense in terms of yardage, a top-10 unit in producing first downs and a top-10 unit in preventing them, a top-five unit in passing yards and a top-seven unit in stopping them, but cannot win vs. the game clock?
3. The Big Question this offseason
What is best for Herbert? What does he need? We saw with Baker Mayfield how delicate this process can be and how changing head coaches, switching offenses and swapping positional coaches can have a devastating effect on a developing talent. For as embattled as Lynn has become, is it worth moving on at the expense of Herbert. Is there a way to keep certain coaches on board, especially quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who, after clawing his way back into the NFL, has positioned himself as a strong candidate to be a coordinator or head coach again in the near future?
As an extension of that, how do you view the team in terms of near-future competitiveness and what will you do with valued talents like Melvin Ingram and Hunter Henry, who are coming up on free agency? The Chargers are going to lose a lot of talent that may not be foundational, but from a group that takes an awful lot of snaps at the replacement or slightly-above-replacement level.
4. Coach/GM outlook
As we alluded to, it would seem that talent is not the issue in Los Angeles. So, if you’re Chargers ownership, do you give general manager Tom Telesco the green light to go get a candidate who can better suit the roster’s needs? There is no shortage of quarterback gurus in this class and also some bright young defensive minds who could make a roster like this into something horrifying for opposing coordinators.
5. Key free agents
• Hunter Henry, tight end
• Melvin Ingram, edge
• Denzel Perryman, linebacker
• Michael Davis, cornerback
• Nick Vigil, linebacker
• Tyrod Taylor, quarterback
• Rayshawn Jenkins, safety
• Dan Feeney, guard/center
• Forrest Lamp, guard
• Sam Tevi, tackle
6. Top priority
Beyond addressing the coaching spot, the Chargers need to hammer their oft-injured and scattershot offensive line. The unit that Justin Herbert was working behind, which gets him significantly hurried at least once every three-down series, is not conducive to long-term success. This is shaping up to be a (somewhat) entertaining offseason on the free agent market, and the Chargers have a glut of players clearing off the books. They can increase what currently stands at roughly $40 million in cap space with a few more easy moves.
7. Positions of need
Backup quarterback, linebacker, safety, cornerback, center, guard, tackle. I realize that Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner are still on the roster, but there has to be a push for more quality depth and more front-line starting talent.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
We mentioned Josh Allen above, and I think pairing Herbert with Allen’s offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, makes a lot of sense. He managed Allen’s development so carefully in Buffalo and could shine in a similar role over in L.A. This team is not far away and will be a coveted head coaching spot, especially for a candidate who is on his first go-round and is more cautious about jumping into choppy waters elsewhere. Theoretically, this could be the best opening in the league, if indeed the job does open.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
The Chargers don’t feel like they need something radical, and there aren’t a ton of options to, say, trade a veteran for more assets. As we’ve mentioned before, this seems a little bit like the Packers’ situation, where a coach can come and plug in an effective system, riding the roster to double-digit wins in his first year, assuming the team’s core players remain healthy.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021. The Chargers are loaded. They are loaded every year. At some point the rubber will meet the road and this team will rip off 11 wins in a season and give the Chiefs a good scare.