Up to their old tricks again (fingers crossed)
After a full morning of practice followed by a brief but intense weightlifting session, a sweat-soaked Antonio Gates emerged from the Chargers' locker room to a swarm of young autograph seekers.
"How you doin', man?" he said to one boy in a Keenan Allen jersey, seemingly the group's ringleader. "You so big now!"
"And you're getting big," the boy shot back.
The 36-year-old Gates smiled. Rare is the season that the three-time All-Pro tight end, still a tough assignment, doesn't open himself to remarks about his physique. Five years ago he was memorably dismissed by an anonymous source on his own team as "old and fat." Then last year, just when a slimmed-down Gates seemed to have shaken off his critics, he was found in violation of the league's performance-enhancing-drug policy and suspended for the first four games.
Without Gates's sure hands and steadying presence, San Diego stumbled early in 2015, at one point dropping six straight to wind up 4--12, its worst finish since 2003. The record was as much due to a lack of chemistry along the offensive line as it was to the scarcity of playmakers beyond Gates. Although versatile tailback Danny Woodhead helped keep the chains moving, the Bolts keenly felt the absence of Allen, a Pro Bowl receiver who missed eight games with a lacerated kidney. They piled up yards easily enough but ranked 26th in scoring as opponents blanketed Gates in the red zone. This put too much pressure on a defense that struggled to generate sacks and turnovers. Nine of San Diego's 12 losses came by eight or fewer points, and fourth-year coach Mike McCoy nearly lost his job.
To survive, he fired offensive coordinator Frank Reich and hired his predecessor, Ken Whisenhunt, who was available after receiving a pink slip midway through his second year as Titans coach. Whisenhunt had helped the Chargers create their current system, using an aggressive play-calling style that doesn't really change with personnel, to turn them into a statistical juggernaut. Says Gates, "He makes puzzle pieces fit that other coaches don't think go together."
Off-season roster moves should help the cause. Free-agent center Matt Slauson (late of the Bears) upgrades the pass protection and run blocking. Their sixth-round pick, fullback Derek Watt, younger brother of J.J., was the lead blocker at Wisconsin for a back who came 41 yards short of the single-season FBS rushing record set by Barry Sanders. That back's name? Melvin Gordon, San Diego's 2015 first-round draft choice, who was supposed to carry the offense last year. Instead, he struggled and sat out two games with an injured left knee.
The Badgers' reunion both restores Gordon's confidence—"We're already back in our groove," says Watt—and returns the Chargers to their roots as a power running team (fullbacks have cleared the way for every 1,000-yard rusher since 2001) that can also sling it. Such balance figures to help a D that, notwithstanding the protracted holdout of Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, the No. 3 pick, is better for the additions of tackle Brandon Mebane (Seahawks) and safety Dwight Lowery—the Colts' free agent who has the unenviable task of replacing Eric Weddle, now with the Ravens. As much as Weddle's leadership and on-field acumen will be missed, young stars like end Corey Liguet and cornerback Jason Verrett have shown themselves capable.
So has Gates, the oldest Charger. If he stays fit and his teammates pull their weight? There's no reason San Diego can't turn back time.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
Last season Jason Verrett, San Diego's 2014 first-round pick, out of Texas Christian, proved himself to be the rare corner who can cover No. 1 receivers one-on-one. His body control and understanding of coverage angles were outstanding. The 5'10", 188-pound Verrett is also nimble enough to cover his man if he shifts into the slot, and that opens up another range of possibilities for the entire defense. Because San Diego's other corners—Casey Hayward, who was signed from Green Bay this off-season, and returning veteran Brandon Flowers—also have slot skills, the Bolts can now play a true man-to-man, with each corner matched to a specific receiver no matter where he lines up. Defensive coordinator John Pagano prefers a scheme built on deception and aggression. Expect to see much of that with this trio, led by its top-shelf star.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 10--6
2015 Record: 4--12
SEPT. 11 atKC
SEPT. 18 vs.JAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 atIND [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 vs.NO [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atOAK
OCT. 13 vs.DEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atATL
OCT. 30 atDEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 vs.TEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atHOU
DEC. 4 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atCAR
DEC. 18 vs.OAK
DEC. 24 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 vs.KC [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER