2017 NFL Preview: LA welcomes (kinda) the unlucky Chargers
Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
The Chargers’ 56-year run in San Diego ended about as you’d expect for the star-crossed franchise, with one of the unluckiest seasons in NFL history and a confusing move to a city that doesn’t seem to want them.
The Los Angeles Chargers should be a pretty good team, as long as they catch some better fortune in close games. Whether anyone will be paying attention in LA is another story.
It’s impossible to know how the Chargers’ move will affect them. They’ll be playing in a 30,000-seat soccer stadium in Carson until they become the Rams’ tenants in Inglewood. Maybe playing in an intimate stadium with a capacity you generally see in the Mid-American Conference will be great for the Chargers, but we have no modern NFL comparison for it. Also, these are still human beings who had to uproot their lives over the offseason, and that can be tough. Ask the Rams. While you’d expect (hope?) that the Chargers can fill the smallest stadium the NFL has used in the Super Bowl era, it’s hard to know what kind of real fan support the Chargers will get and if that will matter on the field.
The best way to get the attention of sports fans in LA is to win, and the Chargers might do that.
It’s best to not judge the Chargers on their 5-11 record last season. The Chargers started last season 1-4, but the odds of them losing all four games was one-in-30 million, the Wall Street Journal said. If you’ve read any of these previews the past few years, you know I pay close attention to extreme records in close games, because I think that usually regresses to the mean and is one common way teams are overrated or underrated heading into a new season. And the 2016 Chargers were pretty much my Moby-Dick in that category. Let’s go through the carnage:
• The Chargers had the ball and a 27-10 lead in the fourth quarter of Week 1 at the Kansas City Chiefs. Their win probability at that point, according to pro-football-reference.com, was 99.9 percent. They lost in overtime.
• In Week 3 at Indianapolis, the Chargers had the ball at about midfield and a 22-20 lead with less than three minutes left. They lost on a T.Y. Hilton 63-yard touchdown with 1:28 to go.
• One week later, the Chargers again reached a 99.9 percent win probability and lost. The Saints trailed 34-21 in the fourth quarter but turnovers on consecutive Chargers offensive plays helped New Orleans rally to win 35-34. Teams should go years between losing games in which they reach 99.9 percent win probability. The 2016 Chargers did it twice in the first month of the season.
• The next week, the Chargers were lined up for a game-tying field goal at Oakland just before the two-minute warning, but the snap went through holder Drew Kaser’s hands and the Chargers lost.
• In Week 10, the Chargers had the ball at Miami’s 42-yard line in a tie game with 1:13 left when Philip Rivers threw a 60-yard pick-six to Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso, and the Chargers lost.
• The Chargers missed two field goals in the final 3:49, including one on the last play of the game, to lose to an 0-14 Cleveland Browns team in Week 16.
Not all of those losses are due entirely to bad luck. When you fumble, throw a key pick-six, make multiple special teams gaffes at crucial times or can’t handle the 2016 Browns, you deserve what you get. Still, it doesn’t seem like the Chargers were nearly as bad as their 5-11 record. Also include some injuries in the Chargers’ bad luck: They were the second-most injured team in the NFL last season by Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric. That usually doesn’t carry over either.
There’s plenty to like about the Chargers this season. There’s dangerous skill-position talent around Philip Rivers, especially if Keenan Allen is back from a torn ACL suffered in Week 1 and first-round pick Mike Williams’ back injury isn’t serious. The defense, led by 2016 defensive rookie of the year Joey Bosa, is pretty solid and could improve with new coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley was not a good fit as Jacksonville Jaguars’ head coach, but he’s a respected defensive mind. The Chargers play in a very tough division, but there are reasons to believe they can take a nice step forward under new coach Anthony Lynn.
And if that step forward doesn’t come, Los Angeles will have even more reason to tune out the Chargers.
The only significant signing the Chargers made was left tackle Russell Okung, who was given $53 million with $25 million guaranteed over four years. That’s a healthy overpay for a player with a concerning injury history (he has played all 16 games just once in seven seasons), but the Chargers needed help on the line and there wasn’t much available. The big move was franchise-tagging outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, then giving him a four-year, $66 million extension. That was important. Most of the free-agent losses weren’t too bad. But it would really be a blow if receiver Mike Williams, the seventh overall pick, is hindered all year by the herniated disc in his back. That type of injury doesn’t generally just go away. Grade: C+
The offense could be much better. Philip Rivers is still one of the best pocket passers in the game, though he needs to cut his interceptions significantly from the 21 he threw last season. Melvin Gordon improved tremendously his second season with 997 yards and 10 touchdowns last season; the next step is staying healthy for all 16 games. He missed three last season. Tight end Hunter Henry was very good last season as a rookie, and Antonio Gates is still productive. And if the Chargers can have Mike Williams, Tyrell Williams and Keenan Allen in the same lineup, that’s a really good set of receivers. The Chargers could easily become a top-10 offense.
Anthony Lynn could be the NFL’s next great coach for all we know right now. His straightforward style should do well with the players. But nobody knows if Lynn will be successful. As of Week 2 of last season, Lynn was mostly a career-long running backs coach. Then the Buffalo Bills fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Lynn was promoted and he did fairly well. Lynn also was the team’s interim head coach for one game after Rex Ryan was fired. Not all successful NFL head coaches logged multiple years as a coordinator before their first head-coaching opportunity. But the lack of that high-profile experience does make Lynn more of an unknown than most. And it probably isn’t ideal that a first-time head coach has to deal with a team going through a relocation.
Philip Rivers’ 87.9 rating last season was the second-lowest of his career. It’s his lowest mark since 2007, which was his second season as the Chargers’ starter. The biggest problem was a league-leading 21 interceptions, a career-high. Maybe it wasn’t anything to worry about going forward, and plenty of injuries at receiver didn’t help, but Rivers will turn 36 during this season. For pretty much anyone but Tom Brady or Brett Favre, that’s entering a danger zone for quarterbacks. Some help at receiver and a new left tackle could turn things around for Rivers. But it’s not guaranteed at his age.
Remember all those close losses in the first five weeks we talked about before? Joey Bosa missed three of the four due to a hamstring injury that probably was related to his baffling holdout. Bosa’s slow start was forgotten by the end of the season, as he collected 10.5 sacks in 12 games and was generally a menace whenever he was on the field. You’d have to assume he’ll be even better with a full training camp this year. It seems like the Chargers have their defensive superstar for years to come.
From Yahoo Sports’ Liz Loza: “Philip Rivers is the best value at quarterback in 2017. Closing out last season among the top-eleven fantasy producers at the position, the veteran signal caller passed for 33 touchdowns, which was the fourth most among QBs. Considering the carnage that the Chargers’ offense suffered last year, the numbers that Rivers was able to put up was nothing short of heroic. Currently the 16th QB coming off the board, Rivers’ value is hotter than a bolo tie at a square dancing convention.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for more on the Chargers’ fantasy outlook.]
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The Chargers could improve tremendously just by taking better care of the ball. Philip Rivers led the NFL with 21 interceptions. The Chargers lost 14 fumbles, and only the putrid San Francisco 49ers had more. The Chargers led the NFL with 35 turnovers and the New York Jets (34) and Chicago Bears (31) were the only other teams with more than 30. The Chargers’ defense was tied for fourth with 28 takeaways, but that doesn’t matter much when your offense is turning it over more than two times a game.
CAN KEENAN ALLEN STAY HEALTHY?
Allen has shown he can produce at an All-Pro rate. The problem has been health. Allen has never played all 16 games in a season. He played just eight games two years ago (and had 67 catches and 725 yards in half a season) and less than one game last year before tearing his ACL. Not all players who suffer multiple injuries are “injury prone,” but some are. The good news is that from all accounts, Allen’s recovery has gone well and he’s ahead of schedule. The Chargers drafting Mike Williams with the seventh pick was interesting, considering the team could realistically get out of Allen’s contract after 2018. If Allen can stay healthy the Chargers would gladly pay top dollar for him, but that’s becoming tougher to depend on. You’d hope that Allen can stay healthy for more than half the season, but it’s probably unwise to predict 16 from him.
It’s not too crazy to believe the Chargers could win the AFC West, as tough as the division is. A 1-8 record in games decided by seven points or less is fluky and won’t repeat. The Chargers won’t be the second-most injured team in the NFL again. You have to think that with a borderline Hall-of-Fame quarterback, a substantial improvement in the Chargers’ turnover problem is possible. This is a very talented roster, and improvement in the Chargers’ record might be rapid.
There are three significant questions with these Chargers: Is Anthony Lynn going to be a good head coach? Will the team be affected by the move? Is Philip Rivers approaching a significant decline? If the Chargers get the wrong answer on all three – and maybe even just a bad answer on one or two of them – it might be a long season.
I like the Chargers’ talent, though there are a lot of unknowns with this team. And while it’s easy to dismiss those crazy losses to bad breaks, they deserve plenty of blame for blowing those games and it might just be part of their DNA. The Chargers’ record will be better. Of all the teams we’ve previewed so far, the Chargers are the only one I could be talked into making a quantum leap up and having a huge season (OK, maybe the Jaguars can too, but that takes a much bigger leap of faith). However, there are still enough questions that I can’t rank them higher than this, or pick them to make the postseason. I’d feel much better about the Chargers – and I’m not just talking about their 2017 record – had they stayed in San Diego like they should have.
32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!