By Dave Thomas
When the San Diego Chargers and their fans look back on the 2014 season, it could likely turn into a number of “what ifs?” when all is said and done.
After dropping a heartbreaking 18-17 loss on the road in the season opener at Arizona, the Bolts would reel off five straight victories, including a win over the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
While thoughts of the Chargers making the Super Bowl this year following that winning streak might have been premature, there is little doubt both the Bolts and their fans were feeling pretty good sitting at 5-1 atop the AFC West. After such a strong start, however, the wheels would come off the wagon over the next 10 games more times than not.
Where did it go wrong?
To say this was a disappointing season for the Chargers is something that all but one team around the league can say after Feb. 1 rolls around. To not get to the big dance and win it (Glendale, Arizona this season) is a letdown for any team.
With that in mind, just where did things ultimately break down for a team that was looking for back-to-back playoff visits (beat Cincinnati, lost to Denver in the playoffs a year ago)?
Some of the key components turning this season into a disappointment included:
Lack of a running game – Coming into the season, the Chargers hoped to get ultimate production from fifth-year back Ryan Mathews, along with receiving multiple contributions from versatile Danny Woodhead. Before the Chargers would even get out of September, Mathews was yet again facing injuries, while Woodhead would be lost for the season. When the season ended for San Diego in Kansas City this past weekend, the Bolts had the third worst rushing attack in the league, a meager 85.4 yards per game. Simply put, that kind of production will not win you many games.
Offensive line issues – Another roadblock to the playoffs came via a banged up and inconsistent offensive line. The Chargers had multiple players (five) at the center position from start to finish due to injuries, thereby making things difficult for quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers, who threw for 4,286 yards, 31 TD’s and 18 interceptions, finished with a QB passer rating of 93.8. While it certainly was not a bad season for the veteran signal caller, Rivers would be the first to admit he could have played better in a number of situations. Until the Chargers put forth a healthy and consistent offensive line, it seems doubtful they can win their first-ever Super Bowl.
Some of the key components turning this season into a success included:
Comeback kids – Granted, no team will say their season was a “success” unless they’re hoisting that trophy when all is said and done. That said this was a San Diego team that simply would not quit. In their wins over Baltimore (34-33) and San Francisco (38-35 in overtime), the Chargers would not go away. While Rivers gets much of the credit, it was a team effort to rebound and get two huge wins on the road. Except for the 37-0 debacle in Miami, the Chargers were in every game this season, something not all teams around the league can say.
Opportunities cashed in – With injuries to guys like Mathews, Woodhead and Keenan Allen, other players stepped up. Although he disappeared at times late in the season, rookie running back Branden Oliver was a spark plug in the absence of Mathews. Oliver, who finished his initial season with 582 yards rushing and three TD’s, should certainly have an opportunity to be in the mix in the 2015 campaign. Wide receiver Eddie Royal (62 receptions, 778 yards receiving, seven touchdowns) was spectacular at times with Allen dinged up or getting double coverage. If Allen (77 receptions, 783 yards receiving, four TD’s) can come back 100 percent healthy next year, that should again open up opportunities for guys like Royal, who will not be getting so much attention from defensive backs. Lastly, although he makes his own opportunities, hats off to free safety Eric Weddle for another stellar season. Where would this defense be without his leadership?
Some off-season thoughts to ponder:
Is Mathews done? – Just having finished his fifth campaign, Ryan Mathews (74 carries, 330 yards, three touchdowns) was a major disappointment this season. Coming off of a 2013 season where he rushed for a career-high 1,255 yards, Mathews had his lowest output in 2014, seeing full action in only six games. The 2010 draft choice (five-year deal, nearly $27 million) was not expected to be the next LaDainian Tomlinson, but he has not lived up to his potential. Do not be surprised if the Chargers go looking for a running back in this next draft, something that should be high on their priority list.
Will a Super Bowl title ever come to San Diego? – Even though the Chargers under head coach Mike McCoy have made strides these last two seasons, this team is not yet in the upper echelon of AFC squads. New England and Denver continue to be the cream of the crop in the conference, with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis in the next batch. In all honesty, you could lump the Chargers in that “third tier” of teams, among which would be Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston, Miami and Buffalo. That in no way says the Chargers can’t ascend to the second or even first tier of teams over time, but there is much work to be done. With a mediocre running game, some issues on the offensive line, and a veteran quarterback taking his licks more and more, don’t look for the Chargers to be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl in the near future. This is a good team, but getting to that next level is going to take more time.
For more Chargers news and updates, visit Chargers Central.
Dave Thomas has been covering the sports world since his first job as a sports editor for a weekly newspaper in Pennsylvania back in 1989. He has covered a Super Bowl, college bowl games, MLB, NBA and more. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.