From 1997 through the 2003 season, the San Diego Chargers were excused for not making the playoffs or exciting their fans due to the lack of offensive talent spread around their roster. They kept bringing in offensive players who were aging tremendously or seriously past their prime. With the exception of future Hall of Fame running back LADAINIAN TOMLINSON and a few other offensive players, Charger offensive players weren’t much fun to watch back then. But since 2004, the Chargers have picked it up offensively and it was about time. Charger fans are loyal to their team and they deserved this offensive turnaround. Below is a look at what the Chargers have at quarterback and running back for 2012 and what those positions need to accomplish in order for them to make some noise beyond the regular season finale versus the Oakland Raiders.
PHILIP RIVERS is one of those quarterbacks who was born good but became great with time. Rivers isn’t an elite quarterback yet but he is getting there. Rivers for the past six years has been a prolific passer and he has helped lead the Chargers to the playoffs in four of those years. But there are times when it seems that something is missing in his game. Rivers does a very good job of going through his reads or progressions and finding the correct receiver to advance the ball. But there are times he can force throws or try to do too much and it hurts the Chargers, as evidenced by the 20 interceptions he threw last year, a career high for him. In Week 9 versus Green Bay, he threw three interceptions, two in the first quarter were returned for scores), one of them going straight into the hands of defensive back TRAMON WILLIAMS who returned the theft 43 yards for a score and a 21-7 first quarter lead. Rivers didn’t read Williams jumping his receiver’s route and it was an easy theft for the DB. In 2012 the Chargers will go as far as players like Rivers take them. The Chargers need to stay healthy and consistent in the running game because Rivers can only do so much.
The Chargers brought back CHARLIE WHITEHURST to back up Rivers and provide some relief just in case Rivers gets hurt, although Rivers is one of the more durable players in the league. Then there is rookie JARRETT LEE who was last seen playing in the 2012 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, California. Lee has to show he can be this team’s No.3 quarterback or at least make the practice squad.
Running backs coach OLLIE WILSON has a young set of running backs to work with as neither one of them has more than two years of experience carrying the ball in the NFL. The Chargers got by last year at running back with MIKE TOLBERT (second on the team with 490 rushing yards), an extremely physical, durable, and angry running back, but he is now the property of the Carolina Panthers. The anchor of the running back core is third-year man RYAN MATHEWS who is one of the most exciting offensive players on the team. But he has been injury prone since he has been in the league. He has played in 81.2 percent of the Chargers games since 2010, but in many of those games he had limited playing time due to injuries.
Mathews when healthy is a heck of an option on screen passes or just about any form of pass catching out of the backfield. And he is a very helpful option up the middle in the running game. Mathews needs to stay healthy because this offense loses much of its excitement when he isn’t around. CURTIS BRINKLEY was another back who stepped in when he was needed, but in a limited role. Brinkley at times looked like a poor man’s DARREN SPROLES, as those two shared similar body types and running styles. He was third on the Chargers last year with 101 rushing yards and he scored once. The Chargers will need him to take a little pressure off Mathews and provide some sparks for the offense.
Rookie running back EDWIN BAKER (7th round pick and 250th selection in the 2012 draft) could end up being one of the steals of this.. One of the best backs to go to Michigan State in recent memory, he is 12th in school history in rushing yards with 2,293 yards. Baker is a patient runner who has a good settle-down when he is getting ready to break through a hole or when he’s trying to cutback. He has 4.53 speed in the 40 yard dash, and he can be a good option as a pass catcher. Plus he is a no-nonsense football player and a hard worker. He was taken vary late in the draft and was four picks away from being undrafted, but Baker has the ability to succeed in this.
Then there’s MICHAEL HAYES out of the University of Houston who is also a rookie. He went undrafted in this past draft due to his college’s propensity for passing the ball. For years no one has really cared about Houston Cougar running backs as it is always the quarterbacks and receivers who got most of the attention from the media, NFL scouts, and fans. Hayes to his credit gained 1,356 yards and scored 19 times on the ground from 2010-2011 at Houston. He also showed incredible balance as it is hard to knock him off his feet; he was born with very good speed and quickness, vision, and determination. He isn’t very big but he has deceptive strength and he can take some big hits. He should be a two-down back or return specialist in San Diego because this kid has some untapped talent.
BOTTOM LINE: Rivers and Mathews are the main keys to the Chargers getting anywhere offensively. But players like Baker, Hayes, and Brinkley need to do their part and stay healthy in order for Rivers and Mathews to excel. Even as talented or as exciting as those two players can be, they can’t do it alone. The NFL is about teamwork.
By Matthew Robinson