Naughty Nurse: San Diego much less than the sum of its parts

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Apr 25, 2011



(Our Russian mail-order Naughty Nurse checks the statistical vital signs of the Chargers below. Click here to see our pre-draft reviews of other NFL teams.)
 
By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Passing Efficiency Leader
 
 All of the numbers said that the San Diego Chargers were an elite team. All except one: Wins.
 
Due to a fairly unique mix of special teams problems, a break-don't-bend defense and a 3-5 record in games decided by eight points or less, the 2010 Chargers will go down in history as one of the best non-playoff teams of the expanded playoff era.
 
They finished fourth overall in our Quality Stats, fifth in point differential, second in scoring offense, 10th in scoring defense and out of the mix for the postseason – a truly remarkable achievement. Coach Norv Turner deserved a contract extension for the team's balanced abilities and a pink slip for the final record. In the end, he got another season, which is probably a fair compromise.
 
What will he do with it? Damned if we know. 
 
San Diego
The 2010 storyline: Well, that was a mess.
 
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 9-7 (27.6 PPG – 20.1 PPG)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 2-2 (25.3 – 14.5)
Last five seasons overall: 55-25 (.689)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Passing YPA, Defensive Passing YPA, Defensive Hog Index (1st)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Bendability (28th)
 
All Quality Stats 
Defensive Passing YPA: 1st
Quarterback Rating: 6th
Defensive Quarterback Rating: 7th
Relativity Index: 5th
 
 
Statistical curiosity of 2010
According to the pro-football-reference.com search engine, a team outgaining another team by 220 yards in a game and losing is very rare – only 18 times over the last 10 seasons. The Chargers did it twice in 2010 in the span of three weeks, at Seattle in Week 3 and at Oakland in Week 5.
 
Best game of 2010
36-14 win at Indianapolis (Week 12). The offense was solid, but the defense was dominant, forcing five Colt turnovers and turning the Lucas Oil Stadium into San Diego's house. 
 
Worst game of 2010
34-20 loss at Cincinnati (Week 16). It's tough to pick one – this is a team that managed to lose to mediocre squads like the Rams, Seahawks and Raiders (twice) – but their season-crushing loss in Cincy qualifies. While most of their losses were fluky, this wasn't. They were outgained, outhustled and outplayed by a Bengals team that had nothing to play for, and it cost them a shot at the postseason.
 
Strength
Philip Rivers. While Rivers has yet to put together that signature playoff run that will elevate him, he's had one of the best three-season runs any quarterback can boast. 
 
The average league-wide passer rating from 2008-10 was 81.7. Rivers had 40 games with better ratings, only eight with worse over his last 48 games, and when your QB is better than average 83 percent of the time you're going to win – or should win – a lot of games. 
 
He's also topped the magic 100.0 passer rating mark in 27 of 48 games, a full 56 percent of his outings, and that's even more impressive. Rivers has led the league in yards per attempt three years running, and does it without turning the ball over – he's thrown only 33 interceptions in three seasons. Since he took over as the Chargers starter in 2006, they've been 1st, 5th, 2nd, 4th and 2nd in scoring offense and he's got a record of 55-25.

Impressive stuff, and while Antonio Gates gets a nice big assist, remember that Rivers' Chargers averaged 26.7 points in the six games the tight end missed (28.1 with him).
 
Weakness
Clutchability. True, we have no actual stat for this, but it's pretty clear that the Chargers are more than a little lacking in whatever that certain something is that gets championship teams over the hump.
 
Does it start with Rivers? It has to, seeing as his passer rating drops from 97.2 to 79.2 in the playoffs, and that he had his worst game of the year in Week 16 when the Chargers needed a win in Cincinnati to stay alive.
 
You could blame Norv Turner, too. But the same problem was there when it was Marty Schottenheimer calling the shots, and when Drew Brees was the QB as well. You could lay it on a lack of leadership on defense, but it happened when the Chargers had Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau in the middle of the field as well.
 
Some things just defy explanation. Maybe it's a West Coast thing. But it's real, and until this team figures it out, they're always going to be the awesome team that accomplishes nothing.
   
General off-season strategy/overview
The Chargers have plenty of money available to spend, pending a new NFL structure for 2011, and should try to spend some of it bringing wideouts Malcom Floyd and Vincent Jackson (tagged) back under long-term deals. No one can touch San Diego's downfield passing attack, and it's what makes this team special.
 
Their No. 1 ranking on the Defensive Hog Index (tied with AFC champion Pittsburgh) was a bit of a surprise last year given the departure of noted tackle Jamal Williams, but fill-in Antonio Garay was an upgrade and should be a priority in re-signing to a long-term deal before he hits the market after the upcoming season.
 
The Chargers should probably sink whatever money is needed into the longsnapper spot after the positional problems basically kept them out of the playoffs in 2010. Deciding what to do with RB Darren Sproles is also an interesting point – he's a consistently great kick returner and third-down back, and if the money is there for him he's worth keeping.
 
Last year's draft was a disaster for A.J. Smith. Ryan Matthews had his moments, but didn't look to be much more than an average pro running back, and Smith gave up his No. 2 pick to get him. None of the other draftees made the merest splash, and only CB Antoine Cason has proven to be a winner from the last three draft classes. Smith needs to earn his money this year.
 
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
It's kind of remarkable that the Chargers' numbers were as good as they were last year despite two big free agent holdouts and an absent rookie class. They're still the class of the AFC West, and a true breakthrough season isn't impossible, but we'll believe it when we see it.

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