San Diego Chargers 2013 Team Review: Back in the Hunt
After being a consistent Super Bowl contender throughout much of Philip Rivers’ career, the Chargers hit a wall in 2010 under head coach Norv Turner. And after three consecutive playoff misses from 2010 to 2012, the team realized that Turner wasn’t the answer – they moved on.
Enter Mike McCoy, and enter a completely different Chargers team. The 2013 season saw the Chargers go from a middling franchise to one with hope, as quarterback Philip Rivers proved doubters wrong and had an MVP-like season. San Diego, as a result, made an improbable run into the playoffs, and as heavy underdogs, the team beat the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
To say Mike McCoy’s first season in San Diego was a success is a bit of an understatement. However, the team certainly isn’t flawless, and will need to make changes this offseason to get over the hump and into Super Bowl conversations.
The Chargers offense was sensational this year, and its success starts with quarterback Philip Rivers.
From 2008 to 2011, the Chargers passer accumulated at least 100 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) in each season, which is typical for a top-seven or –eight quarterback in the NFL. In 2012, a year I'm sure Rivers wants to forget, this number was a mediocre 16.93.
Many thought it was the end of the road for Rivers, and as a result, most wrote off the Chargers as legitimate AFC West contenders this past season. And in the fantasy space, owners certainly didn’t show Rivers any love, often selecting him as a low-end QB2.
Rivers responded with the second-best season of his long career, putting up better Passing NEP numbers than every quarterback outside of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. And the most amazing part is that he did it without some of his top receivers.
He didn’t, however, lack receiving help throughout the season, thanks to a breakout rookie campaign from Keenan Allen.
Allen, thanks to an injury, fell to the third round in the 2013 draft. Ironically, injuries to wideouts Malcom Floyd and Danario Alexander early in the Chargers season forced Allen up the depth chart, where he’d become Philip Rivers’ favorite receiving target.
I’ve written about Allen’s impressive season already, but I’ll share a few highlights. From a Reception NEP standpoint (points added on receptions only), Allen had the fifth-best total we’ve seen from a rookie wideout since the year 2000. In terms of Target Net Expected Points (points added on all targets, not just receptions), Allen’s 59.09 total was second best, behind only Marques Colston’s rookie campaign.
Allen didn’t see the same volume that some of the other studly rookie receivers in the past have, and when you factor in targets to find efficiency, Allen begins to emerge as one of the best rookie wide receivers of this era. His 0.93 Reception NEP per target was second-best among relevant rookie pass-catchers over the last 14 years, behind, once again, Marques Colston.
There’s certainly a bright future at wide receiver in San Diego.
The passing game – one that ranked third in the league according to our schedule-adjusted data – wasn’t the only positive thing for the Bolts this year. The running game, led by the fragile Ryan Mathews, also emerged as one of the best in the league.
After ranking as the fifth-worst rushing offense in 2012, San Diego jumped to the eighth-best rushing unit in 2013, thanks to the two-headed monster of Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.
Mathews put together his best season as a pro, adding 0.02 points for the Chargers with each tote. While that may seem minimal, most runners have a hard time being efficient, as passing is much easier to gain ground. Mathews was actually the eighth-most efficient runner of the 22 200-plus attempt backs this past year. His rushing metrics were sandwiched between Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.
Woodhead continued to be a receiving specialist out of the backfield, and he ended up catching more passes than every running back not named Pierre Thomas in 2013. He was far more effective when he caught the ball than Thomas though, as Woodhead ranked second in Reception NEP among all backs (Jamaal Charles was first), while Thomas ranked 15th.
Overall, the “good” from the Chargers season was pretty much on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, the defense was another story.
In 2013, San Diego’s defense allowed 108.23 more points than a team in a similar situation would have. 108 points, people. That was fourth-worst in the NFL, as the team was giving up 6.76 points per game more than they should have been surrendering.
They were bad at defending the pass and the run, too. San Diego’s Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (fixed for strength of schedule) score ranked 26th in the league, while their rush defense (Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP) ranked only better than the miserable Chicago Bears run-stuffing unit.
To make matters even worse, according to AdvancedNFLStats.com, no San Diego Charger front-seven member ranked higher than 30th at his position in terms of Win Probability Added (WPA), while only safety Eric Weddle was a top-tier player in the secondary.
If not for their defense, San Diego would have almost easily been an 11-win team.
What Should They Do?
From a free agent perspective, the Chargers top priority this offseason will be linebacker Donald Butler. Though he’s had trouble with his health over the last couple of seasons, Butler’s the team’s best linebacker, and losing him would only make a struggling defense even worse.
Moreover, expect the Chargers to do something about their secondary, specifically at the cornerback position. Though it improved down the stretch last season, the pass defense was a huge weakness. No corner finished higher than a 48 ranking in terms of WPA last year for San Diego. That’s atrocious.
In all, the Chargers made a nice jump in 2013 after failing to make the playoffs in their three previous seasons. They have some building to do on the defensive side of the ball, and because Philip Rivers may be limited with age, they’ll need to start making moves quickly in order to make this team a legitimate contender.