In the end, the magical bus the Chargers were riding over the final six weeks of the season just simply ran out of gas.
Injuries, missed opportunities and a well-rested Broncos team with fresh legs ended the Chargers season that brought a renewed excitement to a fan base it had lost over the past four years.
Having to beat a Peyton Manning-led Broncos team in their house twice in one season was a daunting task, but trying to pull off another playoff upset with many key players going down with injuries appeared highly unlikely – yet these Chargers nearly did it.
Playing through injuries throughout the season, the Chargers showed the kind of mettle that championship teams are made of. However, as good as this season turned out, the reality is this team needs a few of more impact players to regain the top spot in the AFC West.
With the Chargers expected to have little wiggle room within the salary cap in 2014, the team has some major decisions to make regarding the 12 unrestricted free agents scheduled to hit the open market once the league year begins March 11.
Here is a list of six of the 2014 free agents that, in this writer’s opinion, should to be brought back next season.
Donald Butler (LB)
This is a no-brainer. Butler has developed into one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL over the past two years and his leadership on the field clearly puts his re-signing at the top of the list. One only has to look at the performance of the defense when he is on the field to recognize his importance.
Rich Ohrnberger (OG/C)
With all the injuries along the offensive line this year, Ohrnberger proved his worth at both offensive guard and center. Telesco would be wise to re-sign the 6-2, 300-pound former Nittany Lion as insurance for starter Nick Hardwick who has suffered both a neck stinger and concussion in his 10th season as a Charger.
Chad Rinehart (OG)
Signed as a free agent last March, the 6-5, 321-pound Rinehart played a key role in keeping Philip Rivers healthy and opening holes for running back Ryan Mathews. His ability to play both guard positions and familiarity playing in offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris’ system should earn him a roster spot.
Darrell Stuckey (S)
Voted Special Teams Player of the Year by his teammates, Stuckey was once again a terror on both the kickoff and punt coverage units as a gunner. He also proved his worth as a safety when both Marcus Gilchrist and Jahleel Addae went down with injuries.
Reggie Walker (LB)
Signed after spending his first four years in the NFL with Arizona Cardinals, the 6-0, 244-pound Walker started six games and proved to be a valuable spark on the defense. He finished 11th on the team with 36 tackles (30 solo); 3 sacks; 1 pass defensed and 1 forced fumble. He had 5 tackles in the Wildcard victory over the Bengals and his all-out hustle to tackle LeSean McCoy 70 yards down field that saved a touchdown in the Eagles game was one of the highlight plays in the Chargers season.
Seyi Ajirotutu (WR)
The Chargers signed the talented wide receiver to add depth to the receiving corps after Malcom Floyd was lost for the year with a neck injury. Despite his limited action at receiver, he caught the game-winning touchdown over the Kansas City Chiefs with 24 seconds left in the game. Along with Stuckey, Ajirotutu was a standout performer on special teams and with a cap-friendly salary and good symmetry with Philip Rivers, he should be re-signed.
The other free agent names includes Ronnie Brown (RB); Larry English (LB); Lavelle Hawkins (WR/KR); Richard Marshall (CB); Cam Thomas (DT) and Charlie Whitehurst (QB). Despite finishing the year 10-7 including the playoff victory over the Bengals, there are a number of positions that need to be upgraded for the Chargers to get into the playoffs this upcoming season. Defensive tackle, offensive line, cornerback, wide receiver and another running back appear to top the wish list this offseason. With question marks surrounding cornerback Derrek Cox (contract), defensive end Dwight Freeney (quadriceps), center Nick Hardwick (concussion/neck), offensive tackle King Dunlap (concussions), and wide receivers Malcom Floyd (neck) and Denario Alexander (knees), the Chargers’ front office have their work cut out for them.