SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers last made the playoffs following a 13-3 campaign in 2009. Since then, the worst record they've posted is 7-9, which happened in 2012.
And yet, the three-year postseason drought feels like an epic collapse. Given the expectations, the big names on the roster, the talent at the quarterback position, San Diego's absence from January relevance seems staggeringly lengthy. It led to an offseason house cleaning.
Gone are coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith. In came a slew of new, young, fresh faces roaming the halls, trying to bring what had been one of the NFL's oldest teams back into the mix.
1) Philip Rivers has stronger support system on and off the field: Coinciding with San Diego's fall from grace is the same reality for Rivers. With an offensive line crumbling around him and his team stubbing its toe amid lofty expectations, Rivers resorted back to being just pretty good. His quarterback rating and yards per game have been down, while his interceptions have been up. And yet, when I talked to new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt this past spring, he told me he believed Rivers could return to the Pro Bowl. Whisenhunt felt similar optimism Thursday, and he raved about the process. "When you have a guy that's been in the league as long as he has, there's a lot of knowledge there," Whisenhunt told me. "It helps you grow as a coach." Whisenhunt has been energized. Internally, the Chargers believe much of Rivers' downturn was related to a lack of protection, which explains the drafting of Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round. GM Tom Telesco said, "You can already see (Fluker) has leadership capabilities, and that'll continue to grow." All that should make Rivers more comfortable and efficient, as his confidence in the protection grows. Coaching-wise, Whisenhunt isn't the only guy around to help Rivers bounce back. Mike McCoy, the head coach, was hired in part because of his quarterback prowess. And quarterbacks coach Frank Reich adds his expertise, too. Rivers should benefit greatly from this group. "He's got three different guys to lean on," Telesco said. "When you're in the league for a long time, done things one way, sometimes a change is good. It can refocus. I think he's got a nice support system there with those three guys."
2) Dwight Freeney will be on the field a lot: The Chargers acquired Freeney in the offeseason, paying him more than $4 million per year to be an impactful pass rusher and a veteran who can pass along his knowledge to younger teammates. Judging by my conversation with defensive coordinator John Pagano, San Diego likes what it sees from the 33-year-old -- a lot. "It's been unbelievable. He's been unbelievable," Pagano told me. "How he comes to work, practice, his effort, his love and passion of the game. He's been a pro's pro. ... You can tell why he's been one of the best pass rushers over the last 10 years." Pagano raved about Freeney's film-study habits, how he'll revisit his work against an endless variety of looks. As far as how the Chargers will use him, Pagano said it won't be just as a pass-rush specialist. "He's going to be an every-down guy for us," Pagano said. "Need him on first, second, third down. He's going to play all downs. If you spot guys here and there, they never get into the defense. They never get the defense. They don't understand the whole process of the defensive calls. That's the mindset he has. Otherwise, you never learn the why. He is a why guy."
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3) Everything is new in San Diego: When you have a new coach, new general manager, new executives, a mostly new coaching staff and new players, there is a freshness to the building. That's what the Chargers have. A holdover from the old staff, Pagano said, "It feels like a brand new environment." Let's face it: Even with all the success the Chargers had in the past decade, it had grown stale. Enter Telesco, 40. Enter McCoy, a first-time head coach. Enter John Spanos, the 30-something executive VP of football operations -- a guy who cut his teeth both in contracts and for 10 years in scouting and personnel. And on the business side is his 30-something brother, A.G., the chief executive officer. They represent the future for what had become an old franchise in many ways. If there ever was a place that needed fresh eyes in high places, this was it. How is the rebuilding going? It will take more than this year to re-stock a cupboard left barer than most realize. Still, as one executive said, the Chargers have a quarterback -- and that can accelerate things. Look at the Indianapolis Colts last year: Mass turnover on the roster ... yet the gifted quarterback led them to the playoffs. That's the model. "Once the players that were here bought in, I think everybody else just fell into place and the practices have been great, crisp," Telesco said. "We're seeing progress. We know we got a little ways to go. We got two more weeks to work here before the regular season starts. We're probably a team that needs this preseason right now, see what everyone's role is going to be opening day." Helping matters is that the rookies have impressed -- and not just Fluker and Manti Te'o (whom Pagano says can be an every-down linebacker). It's the whole group. "The great thing is, there's been no surprises," Telesco said. "What we've seen in college, we've seen out here, which, with all the work we do on this, it's not always the case."
4) Ryan Mathews won't change, but hopefully his production will: Talent has never been a question for Mathews, the former first-round pick from Fresno State. The fourth-year back did average 4.9 yards per carry in 2011, but he's better known for nagging injuries than anything else. What this new staff has done is give him a clean slate. Forget the past. They like what they've seen ... but everyone knows it's all about staying on the field, which sometimes can't be controlled. "For me, not having any preconceived notions about what he is, he's been outstanding the way he's run in the first two games, the way he's run in his blitz pickup, just his overall total ability has been outstanding," Whisenhunt said. "The question is, can he sustain it? That's what great players do. If he can sustain what he's done the first part of camp, he'll be a great player." It's clear the power back won't change what he is, and he isn't being asked to. "He's a talented, physical runner," Telesco said. "Running backs take a lot of punishment; he delivers a lot of punishment as a runner. Injuries happen and there's nothing you can do about it. He's not going to change his running style."
5) When it comes to the receiver position ... fingers are crossed: As experienced coaches say every year, there is always one position group that gets bitten by the injury bug in camp. In 2013, it's the Chargers' receiving corps. Danario Alexander is out for the season. ... Malcom Floyd had a scare, but he could return by Week 1. ... Vincent Brown was slow beginning work. ... Eddie Royal suffered a bruised lung and concussion. ... And on and on. As Rivers tries to work on his new system with his receivers, this isn't ideal. "It's tough for timing and routes for your quarterback," Whisenhunt said. "It's tough when you're trying to design plays." The silver lining: More reps for rookie Keenan Allen, which should help his maturation and growth. (That was a knock on the receiver coming out of Cal.) The wild card is Brown, who was morphing into the Chargers' best receiver before an injury last preseason wiped out his 2012 campaign. If he stays healthy, the belief is he's about to become a star. The receivers aren't the only ones suffering from injuries, either, as evidenced by Melvin Ingram's torn ACL. The organization will study this rash of injuries, looking to figure out if there are more than last year, and if so, why. If it's trending up -- as the anecdotal evidence suggests -- they'll work to try and reverse the trend.