In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
Forget Vegas. What happens in San Diego stays in San Diego.
It's getting to the point that Johnny Manziel cannot spend every waking moment in Sin City partying like the Son of Bacchus without someone snapping pictures and sending the Football Temperance Society into a tizzy. But San Diego is the place where football news dies of sunstroke. In San Diego, Manziel could ride along the coast in a chariot pulled by a team of giant seahorses while beer-bonging Stone Brewery's Arrogant Bastard Ale, and ESPN's daytime programming would not break stride.
In San Diego, you can declare yourself the greatest cornerback on earth, and no one looks up from their beach reading. Inexplicable invisible girlfriend scandals also disappear in the San Diego sunshine. The starting quarterback can don a bolo tie and spend an up-and-down decade acting like a stone arrogant bastard with nary a controversy. The Chargers can upset the Broncos, sneak into the playoffs on a hot streak, and upend an alleged powerhouse, all while drawing minimal attention.
That eerie silence surrounding the Chargers is a somewhat-justifiable lack of buzz. They're a small-market wild-card team stranded on a sandy corner of the NFL map. Playoff shockers aside, they were never serious contenders last year and made no splashy moves during high-volume transaction season. But when the Chargers splashed, they strengthened their weakest unit while weakening a division rival when no one was looking. Then again, it seems like no one is ever looking, which puts the Chargers in position to become this year's unsurprising surprise team.
Biggest Move: Flowers in the Paddock
It pays to have a little extra cap space to spend when other teams have to do some sudden salary trimming. It helps even more to be an appealing potential employer, because veterans who have options sign their one-year "prove it" deals with teams that can help them prove things. Brandon Flowers believes that the Chargers can help him prove the Chiefs wrong for dumping him long after the traditional cap purge period -- he stated that remaining in the AFC West was a major motivator for him -- and that he will still be worth a long-term deal from a playoff contender when he turns 29 next February.
Flowers also declared himself the best cornerback in the NFL, because that's what everyone else is doing. "Best cornerback in the NFL" is one of those titles anyone can give themselves, like "King of Chili Cook-offs" or "Master of the Stratocaster." San Diego being San Diego, there was no real backlash from Flowers' comments from the First Take gang, Richard Sherman, Roddy White, or those people who write "soccer is boring/un-American" articles. Actually, any or all of these people may have responded; I would not know, since I stopped paying attention to most of them years ago. The fact is that no one considers Flowers the best cornerback in the NFL, not even Flowers. If you don't visualize your goals, you will never attain them, and could end up getting beaten frequently by Wes Welker.
Flowers is a very good cornerback by all accounts. He made the Pro Bowl last year, and various play-by-play charters gave him high grades, though he was a hard player in a hard defense to analyze from home. Flowers blitzed often and fake-blitzed even more often in Bob Sutton's Chiefs defense; feigning a blitz, then backpedalling to stop a slot receiver in a hook zone, is not an easy skill to rate without a Chiefs playbook by your side. Flowers' versatility made some of Sutton's most exotic blitzes feasible. Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett now give coordinator John Pagano some of that flexibility.
Flowers and Verrett also give the Chargers plain-old quality. Football Outsiders ranked the Chargers second-to-worst in the NFL in stopping opponent's No. 1 receivers and dead last at stopping No. 2 receivers in 2013. Verrett alone was not going to upgrade a secondary that had a clear need for two cornerbacks. But Verrett and Flowers, combined with holdovers Shareece Wright, Richard Marshall, and prospect Steve Williams, change the whole complexion of the Chargers secondary. Verrett won't draw as many difficult assignments right away as he would have before Flowers' arrival. Safety Eric Weddle will now be able to roam more effectively. Slot receivers will have to face tight coverage, an important thing in a division whose leader is lousy with slot receivers.
Flowers is not the best cornerback in the NFL. The Chargers do not have the best secondary in the NFL. But some of last year's 30-24 losses are likely to become 24-21 wins.
Biggest Risk: The Rise of Frank Reich
It's hard to determine just where head coach Mike McCoy ended and former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt began during last season's offensive renaissance. McCoy is an offensive chameleon whose system can morph from option-heavy tactics to Peyton Manning-worthy at-the-line complexity, depending on the situation. Whisenhunt's systems were never quite as nimble. Given Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger, or Philip Rivers, he looked like a mastermind, while Matt Leinart or John Skelton could make him look like a ninny. The same can be said of most of us.
Whisenhunt was the primary game-planner last year, so even if McCoy had a heavy hand on the big-picture rudder, his loss could be felt. New coordinator Frank Reich is new to game-planning and play-calling duties, though he did mentor under Whisenhunt in both Arizona and (last year) in San Diego. Reich promises some exciting new wrinkles, most notably an increased emphasis on the no-huddle package.
The Chargers were one of the most deliberate offensive teams in the NFL last year, finishing 29th in the NFL in offensive pace, according to Football Outsiders. In "neutral situations," as opposed to two-minute drills or desperate fourth quarters, they averaged 31.96 seconds per play. The NFL average is 29.79, while Chip Kelly had the Eagles snapping off a play every 23.88 seconds.
The slow pace helped the Chargers lead the league in time-of-possession (an average of precisely 33 minutes per game) and kept their awful secondary off the field. But the secondary has improved, Philip Rivers is the kind of veteran who can thrive in the no-huddle, and time-of-possession can actually hold a productive offense back. Fewer possessions may make sense against the Broncos, but more chances to score might have iced opponents the Chargers had trouble with last year (Dolphins and Titans-types). Reich has Peyton Manning experience from Indy, McCoy from Denver, and the two could teach the Chargers' veteran quarterback how to change speeds.
Reich needs to add something to the offense, because the Chargers did not add many new players. Their mix of aging stars (Rivers, Gates, center Nick Hardwick), prospects (Keenan Allen, D.J. Fluker) and reclamation projects (King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart) is delicate. The Chargers won't kick down the playoff doors on sheer talent. Reich doesn't have to be Whisenhunt, but he must deliver his own brand of wisdom.
Biggest Question: Can two running backs take a handoff on one play?
The Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown, Marion Grice backfield is going to confound your fantasy draft. We won't know until camp unfolds just how the Chargers will split carries, but there are some certainties:
Mathews won't have any more 29-carry back-to-back weeks unless there is an injury rash.
Woodhead will catch a bunch of passes.
Donald Brown will be asked to do more than Ronnie Brown did. In fact, he will make people forget Ronnie Brown. In fact, everyone has already forgotten Ronnie Brown. (Except Auburn fans and Wildcat scholars).
Rookie Marion Grice is too good at too many things to get buried on the bench.
Mathews is under contract through 2015. His cap number for next year is modest (a little over $3 million), but the team could save $1.5 million by releasing him after this season. With Grice in the fold, Mathews' chances of seeing the end of his current contract are roughly less than 50-50 and his chances of staying in San Diego beyond 2015 are absolute zero. But while Mathews' future is obvious, his present is less clear. Reich calls him the "primary workhorse," but there are an awful lot of ponies in the stable.
The Chargers showed late last season that they love to run the ball: They rushed over 35 times in each of their last four regular season games. Adding no-huddle packages to a run-heavy system can create opportunities for three different running backs. Grice's special teams value (he returned kicks in college and is a fly-around block-and-tackle guy for the coverage units) can keep him on the roster in a limited role until the primary workhorse is asked to seek work elsewhere. Everybody keeps busy, the Chargers are insulated against injury, and teams that are weak against the run will be severely punished.
Up-and-coming tight end LaDarius Green will have a great season. But he will only catch about 40 passes. His value will come from stretching the safeties to create opportunities underneath and from blocking as a slot-or-flex player on no-huddle handoffs. A 40-600-6 stat line may disappoint you if you draft Green as your fantasy football "next big thing," but it will take heat off Gates and help the Chargers return to the playoffs.