Last season the San Diego Chargers made the decision to commit to an offense featuring its passing game.
After many seasons with success on the ground behind future Hall of Fame running back LaDanian Tomlinson, the Chargers felt it was time to put the ball in the air more. To support that initiative, the Chargers signed quarterback Philip Rivers to a six year contract extension that was worth $92M.
Over the course of the season, the Chargers found a great deal of success in the new aerial commitment, finishing the season with the fifth best passing offense in the league. And the biggest reason for that success, other than the arm of Philip Rivers, was the work of two other offensive standouts, tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Gates and Jackson last season combined for more than 2,300 receiving yards (nearly half of the team’s entire production), and 17 touchdowns, earning them both Pro Bowl invitations.
The results were so positive that the Chargers in the off-season made the decision to release Tomlinson.
After that decision became action, there was no turning back. While Darren Sproles and rookie Ryan Matthews should prove to be worthwhile replacements on the ground, the results earned in the air last season was enough to warrant a full commitment to the passing game. With Rivers (a two-time Pro Bowl selection himself) behind center, and two Pro-Bowl targets for him to throw the ball to, what could possibly go wrong?
I’ve got three letters for you: D.U.I.
Six months ago, Vincent Jackson pleaded guilty to a 2009 DUI charge (his second incident), and was consequently suspended for the first three games of the 2010 NFL season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Now the “Super Charged” passing game that was supposed to feature a Pro Bowl quarterback, Pro Bowl wide receiver, and Pro Bowl tight end, will only feature two of those to kick off the first three weeks of the regular season (two of which are games against AFC West rivals Kansas City and Denver).
Without Jackson on the field the Chargers will have to rely almost entirely on Gates. The problem is that opponents know that and will be able to focus on Gates much more without worrying about covering Jackson. As far as other wide receivers are concerned, it will fall to Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee to carry the bulk of the receiving load during this season’s opening weeks. Both players are a far cry from the Pro Bowl abilities of Vincent Jackson. Floyd did catch 776 yards last season, but that was due to the fact that defenses had to key on both Jackson and Gates, which allowed Floyd more opportunities to get open. As for Naanee, he was good for only 242 receiving yards.
This loss of a primary receiving target comes at the worst possible time for the Chargers. They already sent Tomlinson packing, who even in a statistically bad year found the end zone twelve times, and now are forced to go without a 1,000 yard receiver for the first three games of the season.
In a division where each of the teams (yes, even the Oakland Raiders) made very solid improvements during the off-season, the Chargers can ill-afford to give up any ground if they hope to successfully defend the division crown. But rather than enter the season with one of the league’s most dangerous passing games, the team will have to find a way to survive without the man who is the balance on offense and a key weapon.