Chargers must learn to cultivate talent, stats into more wins

The 2010 campaign might have been the most depressing winning season in Chargers history. There was little disagreement around the league that San Diego was the most talented team in the AFC West, and yet, it amounted to nada come January.

There aren't a lot of teams in recent memory that ran the table offensively and defensively, as in leading the NFL in both offense and defense. San Diego accomplished the amazing feat, ultimately finishing tops in the league by gaining 395.6 yards per game while only allowing 271.6 yards per game.

What's even more amazing than leading the NFL in both categories is leading in both categories and only finishing with nine wins. Coach Norv Turner takes most of the blame, and is consistently issue numero uno with Chargers fans every offseason. That said, he'll return for his fifth season in San Diego, and not much is expected to change in that regard. While his tenure has been marked with playoff disappointments, the fact that he hasn't had a losing season has not altered his status as a lightning rod for debate. Talk about this team, and Turner is the first name to come up.

As we continue our series of Exit Interviews, let's go beyond "the valley of the Norv," and look at other pressing concerns confronting this franchise ... starting with the top-ranked defense and another well-known coach.

1. Can Manusky improve defense?

While the Carolina job opening might have been the least sexy of all the head-coaching vacancies, the repercussions of the Panthers' new hire was felt nearly 3,000 miles away. Ron Rivera did a bang-up job as the Chargers' defensive coordinator and leaves some big shoes to fill for replacement Greg Manusky.

How San Diego finished No. 1 in team defense with its personnel boggles the mind. Then again, the special teams unit gave up enough big plays that the defense didn't have to (more on that group later). Rivera's unit was excellent at limiting "chunk" yardage, allowing the fewest plays of 10-plus yards in the league. So, can they repeat that performance under Manusky?

His style is a little different.

"I'll curse the bleep out of you," Manusky told the San Diego Union Tribune. "When I stop cursing you, that's a bad thing. That means I don't give a bleep about you."

Cussing or no cussing, a bunch of yelling will only go so far with a unit that had just one Pro Bowler (a replacement at that) and forced just 12 turnovers.

While Manusky ran a hybrid 3-4/4-3 in San Francisco, the Chargers are not expected to switch over. But if they did ...

2. What moves will Smith make?

... then it would fall on general manager A.J. Smith to fill the void(s). Problem is, some people around the league feel his harsh dealings with some free agents created holes for the Chargers last season.

Smith decided to be the BMOC last year with restricted free agents Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson, imposing deadlines for them to sign their restricted free-agent tenders and reducing the team's offer to a fraction of what it was when they didn't bite. Yep, he was bigger around the Chargers facility than Ogre was at Adams College -- but remember how Booger, Takashi and the rest of the nerds ultimately won? The Chiefs, Raiders and the AFC playoff field ultimately benefited from Smith's hard-headedness.

Kansas City won the division with less talent, the Raiders swept the Chargers, and the rest of the AFC playoff field didn't have to deal with what should've been a dangerous team (especially with the Patriots getting knocked out early.) Jackson and McNeill would've been valuable in some of those early losses that built up when they were missing and ultimately kept the Bolts out of the postseason mix.

So, what does Smith do this year with 30 impending free agents? And, how many free agents will want to come to San Diego?

3. What are biggest team needs?

One area Smith and his staff can directly impact in the right way is to get it right in the draft. While you rarely hear the phrase, "man, we've got to get some special teamers in the draft," that should be a major consideration with some of the Chargers' picks -- can they bring it on kick coverage? For a club that was widely believed to have one of the worst special teams units in the NFL last season, this is no small deal.

Smith's offseason in general, and draft in particular, will be shaped by who the club re-signs, although defensive end and linebacker are strong possibilities anyway. Free-agent safety Eric Weddle might be the best player on Manusky's defense, so his potential departure would leave quite a void.

If Jackson and Darren Sproles aren't going to be re-upped, both wideout and running back might be hit in the draft. In fact, the latter will be even more of a priority if Mike Tolbert isn't retained.

4. Can Mathews live up to hype?

Sproles and Tolbert aside, this club has to get more out of second-year back Ryan Mathews. His rookie season was marred by an ankle injury and somewhat inconsistent play. For all the hype surrounding L.T.'s departure, and Mathews' potential, perhaps this kid got played up a bit too much. Frankly, he was rarely a force on an offense that too often relied on Philip Rivers' right arm.

For more on the San Diego Chargers, check out the latest from our bloggers.

Mathews rushed for 678 yards with 4.3 yards per carry, which certainly aren't awful numbers, especially for a rookie. But his longest run was just 31 yards (for a touchdown), and he wasn't a factor in the passing game, catching only 22 balls. Tolbert, who is more Natrone Means-like than the sleek Mathews, caught more balls.

Fair or not, if the Chargers are to take the next step, they need more from their stud running back in 2011.

5. Can they be special?

As mentioned, the special teams group killed the Bolts last season. Let's rehash: There were four punt blocks allowed (plus another punt "deflection"), a blocked field goal in a three-point loss to the Rams, and four return touchdowns allowed.

After nine years on the job, special teams coach Steve Crosby was let go. Rich Bisaccia was hired to revamp a unit that cost the Chargers games against the Chiefs, Raiders and Seahawks.

While Bisaccia has some good special teams players on the roster, like Brandon Siler, an influx of new blood could help.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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