|Jason O. Watson/US Presswire|
|San Diego QB Philip Rivers certainly didn't enjoy his finest season in 2011, but he turned it on down the stretch.|
With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: You earned it, San Diego. Another installment of the Norv face (of frustration) is coming your way, fresh off a giant wave of excitement only mediocre football can bring. Thoughts? Issues? Concerns? Probably many, as fans watched their Chargers ride a six-game losing streak during the middle of the season straight out of the playoff race.
The fans deserve better, the talent level does not. Part of the "unfulfilled promise" of this team is based on suspended reality. Contrary to popular belief, the Bolts have the talent of a 7-10 win team, not a 14-win powerhouse. This isn't Marty Ball, and it's not 2006. Call it straight-up mediocrity.
What Went Right: Ryan Mathews still gets hurt too much, but he looked very good when he was healthy. Mike Tolbert did a nice job, as well. Frankly, the Chargers should've run the ball more. Mathews averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and yet Turner sometimes still abandoned the run (like during the midseason home loss to the Raiders).
Despite all the negative pub, Philip Rivers wasn't nearly as bad in 2011 as fans were led to believe. Yes, he threw 20 picks. But many of those were because Rivers actually takes shots down the field. Not to mention that the inconsistent play of his wide receivers, as well as Antonio Gates being out of shape, greatly hurt him (more on that below). Either way, this team would be playing in Legoland without Rivers under center. He also tore it up when the Chargers got hot late during the season. Over the last five games, Rivers tossed 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions, compiling a 109.3 passer rating.
Even with their problems, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates were still both productive. Jackson caught 60 balls for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns, furthering his reputation as one of the league's better big-play receivers (at least when he didn't lose the ball in the lights). Appearing overweight, and slowed by chronic foot troubles, Gates ultimately had a down year by his high standards. Though, most NFL tight ends would do anything for a "down" season of 64 catches, 778 yards and seven touchdowns.
What Went Not So Right: Gates' injury woes, which included three missed games, really hampered Rivers. The quarterback's interceptions hurt the defense, and the defense allowing 83 points after those turnovers hurt the team's playoff hopes.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky was fired right after the season for spearheading a unit that allowed 23.6 points per game. Only two teams (the Lions and Giants) allowed more points per game and still finished with a winning record. San Diego suffered from injuries to Luis Castillo, Shaun Phillips and Bob Sanders (huge surprise!) that covered all three levels of the defense. The secondary really struggled, enabling opposing quarterbacks to post a 92.5 passer rating while giving up 29 touchdowns.
Offseason Crystal Ball: So naturally, fire Manusky, and all is solved, right? Meanwhile, Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith got a reprieve. Smith's level of popularity with fans and players is similar to that of Barry Bonds. The tenor of fans' excitement that Turner was retained could probably be categorized as "less than delighted." And yet, the players seem to want to play for him. When I spoke to linebacker Takeo Spikes during Super Bowl week, he did not hesitate to fully support Turner's return.
Needless to say, this should be both an interesting and integral offseason for the Bolts. It got off to a fast start with the knee-jerk canning of Manusky, and should continue with the expected release of starting tackle Marcus McNeill.
How will John Pagano fare as a first-time defensive coordinator in the NFL? We'll find out in September. Who will replace McNeill on the left side? We'll find out much sooner. San Diego might draft a tackle, as well as re-sign Jared Gaither. The big tackle is a free agent, as are Jackson, Tolbert, Castillo, Spikes, center Nick Hardwick, fullback Jacob Hester and nose tackle Antonio Garay, among others.
The biggest predicament is what to pay Jackson, who should command big money on the free-agent market. The club could release Castillo or guard Kris Dielman to create more room under the projected salary million cap. San Diego is already estimated to be under the cap by at least $10 million. Cutting Castillo (due nearly $5 million), or even Spikes, would give Smith some room to retool. He also has a decision to make at kicker: Nate Kaeding or the less costly Nick Novak?
Team Needs and Draft: Offensive line help, defensive end, secondary and wide receiver. Three starting linebackers are at least 30 years old, so that's another area worth considering. Defensive backs Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason are average, while youngster Marcus Gilchrist must step up. How about a strong safety to play next to Eric Weddle? These issues make it even more essential to fortify the defensive front. The Chargers must get pressure to mask deficiencies in the defensive backfield.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL