— As the Chargers were getting embarrassed by the Falcons Sunday on their home field, the folks at Qualcomm Stadium suspiciously omitted the Jets-Broncos game on the out-of-town scoreboard. It was so glaring that some of the players noticed. Maybe a team lackey was trying to be Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessep from “A Few Good Men,” delivering a message to the fans and players:
In this case, the truth is ugly, but it must be faced: The Chargers are the biggest bust of 2008.
If the scoreboard operator hadn’t been practicing censorship, the entire building would’ve known the Broncos were blowing out the Jets, taking a commanding three-game lead over the Chargers in the AFC West. At 4-8, the Chargers, considered by many a Super Bowl contender at the start of the season, are toast.
How a team with a very good, young quarterback and a future Hall-of-Fame running back could sink this low — in a weak division, no less — is hard to explain. Some might point to the season-ending knee injury to stud linebacker Shawne Merriman, but come on. Great teams overcome that kind of adversity. Look at the Giants. Michael Strahan retired and Osi Umenyiora was lost in the preseason to a knee injury, but has anybody noticed a drop off in the Giants’ defense?
The Chargers have an immensely talented roster, but they’ve been infected with a malaise that makes last season’s run to the AFC Championship Game seem like a decade ago. We could list the reasons for the demise — put coach Norv Turner at the top — but there’s not much that can be gained from that. The real issue now is, how are they going to repair themselves for 2009?
From all indications, Turner isn’t going anywhere. Ownership recently declared that Turner will be back next season, and general manager A.J. Smith reiterated that Monday, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune, “The head coach already has been addressed.” Smith could change his stance if the Chargers lose out, but he’d be sullying his own reputation by firing Turner.
Remember, it was Smith who won a power struggle with Marty Schottenheimer, kicking the coach to the curb after the 2006 playoff meltdown and handpicking Turner as the replacement. Martyball doesn’t look so bad now, does it? Sure, he had postseason yips, but the man won plenty of games.
So if Turner stays, how do the Chargers make it right? How do they get back to being the team that made the playoffs three times in a four-year span?
“I’m sure there will be changes after the season with players,” LaDainian Tomlinson said after Sunday’s loss to the Falcons. “We know that Norv will be back, so what do you do? You have to make changes with the players.”
They should start with the offensive line, which has fallen from its once-lofty status among the league’s elite. Right guard Mike Goff, 32, needs to go. Ditto, right tackle Jeromey Clary. Left tackle Marcus McNeill has slipped after making the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons, but he’s too young, too talented. So he stays. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to center Nick Hardwick, who hasn’t been the same after foot surgery.
With the amount of skill-position talent on the team — Tomlinson, quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson — the Chargers should be scoring more than 24 points per game. So take a wrecking ball to the offensive line. They also need an heir apparent to Tomlinson, who will be 30 before next season, the dreaded age for running backs to start declining.
Defensively, the return of Merriman will help tremendously — assuming his knee heals properly — but they still need a safety to replace Clinton Hart and a defensive end to step in for Igor Olshansky, a free agent who probably won’t be re-signed.
More than anything, the Chargers need a firmer hand from Turner, who allowed the team to lose the toughness it developed under Schottenheimer They’ve become too pass-happy. Sure, they talk about re-committing to the running game, but you just can’t flip a switch and expect it to happen. It’s an attitude, and it comes from the coach and his philosophy.
Turner runs a looser ship than Schottenheimer and, as a result, there isn’t much accountability. That can be an insidious disease inside a locker room. It will be difficult for Turner to change his coaching style, and maybe even tougher to get the players to buy into it, but something needs to be done.
Bill Cowher would be perfect for the Chargers, a former champion taking over a veteran team with championship talent, but Smith and ownership appear committed to Turner. The players’ commitment will be reflected on the field over the next four weeks. If the team goes in the tank, it’ll be time for the honchos to face an unwelcomed truth.