Monday, December 27, 2010

Season-Ending Pall

As Mike Tolbert lay face down on the field barely moving, a pall was cast over this Chargers' team and season. The best news after the game is that he seems to be alright after a scary fall that reminds everyone that even the toughest have their limits.

The Chargers reached their limit Sunday afternoon in a game that showed they had not conquered their early season problems. Playing in an unfocused and uninspired haze, this team does not have the fire, leadership and perspective to properly prepare for every game and play football with passion and a determination to win. The blame here lies with the coaches, players, and AJ Smith.

This team was not prepared to play at a high level early in the season nor were they consistent throughout the season. The blame here can fall most directly on Norv's shoulders. A coach needs to have a strong sense of how well his team will perform in real game conditions based on what goes on in practice. Norv has seemed a bit out of touch with reality this year in thinking this team was going to be one of the best ever in San Diego. The injury excuse has been trotted out time and again, but that seems invalid to me as these problems were evident in the very first game when injuries were not a factor.

In yesterday's game, Norv's call of a reverse on the first play from scrimmage with the Chargers on their own twenty yard-line showed a lack of trust in his team's ability start fast with its standard offense. Most coaches would save that type of play for mid-field situations so that a fumble or large loss wouldn't put the team back at it's own goal-line. The fumble in the exchange between Tolbert and Jackson set the tone for this game, but a team full of players with more heart and faith would have been able to come back from this mistake.

Randy McMichael was quoted in the U-T saying that from the beginning it like "it just wasn't our day." A team with great players and leaders would find a way to make their day. This game, as has already been said many times before, illustrated a microcosm of the season. Lack of preparation, leadership and experience led to terrible in game mistakes; the same qualities led to an inability to recover from these mistakes. This team too often wilted, instead of responded to, pressure.

AJ Smith is at fault here in that he needs to find players with more character. It's fine to draft nice "community" guys who aren't going to get DUI's or weapons possession charges, but a team also needs guys that refuse to lose. It seems right now, despite all its talent, the team hasn't acquired enough of the latter. AJ can rectify some of this, but Norv also has to inspire the players never to give up, prepare for every game properly, and to dominate teams they are superior to. He hasn't done that enough this year.

There are a lot of fans, as expected, calling for the firing of Norv and AJ, but I think things are still salvageable with this group and franchise. Norv will have to reconsider some his coaching practices. AJ will have to show a greater sense of urgency and less complacency in building a team that can challenge for the Super Bowl next year. As safe as their jobs are for 2011, another season out of the playoffs and all bets are off. Even in the midst of mourning this season, I'm hopeful for the next.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chiefs Need a Loss; Chargers Need a Win

As I said in my last post, the more interesting game for Charger fans today should be Tennessee vs. Kansas City. The Chargers are playing well, have had some extra rest, and should get a win against an inferior Bengals team that may be playing for a first-round draft pick more than anything else.

Cincinnati did win last wee though, and looking at their stats, they fall in the middle of the pack in both offensive and defensive categories. They, like the Chargers have had a lot of adversity this season and have found ways to lose with ill timed turnovers and special teams issues. They had a strong performance in beating the Browns last week. If San Diego isn't on, or has a Christmas hangover (they were flying out yesterday afternoon instead of Friday as they usually do so players could have time with families), or don't handle the cold, or overlook these guys in any way, the Bengals could rise up and beat them, virtually ending the season for the Chargers.

With T.O. out and Ochocinco hurting, San Diego should be able to cover their receivers one-on -one and stack the box against bruising running back Cedric Benson, forcing Carson Palmer into third and long situations in which he's given up the ball almost more than any other starting quarterback this season (18 INT's). The Chargers should be able to pressure him enough to get him fantasizing about returning to his offseason home on the beaches of Del Mar and getting out of the frozen nightmare of Cincinnati.

It will be a testament to Norv and the maturity and leadership on this team if San Diego puts in another strong performance today. If they don't? We can speculate about the holes on this team, in personnel, leadership, and coaching that led to the downfall of this season.

In the game that seems even more up in the air in Kansas City, the Titans are holding out on slim playoff hopes in their division. At 6-8 they would need both the Colts and Jaguars to lose out and win out themselves to have a chance. Tennessee is near the bottom of the league in both offensive and defensive categories, suggesting they may be worse than their mediocre record implies.

