Los Angeles Chargers  

 

Modern version of 'Air Coryell' could bring a title to San Diego

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Greg Trott / Associated Press
The Chargers have made the playoffs every year since Philip Rivers became the starter in 2006.


While the NFL continues to celebrate the life and innovations of the late Don Coryell, the San Diego Chargers continue to build an offense poised to carry on the "Air Coryell" style, which terrorized opponents in the 1970s and 80s.

Although those high-powered offenses were unable to a Super Bowl title for the Chargers, the modern version of the team's prolific attack has the look of a champion.

Led by quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers have ranked in the top five in scoring since he became their starter in 2006. They also finished among the league's top passing offenses the past two years (seventh in 2008, fifth in 2009).

Rivers, who has earned two Pro Bowl nods, has emerged as the driving force on offense. He's coming off his second straight season with more than 4,000 yards passing, and has compiled a passer rating of at least 104.4 in back-to-back years. Those stats are more remarkable when considering the fact that he's sporting a gaudy touchdown-to-interception ratio (62 touchdowns against only 20 interceptions), while also managing to connect on over 65 percent of his passes during that span.

Although his high completion percentage would appear to suggest that Rivers operates an efficient dink-and-dunk offense, he's averaged a league-leading 8.6 yards per attempt, which is indicative of the vertical nature of the offense.

Coach Norv Turner is a big proponent of the long ball, and the playbook features a host of vertical routes designed to stretch the field. As a disciple of Ernie Zampese, who learned the system while working as an assistant for Coryell, Turner's system is deeply rooted in skinny posts, go-routes and comebacks off five- and seven-step drops. Additionally, the ball is frequently thrown down the middle of the field to tight ends and slot receivers on seams and deep bends off play-action.

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Though it appears risky to have the deep ball play such an important role in the offense, Rivers' proficiency makes the dangerous approach worthwhile. Last season, he completed a league-high 64 passes of 20 yards or more, and his 12 completions over 40 yards ranked seventh.

Much like the "Air Coryell" units that featured a number of playmakers among the receiving corps, the Chargers' current lineup features difference makers at the skill positions.

Tight end Antonio Gates serves as the anchor of the attack. He skills help him to create mismatches in space, which sets the table for the team. As a former basketball player, Gates puts defensive coordinators in a quandary because of his favorable size and speed advantage against safeties and linebackers. He routinely runs away from lumbering strongside linebackers, and effectively uses his body to post up smaller defenders in the middle. Given his ability to dominate, opponents routinely use double coverage in an attempt to neutralize his effectiveness. However, the added attention to Gates has opened up the field for the other receivers.

Vincent Jackson has been the biggest beneficiary of Gates' presence. He has emerged as one of the top playmakers at wideout by consistently beating single coverage. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has 16 touchdowns during that span. He also has 11 receptions of 40 yards or more, providing an added dimension.

Unfortunately for the Chargers, Jackson might not be on the field for the team this season. He has declined to sign his restricted tender, and is contemplating a long holdout due to his unhappiness with the team's contract proposal. Complicating the situation, Jackson has been suspended for three games because he violated the league's conduct policy.

Without their top outside weapon, the Chargers would appear to lose their potency, but Malcom Floyd could develop into a threat in Jackson's absense. Floyd is coming off a breakout season (45 receptions for 776 yards with one touchdown), and has displayed big-play ability when given opportunities. He finished with five receptions of more than 40 yards last year, and 36 of his 45 receptions resulted in first downs. While he's not as polished as Jackson as a route runner, his athleticism and leaping ability allow him to win one-on-one battles on the outside. With Gates still around to garner most of the defense's attention, Floyd should continue to find opportunities down the field.

The Chargers could also turn to their rebuilt running game to maintain explosiveness on offense. While that would seemingly pose a challenge based on the team's struggles a season ago (San Diego ranked 31st in rushing with an average of only 88.9 yards per game), the addition of Ryan Mathews is expected to eliminate some woes.

The rookie has big shoes to fill, as he replaces LaDainian Tomlinson. In his last season in San Diego, Tomlinson averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and had just three runs over 20 yards.

Mathews, who was selected with the 12th overall pick, produced 1,808 rushing yards as a junior at Fresno State to lead the nation in rushing yards per game. As the Chargers' feature back, Mathews will add more juice and explosiveness to the attack. Although he's regarded as a speedster with nimble feet, he has excellent power, balance and body control between the tackles. His burst will mask some of the offensive line deficiencies, and continue to provide Rivers with play-action opportunities.

Darren Sproles is another weapon capable of making a significant impact. The diminutive threat is a dynamic runner/receiver with the good quickness. Sproles produced nine plays that covered at least 20 yards last season, and his ability to turn screens into long gains make him that much more dangerous. While some have taken Sproles to task for failing to emerge as the feature back, he still amassed 840 yards from scrimmage, and scares opponents because he can score from anywhere on the field.

Coryell terrorized the league with a high-powered offense that relied on a precise aerial attack and a physical running game. With a cast of Hall of Famers (Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner) manning the skill positions, the Chargers reeled off three consecutive AFC West titles from 1979-1981.

Though Turner's roster might lack the individual pedigree of those legendary units, the collective explosiveness of the modern group offers the potential to rival their predecessors' record-breaking output. The 2010 contingent could even make a run at the Lombardi Trophy that has eluded the franchise.

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