Chargers may win over fans with offense
In their “Fight for L.A.,” the slogan they adopted after moving to Los Angeles from San Diego this season, the Chargers could have a leg up on the Rams. And one prolific arm, a pair of churning feet and at least six sets of sure hands.
Winning will be the most important thing in the battle for the hearts and minds of Southern California’s football fans, the attention of its media outlets and the advertising and marketing dollars of its corporations.
But it’s also imperative to entertain, and in that area, the Chargers — with an established and accomplished veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers, an explosive running back in Melvin Gordon and a deep and talented fleet of receivers and tight ends — could have a distinct advantage over the defensive-
“We’ve got some work to do to get fans to come into this stadium,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said of StubHub Center, the team’s cozy 27,000-seat home for three seasons, “and part of that could be helped by having some of the explosive plays like we did last year.
“We were one of the best in the league in 25-yard plays, so when you think about that in an environment like this, it’s exciting. Hopefully, that will help us.”
The Chargers ranked seventh in the NFL with 35 pass plays of 25 yards or more last season. With 36 runs of 10 yards or more, they ranked 20th overall in “big plays.”
The Rams, who opened 2016 with lackluster veteran Case Keenum at quarterback and closed with struggling, scrambling (or more like running for his life) rookie Jared Goff, ranked 31st in big plays, 27 of them passing and 26 rushing.
Though the records of the Chargers (5-11) and Rams (4-12) were similar, the Chargers were competitive until the end of most games, suffering too many fourthquarter meltdowns, whereas the Rams were often blown out. The Chargers ranked 21st in average scoring margin at minus-0.8 points; the Rams were 30th at minus-10.6 points.
Rivers, 35, a six-time ProBowl selection, is back for his 14th year after throwing for 4,386 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
Even without first-round pick Mike Williams, the Clemson star wideout who has a herniated disk in his lower back, Rivers will have six standout targets in receivers Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman and tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry.
And Gordon, who rushed for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 41 passes for 419 yards in 2016, is a passcatching threat out of the backfield.
“It’s an exciting group, a deep group,” Rivers said. “We have five or six receivers, three or four tight ends, three or four running backs who can all contribute. … We’re going to need to be pretty dang good because I do believe [the AFC West] may be the toughest division in football.”
That Whisenhunt is back at the helm of the high-powered Chargers offense for the second straight season and third year overall is a bit of an upset.
Most new head coaches clear out the previous staff and hire their own assistants, but the first thing Anthony Lynn did when he got the Chargers job in January was retain Whisenhunt, who spent eight years as a head coach with Arizona (20072012) and Tennessee (20142015) and four as an offensive coordinator with Pittsburgh (2004-2006) and San Diego (2013).
“I thought it was very important, because you don’t want Philip, at this point of his career, learning a new system,” Lynn said. “When you look at the most successful quarterbacks in the league, they’re not playing for different coordinators every year, they’re in the same systems. I want to win now, so you can put all that other stuff aside and make this thing work.”
The Chargers ranked ninth in the NFL in scoring last season with an average of 25.6 points per game, eighth in passing (262.4 yards per game) and 14th in total offense (356.8 yards per game), but there is plenty of room for improvement.
“The red zone is an area we have to be more efficient in — even though we scored a lot of points, we have room to grow there,” Whisenhunt, 55, said. “And even though we were pretty good on third downs, we want to get better; that allows you to sustain drives, keep time of possession and score points.
“But probably the biggest thing we have to do is cut down turnovers. We just turned the ball over too many times last year.”
The Chargers led the NFL with 35 turnovers — 21 interceptions, a career high for Rivers, and 14 fumbles lost. They were 21st in redzone efficiency, turning 32 of 62 possessions inside the 20yard line into touchdowns. They ranked 11th with a third-down efficiency of 42.5%, converting on 85 of 200 third-down plays.
Through seven games, Rivers completed 162 of 245 passes for 2,018 yards, with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions for a 102.4 quarterback rating. The Chargers won three of those games.
Over the last nine games, in which the Chargers went 2-7, Rivers completed 187 of 333 passes for 2,368 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions for a 77.3 rating.
“We had a number of injuries down the stretch, we played with a lot of offensive line combinations, and we had a number of receivers who were banged up,” Whisenhunt said. “Philip was missing some weapons, and when that happens, and you want to win so bad, you have the tendency to press sometimes.”
The Chargers look very good at the skilled positions. For their offense to click, they’ll need better play from the line, a task that grew more difficult when projected right guard Forrest Lamp, a second-round pick out of Western Kentucky, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
“There were too many times we missed opportunities because we didn’t do a good enough job in protection or run blocking,” Whisenhunt said. “We have to protect Philip better and do some things runwise where we don’t have as many negative plays. We have to play better as a unit up front.”
KEN WHISENHUNT has Philip Rivers, a six-time Pro-Bowl selection, leading his Chargers offense.