However, they are coming off of a strong performance last week and one could argue (hope?) that quarterback Kerry Collins is shaking off the rust after Vince Young started most of the season. If nothing else, the Titans are a tough team that gets a lot of sacks and prides itself on stopping the run. This could be the perfect combination for stopping the Chiefs. Chris Johnson, though not having a superhuman season like he has the last couple years, is still a great back and also had a strong game last week. If the Titans come to play, they should be right in this down to the end. The Chiefs just aren't that good.

Chargers 27, Bengals 13

Titans 17, Chiefs 13

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Uncertainty

With the Chiefs, Ravens and Jets all winning last weekend, Charger fans must confront the fateful possibility that that San Diego could win out after stomping on division leading Kansas City and still not make the playoffs. Matt Cassel's triumphant return, displaying no ill effects from his appendectomy in beating the Rams in St. Louis should make San Diego nervous. With the Chargers' final games coming against the Bengals and Broncos, games the Chargers should win if they continue to play anywhere near the level they have the last two weeks, in a sense all the drama of this season has shifted to the Chiefs.

Kansas City has two home games remaining against the Titans and the Raiders. Both opponents are coming off fairly strong wins last week and are nursing slim playoff hopes. The Chiefs will be favored in both games, but I think there is a strong possibility they will drop one, if not both. A statistical analysis put out through AP gave the Chiefs an 86% chance of winning the division and the Chargers an 11% chance. Perhaps I'm a bit of a homer, but I'd put the odds at closer to 50-50 with a slight edge going to San Diego.

While the Chiefs are no longer horrible, the Chargers exposed some serious flaws in this team (with or without Cassel). The Kansas City defense is not great and its offensive line isn't going to run over anyone. If an opponent can contain the speed of Jamaal Charles and not make any big mistakes, Kansas City will be incapable of running away with, or dominating any game. This is why both the Titans and Raiders figure to be in their respective games down to the wire in Kansas City the next two weeks. I will be surprised if this Chiefs team can hold it together against the pressure for two games. They definitely fell apart in San Diego. Coming back strongly last week against St. Louis showed some fight and confidence, but the Rams are also a young team struggling with confidence issues and a rookie quarterback in Sam Bradford who admittedly had a bad game.

So in the next to weeks, perhaps Charger fans should pay more attention to what's going on in Kansas City than in Cincinnati or Denver. Fingers remain crossed.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Doubts in Chiefsville

The Chargers not only beat the Chiefs, they destroyed them today in a game that should plant deep seeds of doubt in the minds of this young first-place team. The Chiefs, without Cassel, are worse than we thought they were. The Chargers, as I noted in my previous posts, ran into the perfect storm against Oakland last week and are better than we thought they were.

This game displayed energized offensive and defensive lines that dominated from start to finish. Garay owned the Chiefs interior early in the game, sapping their confidence and setting up the early lead that Kansas City would never recover from with Coryle at quarterback.

Croyle just doesn't have the accuracy, timing, or pocket presence to replace Cassel. If Cassel can't go again next week, I can't see how the Chiefs can win on the road in St. Louis. By winning in the way they did, the Chargers may have created fissures in the Chief's confidence that will cause them to crumble down the stretch.

The game ball for this one should go to both Jammer and Cason who completely shut down Bowe and the rest of the Cheifs' receivers. I don't think either guy could have played better.

On the offensive side, Sproles looked like a new man after his concussion last week, aggressively attacking holes and getting up field without too much dancing around. Tolbert showed his great footwork for a big man, cutting back and twisting through holes that looked too small for his large frame. Ryan Matthews again showed flashes of what he could become. Each game he gets more reps and works on his field vision, the more dangerous he becomes. If the Chargers do make the playoffs he could be real dangerous down the stretch.

Lastly, all the fans that thought VJ was "over" San Diego were proved wrong today. The guy played and made a difference. He's going to help Phillip Rivers run the table and give this season new life.

