San Diego Chargers 2014 Season Review: Plagued By the Injury Bug
The 2013 season saw the San Diego Chargers finish 9-7, finding themselves with a playoff spot despite finishing third in the AFC West. Playing in a division with two 10-win teams, it was going to take a lot of work for San Diego to improve their win total and to move up in the standings in 2014.
In the offseason, offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt left for the Tennessee Titans head coaching job, and the Chargers promoted quarterbacks coach Frank Reich to be the new offensive coordinator.
The Chargers looked to improve on defense, signing free agent corner Brandon Flowers, and spending three of their first four draft picks on defensive players, including using a first round pick to select another corner in Jason Verrett.
These moves ultimately didn't translate into any more wins. The Chargers again finished 9-7 in 2014, and this year that 9-7 record wasn't enough to secure a playoff spot. Lets take a look at what went right and what went wrong in San Diego this year.
The biggest bright spot on the Chargers offense was Philip Rivers. Rivers recorded a Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) tally of 105.93 on 605 drop backs, meaning every time he dropped back the Chargers saw their expected point total improve by 0.18.
These numbers are fairly average for the body of work Rivers has produced over the years, but they also stand up very well to the rest of the league in 2014. He ranked ninth in Passing NEP and seventh in Passing NEP per drop back (minimum 200). The Chargers passing attack was strong enough that they finished tied for 11th in the league in Adjusted Offensive NEP, despite their run game, which ranked only 28th.
Catching passes from Rivers, Malcom Floyd stepped up and recorded one of the best seasons of his career. His Reception NEP of 80.24 was the second-highest he has ever posted, and his Reception NEP per target of 0.87 was the 11th-best among receivers with 50 or more targets this year.
Antonio Gates also turned in an excellent season, despite his age and perceived injury risk. With a Reception NEP per target of 0.92, he finished second among tight ends with at least 50 targets, and only Rob Gronkowski topped his total Reception NEP of 90.09.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers weren't world beaters by any means. They finished 22nd in Adjusted Defensive NEP, but they made significant strides to improve on their 31st place finish in 2013.
The additions of Flowers and Verrett to shore up a secondary lead by All-Pro Eric Weddle didn't provide a huge improvement immediately. Their ranking against the pass improved only two spots from 26th to 24th, but they are positioned well moving forwards.
San Diego also improved significantly against the run this year, making a jump from 31st in 2013 to 15th in 2014.
The story of the Chargers' 2014 season was filled with injuries at every turn. On the defensive side of the ball, Jason Verrett was able to play in only six games, and Manti Te'o missed six games. On offense, Ryan Mathews once again saw his season shortened by injury, a problem that has plagued him for most of his career. Mathews' backups didn't have an easy time either, the Chargers' offensive line was decimated by injuries all season, having 11 different players record starts up front.
Branden Oliver, tasked with running behind an assortment of backups and injury replacements, had very little success on the ground, recording a Rushing NEP per carry of -0.12, which tied for 60th out of 73 backs with 50 or more carries. Donald Brown was even worse when he got his chances, ranking 71st.
Another concern about the San Diego offense was Keenan Allen's sharp decline in productivity from his first year. Despite recording six more receptions this year than last year, his Reception NEP fell from 96.42 in 2013 to 56.72 in 2014, while it fell from 0.93 to 0.47 on a per-target basis.
While I mentioned some defensive improvement and a few players as a bright spot, the San Diego defense was still largely a liability in 2014. Ranking 24th against the pass and 15th against the run for an overall ranking of 22nd, it was left to the offense to carry the Chargers all season.
With Ryan Mathews scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this year, there are big question marks in the Chargers backfield. When healthy, he was far and away their most effective back. If they choose to stick with Branden Oliver as their top option in 2015, the Chargers will have to hope that he finds significantly more success than he did this year.
While Gates and Floyd performed well in 2014, age catches up with everyone eventually, and the Chargers need to be prepared in case this happens. Keenan Allen's bouncing back and Ladarius Green's becoming the player that many people expected him to this year would go a long way in keeping the Chargers' passing offense loaded with weapons.
The San Diego defense will need to continue making strides, especially in the secondary. With a solid core in place, there's good reason to be optimistic about this for the 2015 season, and it could be a real difference maker in the Chargers' success if they want to get over the nine-win plateau and make a run into the playoffs.