2016 NFL Preview: The Chargers have a great QB, and still lost big

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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The common wisdom is that if you have a great quarterback in the NFL you’ll have a great team.

The San Diego Chargers challenge that wisdom.

Philip Rivers is a great quarterback. He should be in the Hall of Fame some day. He threw for 4,792 yards last year despite not having Antonio Gates for the first four games and being without Keenan Allen for the last eight. He’s tough, accurate and understands how to play quarterback. Rivers might be as good as he has ever been — and he was an MVP-quality player late last decade.

The Chargers went 4-12 with him last year. Rivers had 3,033 yards through nine games, and the Chargers were 2-7. He threw for 503 yards at Green Bay and the Chargers lost 27-20. This is why nobody should cite quarterback wins as a real stat.

Rivers was very good last season and the team around him was not. Still, it’s possible they’re probably rated a little low here. A little bit of injury luck would help a lot, and the Chargers were 9-7 in 2013 and 2014 before last year’s debacle. But there aren’t a ton of obvious solutions to last year’s problems, just the hope that Rivers can carry the team to better days.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The defense was in shambles most of last year, equally poor against the run and pass. The running game is a complete mess. The Chargers didn’t add any running backs this offseason, even though Melvin Gordon had a poor rookie year. They also lost key players like tight end Ladarius Green and safety Eric Weddle in free agency, which won’t help.

The Chargers won’t go 4-12 again. Rivers is too good for that, and he’ll lead the Chargers to some upsets. And I’m not entirely down on Mike McCoy as a coach, as others may be. But the defense likely is not going to be a ton better and the run game might not be either.

Mostly, the franchise’s fortunes rest squarely on Rivers’ shoulders. Last season proved you need more than just that.

Can Philip Rivers carry the Chargers back to the playoffs? (AP)
Can Philip Rivers carry the Chargers back to the playoffs? (AP)

I like some of the moves they made, though there wasn’t an earth-shaking addition unless you think Joey Bosa will be an immediate star. Receiver Travis Benjamin fills a role as a deep threat. Cornerback Casey Hayward is a big upgrade in the slot. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane was really good in the middle for the Seattle Seahawks, though he is 31 now. But Eric Weddle is a big loss, even if he’s not the same player at 31 years old. Ladarius Green might be too — Gates is a future Hall of Famer but the Chargers will regret re-signing him and letting Green go to Pittsburgh, considering Gates is 36 and Green is 26. Bosa was an interesting pick at No. 3, though defensive linemen generally need time to make an impact in the NFL. Grade: C+

The Chargers were not a bad team in 2013 and 2014. Maybe 2015 was an outlier. The optimism obviously begins with Philip Rivers, but you can talk yourself into other reasons. Melvin Gordon could improve and add balance to the offense. The defense has some good corners and an intriguing set of linebackers. If Joey Bosa plays well enough to win defensive rookie of the year, there could be a big jump.

The Chargers didn’t do anything well last year but throw the ball. They were 32nd in yards per rush, 28th in yards per pass play allowed and 30th in yards per rush allowed. Football Outsiders ranked San Diego’s special teams No. 31, based on their DVOA per-play metric. And what if — turn away, Chargers fans — Philip Rivers goes down with an injury?

I worried after a dip in 2012 that Philip Rivers might be slowing down. Nope. He has 13,556 yards and 92 touchdowns the past three seasons. Rivers signed a four-year extension last August. You’d have to guess he will still be effective in 2019, the final year of that deal. Rivers will turn 38 that season, which doesn’t seem too old for a quarterback anymore.

Melvin Gordon is important for obvious reasons, but linebacker Melvin Ingram is a key figure for the Chargers too. He had a sack in each of the Chargers’ last five games last season, with 6.5 sacks in that span. He had 10 sacks in his 40 career games before that. Was the final stretch a breakout for the 2012 first-round pick or just a hot streak for a player who had 1.5 sacks in San Diego’s first seven games last season? Ingram came to camp in great shape last year, finally stayed healthy and the production followed. He was strong against the run, too. The Chargers need Ingram to pick up right where he left off.

“What you focus on when you watch guys run is how they handle tight spots, confined space, how they handle quick penetration. And Melvin Gordon got stuck with that … He has to learn that in the NFL that you can’t stop your feet, you have to hit the point and get what’s there. And the 2-yard runs, over time, they lead to the longer runs. Every run is not a 30-yard run. He has to learn you can’t stop your feet, and you have to attack.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Chargers and the rest of the AFC West]

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “Melvin Gordon is THE most undervalued running back in early drafts. I know what you’re thinking, ‘There goes Evans doing laps in a tequila-filled pool again! What a moron!!!’ But hear me out. Accepting that Gordon is a fantasy asset worth chasing off a year in which he averaged a despicable 3.5 yards per carry and did not score one measly TD is a tough pill to swallow, especially since he underwent microfracture surgery in January. However consider this, last year he ranked top-eight in tackles avoided per attempt and sported an 89.2 catch percentage, the third-highest mark among RBs. Plus, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco is clearly committed to Gordon. No substantive competition was signed this offseason. Crank the volume.

“Yes, the offensive line couldn’t open a hole for a chihuahua last fall, but with several fresh faces it only has one direction to go. Mix in San Diego’s respectable pass game and 1,200-1,300 total yards with 6-8 TDs isn’t an agave-influenced prediction for the sophomore. People are nimrods for letting him slip past guys like T.J. Yeldon, Ameer Abdullah and Charles Sims. At this price (84.3 ADP, RB32) buy low.” ( Read even more about Evans’ love for Gordon here.)

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Keenan Allen had 67 catches, 725 yards and four touchdowns last season. He ranked 41st in receptions last season and 51st in yards. Not bad considering he played just seven-and-a-half games. Allen suffered a lacerated kidney in the first half of San Diego’s eighth game. It’s dangerous to just double Allen’s half-season stats and project him to do that in 2016 if he stays healthy, but he’s in line for a huge season if he can avoid injuries.

DOES THE UNCERTAINTY ABOUT A MOVE AFFECT THEM?

The Chargers acted like last year’s home finale might be their last game in San Diego, and it was emotional for many of them. As it turned out the Chargers will return for at least another year, but the stadium initiative still has a long way to go. That uncertainty has to affect the players to some degree, not knowing if they’ll be living and working in San Diego or Los Angeles beyond this season. There have been eight NFL teams to relocate since 1960. None of them made the playoffs the year before relocation and only one had a winning season:

1981 Oakland Raiders, 7-9

1983 Baltimore Colts, 7-9

1987 St. Louis Cardinals, 7-8

1994 Los Angeles Rams, 4-12

1994 Los Angeles Raiders, 9-7

1995 Cleveland Browns, 5-11

1996 Houston Oilers, 8-8

2015 St. Louis Rams, 7-9

That might not mean too much, because it’s a small sample and it’s hard to determine how much the potential move was a reason for each team’s record. It’s not like the uncertainty about a move is the main reason the 1994 Rams were terrible. But you can understand why there would be a cause and effect, at least a little bit. For a team like the Chargers, already coming off a bad season, the additional distraction won’t help.

In January of 2014 the Chargers won a road playoff game at Cincinnati and nearly won at Denver a week later. In the 2014 regular-season finale, the Chargers lost at Kansas City when a win would have put them in the playoffs. They have had good seasons under Mike McCoy. Maybe, after a down year, the Chargers could be in playoff contention again. A lot of things would have to go right, but with some better injury luck and a great season by Philip Rivers, it’s possible.

It’s not like the Chargers were unlucky last season. They won one game all year by more than six points (against a flailing Miami team on Dec. 20). Three of their wins were by a combined 14 points. If the run game is bad, the defense doesn’t make any improvements — and maybe even slips without Eric Weddle’s leadership — and the special teams aren’t good again, Philip Rivers won’t be able to do enough to save Mike McCoy’s job.

The AFC West is tough, and the Chargers look like the obvious pick to finish last. Yet, it’s not crazy to think San Diego turns it all back around to 2013-14 levels. Philip Rivers is that good. But a lot of things have to fall into place, and it looks like another rough year for the Chargers.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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