Looking ahead, Thursday's game against the 49ers is a scary one. The Niners are the type of physical and aggressive team that gives San Diego problems. The fact that the Chargers seemed to avoid major injuries today is a huge plus. The Niners just put a shellacking on the Seahawks though and might be playing for coach Mike Singletary's job. San Diego will have to strap in on and make sure they don't overlook these guys like they did that other team form across the bay.

Must Win...Really

Today's game against the Kansas City Chiefs is one of those franchise defining moments. Win, and the Chiefs' division lead suddenly isn't so solid with starting QB Matt Cassel likely hurting for the next couple weeks. Lose, and Chargers' season is over. Fans will start with the "AJ is a fraud" calls, "fire Norv", evolving into the "let them move to LA anyway" nuclear option.

This game means everything.

As I said in my last post, I think last week's game was a bit of a perfect storm for the Chargers unlikely to be repeated this week. The Raiders ran all over the Chargers and the Chiefs are coming to town with the NFL's number one rushing attack, but the Raiders' particular brand of power running exposes the Chargers' weaknesses directly. The Chiefs, on the other hand, rely a bit more on speed than power. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones are great backs, but they usually don't run people over. The Chargers undersized safeties and quick linebackers should be able to bring them down.

The Chargers' defensive line will be the key this week. Antonio Garay hurt his ankle in last week's game and returned to action but seemed ineffective. Can he play at a high level this week? In the first match-up he dominated Chiefs center Casey Whigham. At the defensive ends, Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo were consistently controlled. Those two have to rebound. If they don't and the Chargers lose? Don't expect them to be around next season. Either way, defensive end will have to be a point of focus this offseason.

On offense, I expect Rivers to rebound. The guy is just too good to hold down two weeks in a row. If Vincent Jackson doesn't get a hang-nail, he should help the Chargers stretch the defense for other receivers to get open if nothing else. The Chargers also need step up and run the ball. This may be Ryan Mathews' only chance to show his rookie season wasn't a bust. The Chiefs defense has been good, but they're not as stout and strong as the Raiders were last week. The Chargers, if properly motivated can go toe-to-toe with these guys and push them around.

Ultimately, even though the Chiefs haven't asked Matt Cassel to do too much this season, he's been the key in playing incredibly efficiently and make smart decisions when it mattered. Back-up Brodie Croyle simply won't be able to do that if the Chargers put pressure on him by making it close or taking a lead. As long as San Diego avoids more horrendous special teams mistakes, they will win this game.

Chargers 27, Chiefs 9

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chargers' Season in the Hands of Fate

The Raiders came to San Diego last Sunday and pushed around a Charger team that, after experiencing some early game (early season) adversity, was not ready for a fight. While many Chargers told the media beforehand that they were prepared for Oakland's best, it seemed even Norv and Rivera underestimated the Raiders.

The Chargers seemed to play Oakland straight, without any special plays or packages designed to surprise or confound. It's almost as if they decided after beating Indy easily the week before that they were the better team and didn't have to do anything special for the Raiders, but they ran into a buzzsaw.

After Sproles early fumble, Rivers incredibly errant pass that went for an interception and the Raiders went up 14-0, the Chargers lost their ability to break the Raiders' spirit. I still believe that if San Diego could have struck first and built a lead, the Raiders would have folded as they did against Miami the previous week. In letting the Raiders take a lead, they exposed themselves to the formula that all teams playing the Chargers should employ.

The Raiders pounded the ball up the middle and off tackle, challenging San Diego's athletic but less stout linebackers and undersized safeties. This strategy might sound familiar as the Jets used it last season to kick the Chargers out of the playoffs. I like Weddle and think he's a good player, but he's the kind of safety that works best against a dizzying passing offense like the Colts employ. As I said last week, the Chargers D seems designed to challenge the "offense of the future," but struggles when the old school folks come to town. This truth should frighten Chargers fans, because even if San Diego still makes the playoffs, how will they fare against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore?

