For all of his offensive ‘genius,’ Turner should leave the prognosticating to soothsayers. The fact is, for all the self-destruction the team did to itself this season – see the games vs. Houston, Tennessee and Washington – this Chargers team could very easily be securely locked into the playoffs at 10-4 or 9-6 heading into this weekend’s regular season finale under first-year coach Mike McCoy. And despite whatever happens vs. the Chiefs this Sunday, there is no question the Bolts are moving in the right direction under GM Tom Telesco.
Heading into the NFL Draft last April, the Chargers biggest concern was building an offensive line that could keep quarterback Philip Rivers healthy throughout the season. Handcuffed by the salary cap, Telesco and Co. brought in the likes of King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart and Rich Ohrnberger – all free agents signed to solidify a line the gave up some 49 sacks last season. Telesco then selected the best run blocking lineman in the draft, Alabama’s D.J. Fluker, who will likely make the NFL’s all-rookie team and could get a few votes for rookie of the year based on his performance at both tackle positions this year.
Through 15 games the Chargers have allowed the third-fewest sacks this season (27) and the third-fewest yards lost as a result of those sacks (140). Injuries forced the team to start six different combinations of linemen through 15 games, while playing a total of 16 different combinations up front at various times this season. And despite the starting five linemen playing the entire game as a unit just six times this season, the team has gained more than 100 yards on the ground in 11 of 15 games including six of the last seven.
“We’re having fun out there right now… having an absolute blast,” center Nick Hardwick said. “It’s fun to fight; it’s fun to compete in ball games – no matter what happens next week we don’t care, we’re going to have a heck of a time and we’re going to play hard.”
For Hardwick, who is in his 10th year out of Purdue, re-establishing the run game brings a smile to his face as the line gets to impose its will on the defense.
Said Hardwick, “It’s important (having fun) – you’re excited to run, excited to hit and it certainly helps you (establish your game plan). Ryan (Mathews) is doing a tremendous job getting downfield, he’s seeing the hole and hitting it fast… it’s just fun, we’re having a heck of a time.
“We’ve had three wins in a row now; our confidence is building; wins kind of breeds winning as Marty (Shottenheimer) used to say. You have that feeling going into the game that you’re going to win the game and when you come out with another one you’re very excited about it. We’re not even going to worry about those other games; we’re just going to go out there and play the Chiefs and give them hell.”
Besides the offensive line, the second area of concern for the Chargers over the offseason was the secondary. Having let go of starting cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, along with strong safety Atari Bigby, Telesco decided to go in a different direction and bring in a number of free agents to compete for the openings. Although the signing of high-priced corner Derek Cox has yet to pan out, the much-maligned secondary has improved since his benching by coming up with four interceptions and 21 passes defensed in the last three games. If the Chargers do in fact back into the playoffs it couldn’t come at a better time with the defense playing it’s best football of the season. Having 10 total turnovers over the last five games, the defense has held the last three opponents, the Giants, Broncos and Raiders, to just 297.7 yards and 15.7 points per game. Perhaps most impressive is the play of the defense on third-downs where they have given up just 9-of-30 (30.0%) third down attempts. Despite the odds being against them making the playoffs, maybe the football gods will grant them a favor similar to that in 2008 when the Broncos ended the season with three consecutive losses, thus giving the Chargers the AFC West crown at 8-8 and enabling Chargers fans to witness one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history – the Chargers thrilling 23-17 overtime victory over the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts.