As the Chargers get to press pause nine weeks into the season, the coaches remain in the organization’s Costa Mesa offices. The pace of the NFL season doesn’t allow for a lot of reflection. Time spent looking back, thinking about what just happened, is time not spent thinking about the next challenge, the next game.
The bye week allows for a break — a respite from game-planning. It gives coach Anthony Lynn, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley a chance to figure what’s really going on with the team.
While the coaches will be asking all kinds of questions, we’ll focus on the three most important, beginning with those on the offense.
The Chargers spent considerable resources — draft picks and a truckload of money — to upgrade the offensive line and, for the most part, that group has played well despite some key injuries. Left tackle Russell Okung is a leader in the locker room, in the community and on the field. Center Spencer Pulley, despite some mistakes, has settled into the starting position and guard Kenny Wiggins has impressed coaches with his play.
That’s been a bit of a surprise; Keenan Allen has not. The Chargers’ No. 1 receiver has rebounded well from a knee injury that cost him almost all of last season, and while things such as his drops (seven) are too high, he’s been available and productive.
“We lost Keenan the first game of last year,” Whisenhunt said, “and you know he really makes a difference for some of the things that he does.”
Melvin Gordon, while a little inconsistent, has generally done a good job and finds himself in the top 10 in the NFL in yards from scrimmage. Gordon’s been banged up and still managed to be productive, a positive sign for the offense.
Tight end Hunter Henry has continued to grow in his second season, and he looks as if he could be one of the best in the league at his position.
Directing it all, quarterback Philip Rivers has been very solid, adjusting to a more conservative style over the last month, a stretch where the team went 3-1.
“Philip is, to me, the ultimate team player,” Whisenhunt said. “He wants to do it the way the coach wants it done, whoever the coach is. In this case, coach Lynn, what his philosophy is, he wants to do it the way that coach Lynn wants it done to give us success, and he's working hard at that. It's not always the case with some veteran quarterbacks in this league, but I think it speaks a lot about Philip's character, and certainly his leadership and character.”
The Chargers haven’t done a good job properly balancing their offense in terms of a consistent style. Some weeks they’ve leaned on the run. Some weeks they’ve tried to pass. Never have they really forced their style onto an opponent.
“I think we had certainly a way of operating that was a little bit different from the way coach Lynn has wanted it — that’s OK,” Whisenhunt said Monday. “I mean, you know, he has a vision and I certainly respect his vision and we’re trying to do that. We’re trying to get to that point.”
While time could help the Chargers, it feels as if eight games and an entire offseason is enough time to meld offensive philosophies.
It could be why the team is scratching its head when it comes to the struggles, from converting third downs to just finding ways to put points on the board.
“I’m a matchup guy,” Lynn said. “I believe we need to get the ball into the hands of our playmakers and look into different ways to do that. Getting the right personnel groups on the field to score points. And, maybe it’s taking more opportunities down the field off of run action. We’re looking at all of that right now.”
The Chargers’ special teams hasn’t helped much either. They’ve changed kickers, and their return games have been wildly inconsistent.
Travis Benjamin did return a punt for a touchdown in Week 7, but he made a game-changing error in Week 8. The team is auditioning kick returners, and it doesn’t seem as if there are answers in house.
If there’s hope that the offense will figure things out, it could come from the first-round pick, Mike Williams, who should take on a bigger role each week.
The current mix of playmakers isn’t working, and if the Chargers are serious about getting the ball down the field more often, a big, physical guy such as Williams could be a key. Remember, he’s exactly the kind of receiver Rivers has traditionally had success with (think Vincent Jackson).
“He is growing and getting better. The biggest thing for him now, one of the things I've been the most impressed with is if you've watched, he’s played a number of different positions,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s not just line up [on the weakside]. He was in the slot a couple of times in the game. He was the single receiver side once or twice. He was [in another position] a couple of times. That's not easy.
“…There's no substitute for getting that experience, and he's getting better. He'll get more opportunities as we go forward just because he's got that ability to make some plays.”