The quarter pole of the NFL season is hardly the time to come to any conclusions.
The way the game is played now, teams have just begun to hit their stride. Training camp is a joke and preseason is almost useless. It takes at least two games of the regular season for most players to become familiar with each other and another couple of weeks before coaches around the league start to know what they have.
There are a few exceptions, most notably the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Pete Carroll does not protect his players or his gameplan by tip-toeing through the summer. He has his players work hard, and that’s part of the reason the Seahawks have come out so effectively in each of the last three seasons (4-2 in 2012, 5-1 in 2013 and 2-1 in 2014) .
We think we are familiar with the NFL’s iron. The strongest teams who are going to be there basically from start to finish. In the NFC, the Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers, and Philadelphia Eagles have all served notice in one way or another that they would be there at the end.
In the AFC, the Broncos are certainly at the top of the list, and the Patriots have been there from a traditional sense. The Bengals have the look of a team that would like to join the party, but few have taken notice of the San Diego Chargers.
This is a team that just may be ready to challenge the Broncos in the AFC West and that could just be the start of it. This is a very talented team that is likely to get a lot better as the season progresses. That’s a scary notion for the rest of the AFC considering that the Chargers are already 3-1.
There are several reasons why the Bolts have a chance to upstage some of the better teams in the AFC, and possibly represent the conference in the Super Bowl. The most important of those reasons is the working relationship between head coach Mike McCoy and quarterback Philip Rivers.
McCoy is in his second year at the helm, and the first thing he did last year was get Rivers on more of an even keel and make him realize that he is not the whole team. With Rivers, it is not necessarily an ego thing dictating that he must be the center of everything the franchise does.
Rivers, the son of a high school football coach, has always believed that a quarterback is responsible for his team’s overall play.
Rivers certainly understood that he needed protection from the offensive line to sit in the pocket, and that his receivers needed to get open, but the bottom line was that if the Chargers didn’t get it done, it was his fault.
That’s the mantra that Rivers has always believed, and that’s one of the reasons that he has always seemed so high-strung in the huddle or on the sidelines.
But McCoy has been able to disabuse Rivers of that notion. He has been able to lift some of the pressure – nearly all self-imposed – by speaking to his quarterback calmly, rationally, and consistently.
That’s part of the reason that Rivers’ numbers the last two years have been so impressive. Rivers completed 378-of-544 passes last year for 4,478 yards with 32 TDs and 11 interceptions. This year, he continues to get better as he has completed 96-of-137 passes for 1,155 yards with a 9-1 TD-interception ratio. While he will undoubtedly hit a valley at some point, Rivers would end up with 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions if he can keep this up all season.
When the quarterback can breathe easy and perform at his best, it makes life much easier for his teammates. The Chargers have a talented and diverse receiving crew that includes Keenan Allen, Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates, and that means opponents can’t look for any one receiver to stop.
What the Chargers don’t have right now is a formidable running game. Ryan Mathews is sidelined with a knee injury, but he could be back in about three weeks. When he returns, that’s when this team should start to hit its offensive stride.
That’s when McCoy, a play-calling genius, will have all his weapons at his disposal. They may not light up the scoreboard like Peyton Manning does in Denver, but the Chargers will be surgical and put together the specific gameplan that best suits their personnel on a week-to-week basis.
San Diego’s defense is strangely effective. They rank ninth in yards allowed and are 11th against the pass even though that unit does not have a superstar among its starters. Most strong defensive teams will have one or two players who can intimidate and kick ass when they need to. That’s not the recipe the Chargers are using.
Nobody on the roster has more than 1.5 sacks at this point, although defensive end Corey Liuget is certainly capable of turning up the heat and making a run at double-digit sacks. Free safety Eric Weddle is smart, aware, and fully involved once again. He has 22 tackles, five passes defensed, and an interception to this point.
Weddle thinks the key to the Chargers defense is getting all 11 players on the field involved. “That’s when it’s fun, when we’re out there flying ,” he said. “When everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do, that’s when we have a chance to have a really good defense.”
Basically, the Chargers have a bunch of no-names on defense who like to swarm to the ball and gang tackle. If they can keep it up under defensive coordinator John Pagano, they could prove to be formidable.
The Chargers are the most under-the-radar team in the NFL. Nobody’s talking about them, but they just may be in the best position of anyone in the AFC to make a run at the title.