Chargers Have a Bright Future in 2021

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How does a team with Philip Rivers and Justin Herbert lose a season’s worth of games by one-score in a two-year span?

Over the last 30 years, only two other franchises have done it.

The Lions, in 2001 and 2002 combined, lost 17 games by one-score. But they had guys like Joey Harrington, Charlie Batch, Ty Detmer, Mike McMahon all make multiple starts, and they were widely considered the worst team in football.

Washington did it in 1994 and 1995 (lost 16 games by one-score), but again, they had guys like Heath Shuler, John Friesz, and Gus Frerotte taking snaps. None of these ever were or ever would be solid starting quarterbacks.

The Chargers had Philip Rivers in 2019, who currently holds the record for the most career touchdown passes without winning a Super Bowl at 421, one ahead of Dan Marino.

And they had rookie phenom Justin Herbert in 2020, the sixth overall pick who shattered records as a rookie passer. He threw the most touchdown passes of any rookie in NFL history, despite the fact he was the second most pressured of any quarterback in the NFL. Herbert, the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, became the fourth rookie quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards.

Over the past two years, the Chargers were forecast to be solid. The team was projected to win 17 games (8.5 wins/season), and they had one of the more talented rosters in the NFL.

This team was so far different from the terrible Detroit teams of the early-2000s or the terrible Washington teams of the mid-1990s.

So again I ask, how did this Chargers team, with Rivers and Herbert and a forecasted above average team composed of solid talent, lose 16 games (a full season’s worth) by one-score in a two-year span?

You could say simple bad luck… and with the Chargers, you might not be far off. After all, the 2019 Chargers ranked 25th in field goal luck and followed that up by ranking 30th in 2020. In addition, they ranked 32nd in fumble luck.

But beyond luck, the first place you have to look is coaching. What is this team doing late in games? How aggressively are they trying to win? What is their go/no-go situation like? How often are they calling their best plays? How often are they being too conservative?

Unfortunately, former head coach Anthony Lynn failed miserably across most all of these critical elements since he became coach.

The lowest hanging fruit is he went for it on fourth downs in recommended situations only 25% of the time since becoming head coach in 2017, which ranked ninth-lowest in the NFL.

When the numbers are in your favor, and the analytics suggest you listen, you really need to do a better job than fading the numbers three out of every four plays.

Since 2018, the four teams that have been the most aggressive in fourth down situations when it’s +EV are the Ravens, Packers, Browns, and Eagles. The four teams that most ignore the analytics and punt the ball instead are the Broncos, Jaguars, Washington, and the Lions. I think it’s pretty easy to decide which set of teams are doing the best. Aspire to be like those smart teams.

Lynn did not. And it led to many games with small leads that were blown as a result.

Over the last two years, while they were losing so many one-score games, the Chargers had 16 games with a halftime lead. Typically, teams win 80% of those games. The Chargers went 9-7 (56%). It was the most losses by any team in the NFL over that span, and the worst win percentage for any of the 23 teams with at least 12 games in their sample.

Similarly, the Chargers went only 9-5 (64%) in games they entered the fourth quarter with a lead. Teams typically win 83% of these games. Only two teams were worse than the Chargers’ 64% win rate, Lions and Bengals.

In the NFL, it’s tough to get a lead. It’s tough to win games. If you’ve earned a lead at halftime, you absolutely must figure out how to hold onto it. You cannot be blowing halftime and fourth quarter leads at the highest rates in the NFL.

With a brand new coaching staff, the Chargers should be in a much better position to avoid such catastrophic decision making in 2021.

But although he played like it, Justin Herbert is not Superman.

The quicker the Chargers realize that and prioritize early down efficiency in 2021, the better they will be. What do I mean by that?

The Chargers had 114 third downs in the first half of games last year, the third most of any team in the NFL. Their 95 third down passes in the first half were the most of any team.

On these many third downs in the first half, Justin Herbert delivered 0.39 EPA/att, which ranked first in the NFL. Exactly half of his third down passes converted first downs, which also ranked first of all quarterbacks.

He was simply incredible.

But that’s not bankable output. He’ll probably regress in 2021. So to see success, the Chargers must do one thing: avoid third downs.

How did the get into so many third downs in 2020? Many more than in 2019?

