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.

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