On the other side of the ball the Chargers ran up against some match-up problems on the offensive line. With Louis Vazquez out with a neck injury, back up guard Tyrone Greene had to step in and go one on one with the massive Tommy Kelly. He couldn't get much help from Hardwick at center because he was helping Dielman deal (no pun intended) with the other D tackle who happens to be the incredibly strong and dangerous Richard Seymour. The Raiders D-line also utilizes a smart strategy against the Chargers' O-line. Instead of trying to get around the technically sound and well coached Charger linemen, they simply use their strength and height to push them back into Rivers' face. This inhibits Rivers' vision, shinks the pocket, and disallows Phillip from being able to follow through with his throws, causing many errant and high passes (like the one Floyd that caused the interception). Oakland did this in both games, causing the passing game extra problems even when they weren't sacking the quarterback.

The silver lining in all of this (alright...pun intended!) is that most teams don't possess the personell to do this to the Chargers' O-line. So even though this was a horrible home loss that may have cost the Chargers this season, it doesn't mean the team is broken. The Raiders just happen to match-up perfectly with San Diego right now, and when Sproles fumbled the early punt, that perfect storm was set in motion.

As long as the younger players on the Chargers don't lose their confidence, the team is still perfectly capable of winning out and forcing the Chiefs to prove they're for real and earn the AFC West title. With news of Matt Cassel's appendicitis, San Diego's chances to sneak back into the playoffs just increased. The Raiders may be tied with the Chargers and own the tiebreaker in terms of division record and head-to-head, but they have a tougher final four game stretch and haven't shown any sign of consistency this season.

So Charger fans take heart. Though San Diego foolishly left this season to the whims of fate, there is still hope. Things might just look a lot brighter if they can crush the Chiefs at home this Sunday.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chargers Will Roll Raiders

The Raiders were leading at halftime against the Dolphins last week, but when Miami came out in the third quarter and scored on a 57-yard pass play from Chad Henne to Marlon Moore, you could see the team take a collective sigh. The game was over.

With a lack of leadership or a core of great players to inspire the others, this team will simply fold when things get tough. Now that this season has become rocky, it appears the Raiders have already quit. They may come out with some aggression today, but if the Chargers weather the initial storm and build a lead, the Raiders will soon stop believing they can win.

Oaklands' problems are compounded by the fact that they will be starting a quarterback whose confidence must also be shaky after getting pulled multiple times this season to be replaced by the fiery, but inaccurate and unskilled "gunslinger," Bruce Gradkowski. Jason Campbell seems to have the better temperament for an NFL quarterback, but with a 54% completion rate and a 75 QB rating for the season, he hasn't been tearing things up.

The Chargers pass defense has showed it's for real against Peyton Manning and the Colts. This group is feeling confident and will look to feast on some poorly thrown balls by a desperate quarterback. The Raiders know this and will likely try everything to establish the running game and pound the rock early. The strong play of Anonio Garay in the middle and Rivera's likely decision to stack the box and force the Raiders to beat the Chargers through the air will be the key battle to watch early on.

If the Chargers can build a lead of more than ten points and force the Raiders into third and long situations, this game will be over. The strong play of Cason and Jammer on the outside will let the San Diego put eight or nine guys in the box without fear to stop the speedy, powerful, and best player on the Raiders, Darren McFadden.

On the offensive side of the ball for the Chargers, it should be interesting to see who gets the majority of the carries. Mike Tolbert has become the number one running back, but now that he's ailing with an injured hand, will Norv try to give him more of a break by letting Ryan Mathews take more carries? Ideally, the Chargers would like to have both of these guys close to 100% going into next Sunday's game against the Chiefs.

In the passing game, the Chargers should dominate a defense that is 27th in the league in passing yardage given up. Getting Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee playing back at a high level without pulling hamstrings would be a major victory going into the last stretch of the season and hopefully the playoffs. Antonio Gates will once again be a game time decision. The Chargers probably don't need him for this game, but if he practiced this week and didn't do any more damage to his foot, he might as well go. His injury doesn't seem to get worse through use, it just needs time to heal. For the Chargers to have any chance in the post-season, Gates needs to be healthy.

The Raiders are, after a short period of delusion, again, a franchise in turmoil. They still don't have a true NFL quarterback or head coach, which has been a problem for awhile. The Chargers have looked like a team in playoff form these last few weeks, and as long as they aren't looking ahead to the Chiefs next week (and they remember what happened last time against the Raiders...maybe they should watch the video at the top of this to remind themselves), they should win this one easily at home.

Chargers 34, Raiders 10