Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Where We Are Now, Part III; The Rooks and Everything Else

The Rooks

I’m not going to go down the line and discuss the entire rookie class here, but there are a couple of obvious notables from the draft. Of course, I’m tempted to dedicate an entire column to walk-on running back Dreamius Smith, but suffice it to say, what kind of blogger would I be if I wasn’t pulling for a guy with a name like that to make the team? But I'm not here to talk about Dreamboat. I’m going to focus more on draft picks here, and two in particular.

First and foremost is Melvin Gordon, running back out of Wisconsin who the Chargers moved up to grab in the first round. The last running back the Chargers moved up to grab in the first round was the newly departed Ryan Mathews, but as much as the fans want to draw such a comparison, the similarities mostly end there. But even if they were the same, it’s enough that Gordon doesn’t have a history of injuries and letting go of the football. Those two distinctions alone should make this a pick you can get behind. Unfortunately, Gordon carried the ball 6 times for 11 yards in his first NFL preseason game and I’m already assured he is a complete and total bust. Make way for Dreamius! Fan concerns were compounded when the worst pick since Ryan Leaf watched his second preseason game from the sidelines. Our only hope now is probably that Gordon gets enough lucky yardage in the next couple of games that we can trade him to someone else for a cooler full of Gatorade and a wooden hand massager from the Sharper Image. All kidding aside, I’ve got pretty high hopes for the kid, just as I did for Mathews-who was damn good in stretches! Nine out of ten people (including my cohort, CJ) these days will tell you that you can find great running backs anywhere in the draft, but I’ve said it before and I’ll tell you all again, I still love the idea of the home run hitter in the backfield. Chuck Muncie, Natrone Means, Ladainian Tomlinson-these are my favorites of years past, and I have to believe Gordon could join that list.

The other significant draft acquisition I’d like to discuss Is Denzel Perriman. Perriman is a middle linebacker and that’s pretty noteworthy. I don’t care how much Telesco wants to talk about depth and competition, giving up a second round pick at that position spells out that you don’t think much of your talent there. The existing talent at the position carried a pretty hefty price tag. And if depth is good for the linebacker position, how is any less important for-oh, I don’t know- the offensive and defensive lines, which got little help outside of Orlando Franklin in the off-season. As I said a couple of column’s back, I’m not sure the answers to those problems were already in the locker room. Time will tell. Either way, I hope the best for Perriman. His talent and ability are not in question.

The Rest

The coaching staff remains largely intact, which seems like a good thing because people are always touting the importance of consistency. Then again, they were touting that same bullshit around here throughout the entire Norv Turner era. I like McCoy alright. His style is straight out of the “slow and steady wins the race” handbook and that’s boring as hell, but it’ll keep you in most games. I’m still not quite sure why everyone loves Pagano all that much, to be honest. His defenses aren’t very interesting or confusing to other teams, but if they can just manage to not be outright awful, the offense should be able to carry the water. Hopefully these guys have all been put in a room at some point this offseason and forced Clockwork Orange style to watch that Miami footage from last year over and over again to learn their lessons. Another loss like that this year and I wouldn’t root for them next year if they move to my backyard.

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, the AFC West is still tough. Peyton Manning got body slammed late in the season last year-in a game he still beat us in!-and that pretty much derailed the Broncos Super Bowl dreams, but those of you who expect that he is done-zo are likely in for a rude awakening. Peyton will bring another potent offense to bear and along with that defense, the Broncos are still the team to beat.

The Chiefs are the Chiefs, toeing the line between pretty good and pretty bad effectively. Jamaal Charles should hit a wall at some point, but I’m not holding my breath. That defense can bring pressure like no other. This team is poised for a big run. Except Alex Smith is still their QB and that’s a problem. It’s been beaten like a dead Bronco, but how can you not throw a single TD to a wide receiver in an entire season? Just kidding, I know why. Because wide receivers tend to run up to 7, heck even 8 yards downfield at times and that’s outside of Smith’s comfort zone. It’s too much to ask, I say! Adding Jeremy Maclin to any other team would give divisional rivals cause for concern, but I’ve watched Maclin play for the Eagles in years past and he spends and unbelievable amount of time downfield. Maybe someday the Chiefs will find that all Smith needs is a pair of punk rock eyeglasses a la Wild Thing from Major League, but until then be prepared to watch the Chiefs passing game nickel and dime them into 7 or 8 close losses again this year.

Which leaves us the Raiders. I want to simply sum up the Raiders by pointing out that they can’t stay bad forever, right? Right?! It’s taken them a few years, but they’re finally starting to get out from under all the cap trouble their deceased owner left them and it won’t be long before a few good moves here and there could put them right back in the race. I don’t think they’ll be a contender just yet, but they are going to be able to move the ball on offense and make some plays on defense. It probably won’t be a good idea to overlook these guys as they always come to play when we’re on the schedule. Actually, screw the Raiders. They suck.