For starters, they ran the ball significantly more in 2020 than 2019. And secondly, their run game was much worse (21st in 2019, 31st in 2020).

On first downs, the Chargers ran the ball 5% more often in 2020 than 2019. They shifted from a 52% first down pass rate in 2019 to 47% in 2020. While that may seem small, it’s substantial. The 2019 Chargers, at 52%, were the eighth most pass-heavy team on first downs. The 2020 Chargers, at 47%, dropped to the eighth most run-heavy team.

The Chargers’ first down runs were terrible. They gained 3.9 YPC, 41% success, and -0.09 EPA/att. No team that ranked top-15 in first down run rate was worse than the Chargers when running the ball.

If running too often with terrible efficiency wasn’t bad enough, Justin Herbert and the Chargers‘ passing attack also struggled on first down. There were notable first down splits when Herbert lined up in shotgun. Examine Herbert on first down:

From shotgun: 5.5 YPA, 44% success, -0.07 EPA/att
Under center: 8.4 YPA, 51% success, 0.19 EPA/att

This wasn’t just a play-action split — when the Chargers threw from under center without play-action and Herbert averaged 0.22 EPA/att. Likewise, they threw from shotgun with play-action, and Herbert averaged -0.43 EPA/att. It also wasn’t a first half vs second half thing — the splits were even larger when you look only at the first half. What the Chargers were doing on first down, Herbert did it much better from under center.

The lack of efficiency on first down forced the Chargers to average 7.9 yards-to-go on second down, which was fourth-worst in the NFL last year.

Herbert performed much better on second downs, but the Chargers were still much more run-heavy than they were in 2019. The Chargers ran the ball on 39% of second downs in 2020, compared to 31% in 2019.

But when they passed on second down, their aDOT was significantly lower than first down, particularly when you ignore late-game situations and focus only on the first half. First down aDOT? 8.4 yards. Second down aDOT? 5.0 yards. It was the second-lowest aDOT in the NFL on second downs in the first half of games. The only team that threw shorter on second down? The Saints, with Drew Brees’s arm that was about to fall off and some attempts from Taysom Hill. The NFL average saw a 7.7-yard first down aDOT and a 6.9-yard second down aDOT, a decline of only 0.8 yards. The Chargers aimed their second down passes 3.4 yards shorter than first down passes. That was with a healthy, strong armed Herbert.

The combination of first down playcalling, the fourth-most yards-to-go on second down, and the second-shortest target depth on second downs did one thing – forced the Chargers into many, many third downs.

The Chargers need to enjoy their time with a quarterback on a rookie deal and capitalize on it. The Chargers have the seventh-lowest cap hit for a starting quarterback this year. In 2019, Rivers’s last season, they were seventh-highest. For the prior half decade, they varied between top-5 (2013, 2015) and above average (2014, 2016-2018). Being able to build a team without having to pay top money to the quarterback position is extremely valuable. This window will close soon, but the Chargers are lucky to have several more years of quarterback savings compared to quarterback performance. They must act aggressively and immediately to make every +EV decision possible from roster and coaching perspectives to maximize their window.

Overall this year, the Chargers face the 11th easiest schedule based on win totals. From Week 9 onward, they play the easiest schedule in the NFL. From a rest perspective, they play the 14th best schedule in net rest edge and are one of the only teams that does not have to play any short week road games or games off a road Sunday or Monday night game. Their three primetime games are all home games.

Last year before the season I predicted the Chargers would face the ninth toughest schedule of defenses and they did just that. This year, I predict they will face the fifth-easiest schedule of defenses. What is truly scary is the Chargers were absolutely terrible running the football despite playing the easiest schedule of run defenses. This year, I similarly project they will face the easiest schedule of run defenses.

The Chargers pulled off 7 wins last year despite going 5-7 in one-score games. They are forecast to win 9.5 games in 2021 (over is +110 at PointsBet) and a tempting +125 to make the playoffs. The problem with the AFC is it’s stacked with talent. It took 11 wins to make the playoffs last year, and a 10-6 Dolphins team missed them. With the Patriots likely to improve, it will be a challenge for a team even as good as the Chargers to get in the door. But if they can stay healthy, they are one of the teams that missed the 2020 playoffs but has a great shot to slip into the 2021 playoffs.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub. For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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