Not Your 2012 Chargers

The cacophony of criticism in the wake of the Chargers’ Monday night loss has been deafening. No one leveled such criticism more artfully than Nick Canepa. He’s just talented and experienced, and anyone putting pen to page to describe the feats of athletes should be honored to walk in his footsteps. If you enjoy good sports commentary, stop what you’re doing and find his column. (Trust me, it stands out from the other Chargers’ coverage.)

Like anyone watching these games, though, Canepa’s eyes sometimes deceive him. In Canepa’s world, the Chargers’ Monday night loss to the Texans was a re-run. Our beloved Archie Bunkers don’t have any more of a clue than they did this time last year.

Maybe Canepa has inspired me to reach back to the classics, but I say this is more Tale of Two Cities than stale sitcom. And it’s fair to say we’re in the best of times, Nick.

The 2012 edition of the Chargers will be remembered for one game alone: a Monday nighter against Denver where the Bolts went to the locker room with a massive halftime lead. That lead was built on Denver miscues and trademark Norv Turner downfield passing. Philip Rivers & Co. frittered away that lead just as quickly as it came, of course, mostly via the Chargers’ own turnovers. Norv didn’t do much to stop the bleeding; he never did in-game adjustments so well.

In this year’s first contest, the Bolts again looked great in the first half. Rivers was sharp – partly because he’s a talented quarterback who prepares himself well, but partly because Wisenhunt and McCoy have designed an offense around Rivers’ strengths: reading defenses quickly and throwing the ball with excellent touch. Rivers executed the quick passing offense to perfection, dropping red-zone dimes into the laps of Mathews and Royal that would have made Rajon Rondo jealous. Rivers’ steady play, a blue-collar (no broken-bone reference intended) performance from Ryan Mathews, and a stretch of decent defense built the Chargers another Monday night lead.

In comparison to last year’s frightful October night, the second half against Houston was a revelation. Sure the Chargers squandered a big lead. Sure it happened on the big stage again. But the coaches set this team up to succeed, and damned if they didn’t try to knock off a legitimate AFC contender. The Chargers just lacked the talent on both sides of the ball, and it showed up after halftime.

Canepa claims the Chargers lacked offensive creativity after halftime. Maybe Canepa was still paying the pizza delivery guy when Rivers hit Malcolm Floyd for a 47-yard bomb. That loosened up the Texans’ defense, and a series of draws and short passes led to another score.

In fact, Rivers hit receivers with anticipation and accuracy throughout the third quarter. The next series, the coaches got Gates one-on-one coverage out the outside, and Rivers put a ball on his big tight end’s hands, just out of the defender’s reach. Gates simply put the ball on the deck. The following play, Royal couldn’t hang onto a pass planted conspicuously between the two digits on his jersey. That’s not lack of creativity, just poorly-timed drops.

Even with Rivers testing the Houston secondary, the Bolts still found no running room on early downs. We are, after all, talking about an offensive line that bordered on putrid in 2012. The front office has injected talent and the coaches are doing their best to mask the unit’s flaws, but a single offseason, with this team’s payroll situation, only takes you so far.

Canepa’s other critique is that the offense’s inability to move the chains or run time off the clock put the defense on the field for long stretches during the second half. That doesn’t account for the Texans first drive: the Bolts defense had just made the jog out from the locker room when they allowed a stretch of Arian Foster gashes and Andre Johnson grabs, leading to a Texans’ score.

Remember, this defense features a secondary overhauled on the cheap, and its two most productive pass rushers from 2011-12 walked out the door, virtually without replacement. Should we be shocked, then, that Schaub lit them up to the tone of 80% passing in the second half? I’m surprised they kept Andre Johnson in check as long as they did, frankly.

Granted, the defense did look undisciplined and rusty – although this was characteristic of their entire night, not just the second half. The line routinely failed to maintain gap responsibility. Linebackers and safeties overpursued on run plays. Coverage was an issue, and the pass rush negligible at times – both expected, and both bound to plague the team throughout the season.

In the cool light of a few days’ reflection, however, the Chargers look like a squad of overachievers that gave perhaps the best team in the AFC a run for their money. McCoy got this team out to a 21-point lead, and tried to keep his foot on the gas while shortening the game with more run calls. This group simply lacked the talent to execute that plan.

The return of Manti Te’o may help. Bront Bird, as many contributions as he made, looked lost in coverage on the touchdown to Garrett Graham, and was a victim of over-pursuit on several plays. Te’o is more disciplined than that. The defensive line also features some young players and recent additions that should improve their play as the season wears on. Everyone was rusty in week 1 – even the Patriots.

It’s probably too much to expect this team to turn things around against an explosive Eagles team in six days, all the way across the country. This team is probably not worthy of the playoffs, the way last year’s veteran group may have been.

But the future does look awfully bright. McCoy and Wisenhunt can coach – including making dramatic adjustments in-game, a skill Chargers’ fans haven’t known for decades. D.J. Fluker may stick at tackle, and we know there’s some talent on defense and at the skill positions. Most importantly, Rivers seems to have found his stride in the new offense.

However many bad memories of Monday nights past may have been awakened this week, Chargers fans should rest assured that things are looking much, much better.

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