Last year I felt like this team had a real shot at being special. The ghosts of AJ and Norv were all but forgotten and the locker room was full of good guys who had learned how to win together the year before. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was going to be. And then everybody got injured. Still, we managed to scratch our way to a winning record without a running game, an offensive line, a defensive line and a fully functioning secondary and that’s got to tell you this team is close. This team has heart, and Jimmy McGinty knows that’s what it takes to win. If we can stay healthy this season-even just relatively healthy!-, we can hang with a healthy Peyton Manning. We can stop a Jamaal Charles. We can survive a Black Hole.  I believe that. I have to believe it. This could be the Chargers’ last chance to bring a championship to San Diego and I have to believe that means something in that locker room. Let’s hope that this team feels the same sense of urgency that this much put-upon fan base feels right now. Let’s hope that guides them. And I hope it guides all of you. This team needs its fans. Not the owners or the lawyers or the pundits. The team. Our team. Those players on the field aren’t trying to get out of town. That team still belongs to us. That uniform is a representation of our city. It’s our time, Goonies! That’s our God damned trophy; Let’s go get it!

Go Bolts!!!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Where We Are Now, Part II: The Vets

As I sit here watching the umpteenth replay of the Bills-Browns preseason yawner, I find myself extremely thankful to have Philip Rivers, even if many of the Chargers’ faithful disagree. Can you imagine having to make do with the likes of EJ Manuel or Josh McCown at quarterback? Tyrod Taylor or Johnny Manziel? Fans here, many of whom constantly tell me how awful Rivers is from their local barstools, mostly have no idea how good they have it. So they cry for Drew Brees and dream of lost Super Bowls, never realizing that blame for their unfound glory lies more in the organizational woes and bureaucracy than the quarterback on the field who has bled blue and gold for a decade. It’s a little bit ironic that the same fans who decry Rivers performance and occasional antics on the field clung to his supposed disdain for Los Angeles, desperate for an ally in their hopes to keep the Chargers in San Diego. Rivers gave an interview earlier in the offseason where he expressed that he was likely to play out his existing contract rather than seeking an extension to continue as a Charger in San Diego. His reasoning was that the direction of the team, and in fact even their place of residence, were uncertain enough as to give him pause. Many of the fans and media around here twisted his meaning and went so far as to claim Rivers refused to stay with the team if they moved to Los Angeles. The height of wishful thinking, I have never found any quote from Rivers that supports that claim. The focus of much silly offseason trade speculation, Rivers ended up signing a big money, four year extension that is likely to ensure that he will ultimately have begun and ended his NFL career with the Chargers. In another bit of irony, the Chargers may end up beginning and ending their very existence in Los Angeles. Personally, I’m surprised that Rivers didn’t make good on his threat to play out the contract. He doesn’t need the money at this point; he’s made enough to feed even his impressive brood. At this point Rivers has the luxury of chasing a ring with another franchise and cementing his legacy if he so desires. The mere fact that he’s committed to a future here should give us all reason to believe this franchise is earnest in its quest for a championship, and that’s alright with me.

One Charger who is probably less thrilled to see Rivers sign that contract is Eric Weddle. Weddle is also in the final year of his contract and was determined to secure a bigtime contract extension as well until the team informed him that their estimation of his worth did not necessarily jibe with his own. Now that Rivers has signed, that franchise tag has to be hanging like a horrible omen over Weddle’s head. He’ll be thirty here soon, and that number is bad voodoo in the NFL. Thirty is the consensus breaking point for athletes that rely on speed and explosiveness to excel at their positions. Weddle needs to get his deal soon if he’s going to cash in, but the Chargers could conceivably keep him around for two more seasons. It’ll cost them, but not nearly as much as the contract Weddle most definitely thinks he deserves. Does he deserve it? That’s the question, and the short answer is probably yes. But flesh it out a bit and it’s not so clear. For one thing, paying a player for what he’s done rather than what you think he’ll do is a kind of sentimental suicide that keeps teams struggling for years. It’s no coincidence that the Patriots are one of the more successful franchises in history and they have no time for feelings when it comes time to evaluate players and plan for their future. However, more people than not-so called experts even!- will tell you that Weddle is the best safety in the league right now, and like it or not, that has to be worth something. Of course-and my ambivalence towards Weddle is well documented-I’m not sure the praise of Weddle speaks as much about his ability as much as it’s an indictment of the overall NFL talent at his position. I’ve seen him run past and run over enough times to wonder.

Defensively, the Chargers made a smarter move by locking up a number of years with Corey Liuget. Liuget is the real deal. He doesn’t miss much time and he might be the only defensive player other teams actually plan for. I don’t know if he can do enough to make this defense great, but his presence here is likely the only thing keeping it from being truly awful. It’s time for Melvin Ingram, Brandon Flowers, Jason Verrett and everybody else to get healthy and contribute on a regular basis. If they can, then maybe, just maybe we can be really good. But not great. A great 3-4 defense needs a nose tackle, and expecting Sean Lissemore to magically become a force at the position this year when he looked lost last year kind of screams for a spoiled milk reference. This defensive line received no help in the off-season, and I have a hard time believing all the pieces were already there. I hope I’m wrong.

Back to offense, it’s pretty safe to say the running game was decimated by injury last year. Without Woodhead and Mathews for most of the season and with a revolving door at center, by the end of the year we just couldn’t move the ball. I can’t wait for the collective shrieks of horror the first time we run a halfback draw this year. Please retire that play! Bad memories. I have no problem openly saying that Ryan Mathews, from a talent perspective, belongs in the conversation among the best rushers in the league. But man does that kid have warts. He drops the ball, but I believe that’s an unfortunate byproduct of how hard he plays. The bigger problem is with his health, which may also be attributable to how hard he plays, but is a harder problem to get past. I think lot of people, including yours truly, thought Mathews value would be low enough that we might throw him a light couple years to stick around as a role player. Then the crazy Eagles came along and put the kibosh on that noise by offering him about twice what he’s probably worth, and now he’s their problem. That’s all I have to say about that. A bigger impact will likely be made by the return of Woodhead and the maturation of Chris Watt at Center. With the addition of Denver’s Orlando Franklin to the offensive line and a high profile draft pick that I’ll be talking about at length at  another time, there’s reason to be excited about the running game this year.

What about the passing game, you ask? If there’s one thing you can set your watch to in this world it’s the contributions of Antonio Gates in the Chargers passing game. Up to this point, the only real criticism anyone could muster about “First Down” Gates is that he’s not quite as good as he used to be. I call it “Trevor Hoffman syndrome.” Unfortunately, after a renaissance season last year, Gates tested positive for PEDs and will miss the first four games of 2015. Getting old is a bitch. I guess that makes it Ladarius Green time. Green has gotten a lot of grief from fans and the media for not being a bigtime contributor in the offense so far and I gotta tell you that just seems stupid to me. How is Green supposed to be a major contributor with Gates on the field? How does one overshadow one of the greatest to ever play the game?  Please tell me who was on the bench behind Tony Gonzales and Kellen Winslow. One has to reserve judgment on Green. We’ll know more about his potential after the first month of this season than we’ve learned over the last three years. Keenan Allen wasn’t exactly terrible last season, but there’s no doubt he suffered a sophomore slump. Tends to happen once defenses know your name. The exit of Eddie Royal and Gates’ suspension could portend a big comeback for Allen. He’s the best receiver on the team and it’s time to show the world. Malcolm Floyd is still around, right? Outside of Gates, there isn’t a receiver Rivers trusts more, but it feels like this will be Floyd’s swan song. Ha! Just kidding! The guy broke his damn neck and came back as a solid contributor. He’s a cyborg and he’ll play forever. Even if he’s going to drop down the depth chart behind guys like Dontrelle Inman.The guy to look out for if you ask me, though, is Stevie Johnson. After looking at Brandon Marshall and making a big money offer to Andre Johnson, the Chargers seemingly settled for Johnson as an afterthought. It’s not hard to overlook Johnson, and if I’m being honest, I kind of thought Johnson was 5’10’’ and 34 years old. Imagine my surprise in finding out he’s 6’2” and under 30 years old. In his relatively short career, he racked up three 1,000 yard seasons in BUFFALO! He’s never received passes from a truly accomplished QB and he could be poised for greatness in pairing up with Rivers. Regardless of what happens, we know Rivers can make plays with guys like Legedu Naanee and this year’s receivers look to be some of the best he’s had in a while. And no, I don’t want to talk about Jacoby Jones. He’s not a real receiver. If he catches four passes and add three yards to our return game, I’ll be happy.

All in all, we did pretty well when it came to our vets this year. Re-signing King Dunlop and Corey Liuget absolutely had to be done. Locking up Rivers for four more years is key to showing a commitment to winning in the immediate future. And while we swung and missed when it came to some of the offseason’s biggest free agents, we picked up some guys who are sure to contribute and upgrade the team.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Where We Are Now, Part I: The Stadium Issue

It’s been an interesting off-season around here to say the least. As the City of San Diego and the Chargers spar over the future of their tumultuous relationship-as veteran players heir their grievances like it’s Festivus for the Rest of Us-the regular ole wheels of the offseason turn and churn. Regardless of the uncertainty of the franchise and the parts of its whole, there is still a roster to fill and a Lombardi to pursue. I’m going to go ahead and try to cover it all in this bloated piece of content designed to make me feel better for neglecting the true heart of the franchise-this page. And if the City of Los Angeles is impressed enough to offer to not pay me to continue my minimal efforts in the future, so be it. I’ll surely accept that offer.

The State of the Stadium
If you’ve been paying any attention over the years most of the following will not be news to you, but I’m going to break it down anyway. Of course, this is merely my interpretation of events that have happened sprinkled with a healthy dose of opinion, but I can certainly agree with myself that it is all 100% factually correct.

First and foremost, the Spanos family has always had LA in its sights even if they weren’t in a tremendous hurry to get there. How soon we forget that the team inexplicably moved its camp to Carson in the early 2000s about the same time as there were rumors and reports that they were working with other interested parties to secure a stadium site there. Two important things happened that stopped that whole fiasco in its tracks. Purportedly, the alliance between Spanos and his would be partners fell apart when the team was unwilling to meet the demands of its co-conspirators. Two, the team turned itself around from 4-12 to 12-4 in one impressive season. Why does that matter? Because in the NFL a team can’t bail out on its city just to make more money. If that were the case the entire league would be located in New York and Los Angeles. So it became imperative for the Chargers to show the league that San Diego did not want them. A solid, popular team puts a wrench in that. A devoted fan base will vote for anything to keep a good team. The Chargers were forced to bide their time.

The problem the NFL faces is that the sports world could not care less about the West Coast outside of Seattle (and seriously if Seattle wasn’t an outstanding franchise right now, the country wouldn’t care about them either), San Francisco and Los Angeles, and most of the rest of the country probably barely even recognizes that San Diego and Los Angeles are two distinct cities. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of the league to consolidate California’s teams as much as possible into Los Angeles, where their value can as much as triple due to television advertising, of which all of the owners would reap the rewards. It makes the most sense then, and I believe it is still the most likely scenario, to put the Chargers and the Raiders in Los Angeles. The only problem then is that historical precedent dictates that if a team’s owner pulls a team away from a rabid fan base and a city that hasn’t walked away from the negotiating table, then that city is likely to get an expansion at some time down the road. Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland…the list goes on. But the NFL can’t keep giving teams to cities that eschew their efforts to coerce cities to bow down to the demands of the league. No, for the NFL the best bet is to make it look like San Diego wasn’t motivated to accommodate the Chargers and punish the city by withholding football from San Diego in perpetuity. The message to other teams with stadium issues would be clear and the league would have rid itself of a franchise it doesn’t really want…at least not here.

This is where things get interesting. Not long ago the Chargers and the NFL finally showed their hand. The team claimed they had done all they could to work with San Diego (to the tune of doing nothing more than paying professional awful person Mark Fabiani to trot out a podium every year and proclaim “No news! We’re sticking around.”). The league claimed the Chargers had fulfilled all of their obligations to San Diego and were free to start wooing Los Angeles in earnest.  This despite the fact that the team is still technically married to Qualcomm Stadium! In the face of being a patsy for the best laid plans of the Chargers and the NFL San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer-whom I don’t particularly love, but who is certainly not an idiot-turned the tables on the Billionaire Boys’ Club by essentially throwing everything on the table and acquiescing to nearly all of the Chargers demands at the very last possible minute-a point the Chargers and the NFL had mistakenly believed had passed. When the Chargers balked, Faulconer took his grievance to the league. This is straight up brilliant. Suddenly the team doesn’t look so innocent and down to talk and the NFL appears complicit for being left with their jaw on the ground.

Let’s be clear, I don’t believe Kevin Faulconer wants to build a stadium for the Chargers any more than the Chargers want to stay in San Diego, but letting the team go without a fight is political suicide even worse than actually using taxpayer money to build a stadium. Losing the Chargers for lack of effort would dog him for the rest of his career as a civil servant. So Faulconer is likely counting on the probability that the Chargers will never agree to stay and the Chargers are married to fact that the league has told them they were free to go. The league is the wildcard, though. To the league, perception is everything, and they have two other teams that want back into Los Angeles badly. If Goodell and the owners believe Fauconer has successfully undermined them and the message they intended to send-that if you’re unwilling to play the stadium game then you can kiss your team goodbye-they could turn around and tell the Chargers they have to play ball with San Diego. That’s a longshot, but I believe it’s the only hope we have of keeping our team. But what do I know?