The San Diego Chargers had a frustrating habit from 2008-10 of starting off very slowly, posting losing records in September, only to come on as the season progressed and eventually make the playoffs all three seasons. They entered the 2011 season as the favorite in the AFC West with the only question being if they could get off to a strong start to take off some of the pressure.
After starting the season with a 4-1 record, many thought this could be the year that the Chargers broke through to get themselves back to the Super Bowl. Instead, the opposite happened. Injuries and hard-luck losses took their toll, as the team lost seven of its final 11 games and missed the playoffs. Like the Vikings, they were often their own worst enemy – losing five games by seven or fewer points after the 4-1 start, including a pair of losses in overtime.
The Chargers are a template for how teams can win without having a bunch of dominant players. No unit on the offense or defense is viewed as being in the discussion of being the best in the NFL, but they don't have any glaring weaknesses, either. It would seem that the sum is greater than the individual parts, but that isn't to say that the Chargers don't have some extremely talented players.
Offensively, they are led by quarterback Philip Rivers. He came to the NFL with one of the most unorthodox throwing motions of any QB. At times, it appears as though he is throwing a ball like a shot put, but the Chargers didn't try to change his mechanics and rightly so. Rivers has become a regular at the Pro Bowl and is the emotional leader of the offense, but he won't be playing Friday out of concern for his health behind a makeshift offensive line. Charlie Whitehurst will get the start instead.
However, the weapons around him have changed dramatically.
Over the previous two seasons, the Chargers, who used to be a run-first team, released Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson and allowed dynamic Darren Sproles to leave via free agency. They have pinned their hopes on RB Ryan Matthews, but he has been consistently dinged up with injuries in his first two seasons and the Chargers have been forced to change on the fly. This year, they brought in outside insurance in the form of former Dolphin Ronnie Brown, former Chief Jackie Battle and former Raven La'Ron McClain. The hope is that Mathews can be a full-time, every-game back, but he has already been injured in training camp, so that is far from a certainty.
The same can be said for the receiver corps. There is no doubt that Antonio Gates is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He and Tony Gonzalez helped redefine the position, but his production has leveled off in recent years due to chronic foot problems that only heal with rest. However, he has come into the preseason this year proclaiming himself fully healthy for the first time in four years and big things are expected of him – and likely will be needed. But, like Rivers, Gates will not play Friday night either.
Not only did the Chargers lose go-to wide receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency, but starter Vincent Brown suffered a broken left ankle that will sideline him for at least a month into the regular season. As a result, other players are going to have to step up. As they did at running back, the Chargers are trying to mix and match players from other teams in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle, adding Robert Meachem (New Orleans), Eddie Royal (Denver) and Roscoe Parrish (Buffalo) to help fill that significant void. They have traded in size for speed and it will be a strong test for the Vikings new-look secondary.
Although head coach Norv Turner has been able to keep his job despite being on the hot seat the last couple of seasons, the same can't be said for the team's defensive coordinators. John Pagano, the Chargers' linebackers coach for several years, takes over a defense that was last in third-down conversion rates and near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per play, especially in the passing game.
The team has invested heavily in defense both in the draft and in free agency. In 2011, they used their first-round pick on DE Antonio Garay and used their first-round pick this year on OLB Melvin Ingram, who could instantly become a difference-maker in the defense. The key to the defense, as it is in most 3-4 schemes, is at linebacker, where Ingram joins greybeards Shaun Phillips (ninth year) and Takeo Spikes (15th year). If Ingram can make a quick transition from college to the pros, this unit could be one of better ones in the league.
The Chargers struggled badly in pass defense last year, but have talent. Strong safety Eric Weddle is one of the game's top safeties and the team added former Packer Atari Bigby to start alongside him until rookie Brandon Taylor is ready to take over. Quentin Jammer is a physical corner, but, in his 11th season, has lost a step and is more prone to getting burned if a receiver gets past him. Fifth-year Antoine Cason similarly struggled last year, leaving the Chargers vulnerable to big plays over the top – something the Vikings may look to exploit.
In many ways, the Chargers are like the New England Patriots. They have a handful of star players, and a slew of role players who do their jobs effectively. While an 8-8 season in 2011 was viewed as a disaster by their standards, there is a lot riding on the 2012 season. If the Chargers fail again, not only will Turner likely be gone, but so will several of their aging veteran players, making this season a watershed year for a lot of them.
They are team with a short window to accomplish their Super Bowl dream, so this had the potential to be a good measuring stick for the Vikings. However, with Rivers, Gates and a few offensive linemen expected to sit out, it may turn out to only be a good barometer for the Vikings offense.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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