NFL Offseason Review: Los Angeles Chargers
The 2016/17 NFL season is dead and gone, and fan bases around the league have now been undergoing a mourning process for several months. However, depending on the situation that their team ended up in at the end of the season, and the general state of their franchise, different fan bases can react in different ways to the news that their season is over.
For certain franchises, the general feeling surrounding the team is one of patient anticipation, and so 2016/17 looked very much like a stepping stone toward higher things.
Take for instance the Tennessee Titans or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who know that their progress as a team rests largely on the continued development of their young franchise quarterback. The same is true for the Minnesota Vikings, though they have the added misfortune that they must first wait for that quarterback to return from injury.
For other franchises, however, (like the New Orleans Saints or the Pittsburgh Steelers), instead of patiently waiting for a rising superstar quarterback to elevate a mediocre team into a great one, the fan base very impatiently expects its team to compete for a championship before the superstar quarterback they already have on the roster runs out of gas and fails to be able to compete at a high level.
The Chargers are one team that exemplify the latter category to a tee.
The Chargers have had one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league start every single game that the team has played in for over a decade now. Yet during this stretch, the team has only made the playoffs 5 out of 11 opportunities and has only advanced as far as the AFC Championship Game one time.
With Philip Rivers now aged 35, it’s no secret that Chargers fans wonder how long he will be able to keep playing at a high level before the franchise must begin a new era.
While 2016/17 may not have been the year in which the Chargers finally put it together with Rivers at the helm, the rest of the league would do well to sit up and take note of the goings-on in Los Angeles.
With a quarterback as talented as Rivers on the roster, a team is never far away from bursting onto the scene and being competitive in the playoffs. Despite their misfortune in 2016/17, it behooves the rest of the league to keep up with the affairs of the Chargers, lest they be blindsided in the playoffs.
In this edition, we head down to the southwest tip of the continental United States, to Southern California, and take on the newly-minted Los Angeles Chargers.
Last Season: In Review
Before we review the season that the Chargers had last season – the franchise’s last season in the city of San Diego for the foreseeable future – it’s first important to review the history of the franchise itself, in order to provide some context on why last season was meaningful for the fans.
It’s a little known fact that the Chargers actually started in Los Angeles; in this way, rather than leaving San Diego, one could say that the Chargers are in fact coming back home to L.A.
However, any long-term Chargers fan would dispute this claim, based on the fact that the team only spent a single season in Los Angeles before moving to San Diego, where it subsequently played for over half of a century.
The team came into existence in 1960 as one of the original founding franchises of the American Football League. One of the reasons why the AFL came into existence in the first place was that intrepid sports franchise owners were hoping to start expansion franchises in markets located in the western and southern United States, as most of the teams in the NFL at that time were located in the Northeast and Midwest.
Despite having the opportunity for a viable franchise in Los Angeles, however, the NFL was initially reluctant to bring on expansion teams, and so the Chargers began play in L.A. as part of the AFL.
The Chargers were very competitive in their first few years of existence. Under legendary head coach Sid Gillman, the Chargers competed in the first AFL championship while still located in L.A., and subsequently competed in the AFL championship four out of their first five seasons in San Diego. Though the team would only win one of these five AFL Championship appearances, professional football in Southern California was put on the map early and emphatically.
In the second half of the 1960s and through the first decade of the NFL post AFL-NFL merger, the Chargers withered away into no man’s land, missing the playoffs in each of the next 13 seasons despite going roughly .500 in a half-dozen of those seasons.
The Chargers did have a stretch of four consecutive playoff seasons under Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, even going so far as to make the Conference Championship in back-to-back seasons. However, this brief stretch of success was once again followed by a decade in which the team did not make the playoffs.
Subsequently, in 1994, the Chargers made a highly improbable Super Bowl run after going eight and eight the season before under head coach Bobby Ross and quarterback Stan Humphries. Unfortunately, the Cinderella team for the Chargers was defeated by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers, and the Chargers once again fell into a period of mediocrity for nearly another decade.
This brief summary of the periods of postseason success for the team brings us to the modern era of Chargers football, indicating both how little success the team has had over their 50+ year history, and also how long they have been in the current quarterback situation that they find themselves in today.
The first major event was the drafting of quarterback Drew Brees in 2001. Subsequently, after the team won an average of less than six games over the next three seasons, the Chargers went back to the well for another quarterback, drafting Ole Miss product Eli Manning with the first pick overall.
In a draft that was historic in the quality of quarterbacks selected, Manning was subsequently traded to the New York Giants for their #4 overall pick, Philip Rivers. A scant seven picks later, the Pittsburgh Steelers took Ben Roethlisberger with the #11 pick overall.
After two more seasons with Drew Brees at the helm and the young Philip Rivers learning the ropes in the process, San Diego felt confident enough in their young backup to play hardball with Brees, who was expecting to be paid among the top five quarterbacks in the league.
When the Chargers failed to offer him this type of contract, Brees walked, signing with the New Orleans Saints. Since then, both Brees and Rivers (as well as Roethlisberger and Manning) have maintained the starting job for their respective franchises for the subsequent 11 seasons, another indication of just how truly special the 2004 NFL Draft class was.
In 2013, after three consecutive seasons in which the team failed to make the playoffs, head coach Norv Turner was fired and replaced with Mike McCoy, who was then the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. After making the postseason in McCoy’s first season as head coach, the Chargers subsequently missed the playoffs each of the next two seasons, and even fell so low as to win only four games in 2015/16.
In this context, in the fourth season under the leadership of head coach Mike McCoy, the fan base was feeling increasingly desperate and anxious to make it back to the playoffs before the clock ran out on the Philip Rivers era in San Diego (or before the clock ran out on the Chargers’ tenure in San Diego)!
It was in this spirit of anxious anticipation that the Chargers embarked on their 2016/17 campaign.
The Chargers started out the season on the road against their division rival the Kansas City Chiefs. In a thrilling overtime game, the Chargers ended up losing the game by 6 points despite leading by 18 at halftime. San Diego’s defense allowed the Chiefs 24 unanswered points to force overtime, which the Chiefs won on a 2-yard touchdown run from Alex Smith.
Looking to bounce back in their home opener in Week 2, the Chargers had the misfortune of seeing a second starter placed on injured reserve: after wide receiver Keenan Allen suffered a torn ACL in the first game against the Chiefs, running back Danny Woodhead also suffered a torn ACL the subsequent week, ending his season. After holding the Jaguars scoreless for three quarters and going up 35-0, the Chargers finished off their dominant performance winning 38-14 to go 1-1 on the young season.
Subsequently, the Chargers would endure another 4th quarter comeback from the Indianapolis Colts to lose their Week 3 game on the road, after a late 63-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton. Unfortunately, this loss to the Colts would kick off a three-game losing streak, as the following week at home against the New Orleans Saints the Chargers gave up yet another 14 point 4th-quarter comeback to the quarterback they had drafted in 2001.
The ensuing week, on the road against their division rival the Oakland Raiders, San Diego fell once again despite getting a 359-yard, 4-touchdown performance from Philip Rivers (on only 30 passing attempts). The team ultimately lost by a score of 34-31 to their surging division rival.
It’s worth pointing out at this point in the season that the Chargers had enjoyed two of the least probable and most heartbreaking comeback losses in recent memory, events that can do serious harm to a team’s mindset and ability to maintain mental toughness over the course of a long season.
Through five games, the Chargers had twice allowed the opposing team to come back and win the game despite leading by 13 or more points in the 4th quarter. Up to that point, the rest of the teams in the league – when faced with the same situation – had won the game 30 times out of 30.
In a pattern that would foreshadow the eventual Super Bowl comeback of the New England Patriots, the Chargers had a 99.9% chance to win the game in both Week 1 and in Week 4, yet ended up losing both times. Considering the fact that a 99.9% probability means that the opposite outcome would only occur one time in a thousand opportunities, for this exact outcome to happen twice in four opportunities makes it all the more incredible.
By the same logic, it should be noted that their comeback loss to the Colts also featured an 84.7% win percentage at one point in the game, and their loss to the Raiders featured a 77.9% chance to win. Despite the fact that these numbers aren’t quite as dramatic as those for the Chiefs and the Saints, it’s important to note that put together, according to statisticians at the Wall Street Journal, losing each of these games could only happen once in thirty million scenarios.
The important things to note about these statistical abnormalities is quite simply the fact that at this point in the year Chargers fans and players were undoubtedly feeling a little beleaguered as they started the second third of their season. But adversity can either make a team or break a team, and San Diego still had the opportunity to decide for itself which of these outcomes would occur.
Fresh off their three-game losing streak, the Chargers had to turn around on a short week and play their division rival and incumbent Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football. In Color Rush uniforms reminiscent of the bright jerseys of the late 1970s, the Chargers beat their rival for the first time in 5 consecutive matchups despite the fact that Philip Rivers only managed 178 yards through the air on 29 attempts. In a low-scoring, defensive affair, the Chargers won by a score of 21-13.
The following week, on the road against the eventual Super Bowl runner-up, the Atlanta Falcons, the Chargers built momentum with a thrilling overtime victory, coming back with 10 points in the final six minutes of regulation to push the game to overtime, and then winning the game in overtime on a 42-yard Josh Lambo field goal.
When the Chargers went on the road the following week to play the Denver Broncos for the second time in three weeks, the outcome was different, as the Broncos were the ones with a late 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter to win the game 27-19.
With two games left ‘til the bye week, the Chargers then began a stretch of two consecutive home games for the first and only time in the season, first beating the Tennessee Titans by a score of 43-35, and then losing to the Miami Dolphins 24-31. The major storyline in these two games was turnovers, with the win featuring a +3 turnover ratio, and the loss featuring a -3 turnover ratio.
Subsequently, after their bye week, the Chargers went on the road in Week 12 against the Houston Texans, struggling to find some consistency. The team would once again post a +3 turnover ratio and beat the Texans 21 to 13, with Brock Osweiler helping out San Diego by throwing three interceptions over the course of the game.
With the win over the Texans being their 5th of the season, the Chargers had already surpassed their win total from the prior year; the fact that the win had come on the road meant that the team doubled its road win total from 2015/16. However, the Chargers did feel that they had a good bit of momentum, and held out hope that they would be able to make a run at the postseason.
With a chance to get back to .500 at home the following week against the Buccaneers, even in a division as tough as the AFC West, the Chargers still had the potential to take a shot at a Wild Card spot if they could win out, especially if they would be able to win their two remaining divisional games against the putative AFC West playoff teams the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs.
While San Diego didn’t completely control its own destiny any longer, the team knew that if they won out and made a run, then they could potentially see some magic happen.
Unfortunately for the fans, just at the point when the Chargers needed to make a run in order to make the playoffs, the team instead embarked on a five-game losing streak.
Most notable about the stretch of games that closed out the season was the maintenance of the trend in which the team turned the ball over on offense far too often than is feasible for success, while at the same time seeing a precipitous drop off in production by the offense.
In a season that had featured only one game out of eleven in which the offense dipped below 21 points, after losing their Week 13 matchup at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-28, the Chargers subsequently scored 16, 16, and 17 points against the Panthers, Raiders, and Browns, respectively, with only the Raiders game coming in front of the home crowd in San Diego.
Naturally, given the fact that the Browns won only one game throughout the course of the season, the fact that this win came against the Chargers was certainly an embarrassment for the fan base. Nonetheless, when a team ends up in with a negative turnover ratio and allows 124 yards of rushing offense, the simple fact is, that team is likely to lose no matter who they are playing against.
Subsequently, on New Year’s day, the Chargers played their last home game in San Diego against their division rival the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite putting up just shy of 400 yards of total offense, the team lost 27-37, finishing off their five-game losing streak and ending the season at a record of 5-11.
However, it’s very important to put this ignominious end to the Chargers’ season in the context of the incredible flood of injuries that hit the team over the course of the 2016/17 season.
While injuries strike every single team, and while of course the injury rate for any individual player over the course of their playing career is 100%, there is nonetheless an argument to be made that the Chargers were among the teams most affected by injury throughout the season. There are a couple of different ways to measure this.
First of all, the Chargers ended up with more players having season-ending injuries than any other team in the league. By the end of the season, the team had more than 17 players on injured reserve, a number that taxes the performance of a team’s medical staff off the field, much less the performance of a team’s playing units on the field.
In addition, the Chargers also had the most individual games lost to injury in the league, with 227. For reference, this adds up to roughly the equivalent of all 11 starters on offense and all 11 starters on defense missing 10 consecutive games.
Of course, if games lost to injury are not lost by starters, those injuries are less significant. But in the case of the Chargers, a total of 86 games were lost between three of their top four cornerbacks, three of their top four receiving targets, three of their top offensive tackles, most of the inside linebacking corps, and the player who led the team in yards from scrimmages last year (Danny Woodhead).
In this way, despite the fact that the Chargers endured a very disappointing season, punctuated by a five-game losing streak that was very difficult to stomach for the fan base, it should be remembered that the Chargers dealt with huge injuries over the course of the season, that ultimately provided a ceiling beyond which the team could not progress.
Some seasons are just cursed, and fans of the Chargers have to believe that this was simply their lot in 2016/17.
San Diego’s Strengths and Weaknesses
When we looked back at the trends for the 2016/17 Chargers, we noted that throughout much of the season the offense generated a healthy amount of points despite the fact that they turned the ball over too much. We also suffered a rash of injuries that affected the team throughout the year.
But it’s important for us to take a deeper view of the performance of the team throughout the season in order to establish the strengths and weaknesses that the team must address this offseason.
While Chargers fans might come back and say that due to the amount of injuries that had mounted last year, any evaluation of the team’s performance is really more of an evaluation of their backups then starters, it’s nonetheless important to find where the team has depth, and where they must improve.
With an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses that the Chargers demonstrated last season, we can then move forward to evaluate the offseason roster moves that the team has made thus far, and use this information to inform our prediction for whether or not the Chargers are poised to take a step forward or to take a step back in 2017/18.
The Chargers were ranked 9th in the league in scoring last year, managing 410 points over the course of the season (25.6 per game). The team’s production in terms of yardage ended up closer to the middle of the league, with their 5708 yards on the season (356.8 per game) earning them the #14 ranking.
When a team scores more points than it generates yards on offense, proportionally, generally this is an indication that the defense was proficient at generating turnovers, either giving the offense the ball on a short field or scoring points on their own.
In the case of the Chargers, we see that this was indeed the case, with the team’s 28 turnovers on defense earning them the #4 ranking in the league (including the most interceptions in the league with 18). However, it must be noted that the offense was even more prolific at turning the ball over, with the team’s 35 turnovers (including 21 interceptions) giving San Diego the league lead in giveaways.
The Chargers got considerably more production out of their passing game than their running game last season, no surprise given the loss of Danny Woodhead in Week 2. The team was ranked 8th in the league in passing yards and 4th in the league in passing touchdowns, while simultaneously being ranked 26th in the league in rushing yards and 22nd in rushing touchdowns.
Given the fact that the Chargers had a comparable ranking in terms of attempts for both the run and pass game, this yielded a great disparity in offensive efficiency, with the team ending up ranked 7th in the league in net yards per pass attempt and 26th in the league in average amount of yards per rushing attempt.
Despite the fact that the Chargers had a large number of turnovers on the season, in our estimation this was not because of any sort of decline from franchise quarterback Philip Rivers, who managed to put together a strong campaign despite having great difficulties. For example, only three quarterbacks in the league last year faced pressure on a higher percentage of snaps: In over four out of every 10 dropbacks, Rivers had defenders pressuring him.
Rivers was also helped out little by his receiving corps, which was struck by injuries throughout the season and particularly hurt by the loss of Keenan Allen in Week 1 to a torn ACL. Despite getting adequate production from Tyrell Williams, Hunter Henry, and the ageless wonder Antonio Gates, the Chargers ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of receiving corps last year.
A similar story played out in the running back group last season for the Chargers, as the loss of Danny Woodhead to a torn ACL in Week 2 (who had led the team in yards from scrimmage the year before) put a low ceiling on what the group could accomplish over the course of the year. Sophomore first-round draft pick Melvin Gordon performed above-average in his role as an every-down back, and carried the unit, but the team simply missed the production and versatility of the 32 year-old veteran Woodhead.
But beyond any of the difficulties, injury-related or otherwise, in the skill positions for the Chargers last season, their struggles began and ended in the trenches, as the team had one of the very worst offensive lines in the entire league last year.
Outside of Center Matt Slauson, who was merely average, the Chargers’ offensive line was truly terrible in both pass protection and run blocking. The unit’s 238 quarterback pressures given up on the season earned them the second-worst ranking in the league, and they were able to generate an average per carry of only 1.5 yards of space for Melvin Gordon before he was contacted by a defender.
In short, it is truly a wonder that the Chargers managed to finish in the top 10 for scoring last season despite having so many injuries and such terrible play on the offensive line.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers allowed an astonishing 423 points over the course of the season (26.4 per game), the 4th most in the entire league. Even more incredible, the team managed to give up this many points despite being exactly in the middle of the pack in terms of yards, with their 5554 yards on the season (347.1 per game) earning them the #16 ranking.
When a team gives up more points than it does yards, proportionally, generally this is because the team’s offense turns the ball over enough that it puts the defense in the difficult position of having to defend the short field, a situation in which the opposing defense is able to move the ball only a short distance (generating few yards) and yet still score points.
In the parallel story to what we saw on the offense for the Chargers, this was exactly what happened in 2016/17, as the offense turned the ball over more than any other team in the league, putting the Chargers’ defense in a tough spot.
The team was more efficient at defending the run then it was at defending the pass: The Chargers were ranked #10 in rushing yards allowed and #20 in passing yards allowed. However, the opposite was true in terms of scoring: The Chargers were ranked #8 in passing touchdowns allowed and #30 in rushing touchdowns allowed. Nonetheless, in terms of yardage, the team was ranked 7th in average amount of yards given up per running play and 19th in net yards allowed per passing play.
One of the primary reasons why the Chargers were unable to improve their performance in the passing game was the performance of the defensive front seven in pass rush. Despite the fact that Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram finished ranked #5 and #6 among edge rushers, and combined for a total of 18.5 sacks, there was very little pass rush production to speak of outside of this dynamic duo.
Luckily, however, the secondary was able to pick up some slack, with free agent acquisitions Dwight Lowery and Casey Hayward adequately making up for the departure of Eric Weddle. Unfortunately, despite having Hayward lead the league in interceptions, and the team collectively rank #1 in picks, the secondary was unable to recover from injuries to their top corners Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett, and struggled in coverage throughout the season.
In summary, while injuries may have accounted for much of the difficulty in the secondary, it doesn’t explain why the pass rush for the Chargers was so weak outside of the dynamic duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
Next Season: A Preview
In summary, when we looked back specifically at the Chargers’ strength and weaknesses last season unit by unit, we found that injuries were primarily to blame for the struggles in the wide receiving corps and the defensive secondary. However, in terms of offensive line play and defensive pass rush, the team’s injuries did little more than to illustrate what were already problem areas that needed to be addressed.
This could well be why the Los Angeles Chargers’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, are among the lowest in the league despite the fact that the team features one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game.
Specifically, the New England Patriots are receiving the best odds currently at +400. Subsequently, the field levels out at +1000 with perennial offseason favorites such as the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks. The farthest fringe of playoff contention is established at +6600, with teams such as the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions.
In this context, the Los Angeles Chargers sit just beyond the contending teams at +7500, but in front of the seven teams getting worse odds starting with the Bills, Jaguars and Bears at +10000.
But, despite the fact that this is how the odds-makers at Bovada are incentivizing gamblers to bet on the Los Angeles Chargers to win it all next season, we’re not so sure that fans and gamblers shouldn’t be more optimistic about what we can expect to see out of the Chargers next season.
Let’s take a look at the offseason roster moves made thus far by the team as well as the upcoming moves we can expect to see through the rest of free agency and into the 2017 NFL Draft, in order to determine whether or not we expect the Chargers to improve based solely on roster movement.
Subsequently, using a combination of advanced statistics and scheduling factors, we’ll make our final prediction for how far the Chargers will climb in their first season in L.A.
Before we dive into the offseason roster moves made thus far by the Los Angeles Chargers, it’s important for us first to take a step back and look at the composition of the Chargers’ front office.
For a team starting its first season in a new city, it’s especially imperative for us to get a feel for all of the changes that the organization is undergoing, in order to give us some ability to predict what we might see out of the team next year.
The Chargers are in the unique position of having had an all-star franchise quarterback on the roster for over a decade, around whom they have continually tried to assemble a winning organization, including fellow players, coaches, and managers.
More often, it is the case that NFL teams often struggle to find all-star players despite feeling that they have adequate coaching and management, and most often a franchise will flounder in search of both, as competent managers and coaches are necessary to acquire and develop the players that can compete for championships on the field.
But even for a team that has an all-star quarterback on the roster, the Chargers have nonetheless found themselves beleaguered in the 21st century. After the legendary Marty Schottenheimer led the team as head coach throughout the quarterback transitions of the early 2000, including the drafting of Drew Brees, the drafting of Eli Manning, and the subsequent trade of Manning for Philip Rivers, Schottenheimer was fired and Norv Turner was brought in.
However, little did the Chargers know that they were trading the head coach (Schottenheimer) who had the distinction of the most wins of any head coach in the league that had never coached in a Super Bowl for another head coach (Turner) who would end up with the equally questionable distinction of having the most wins of any head coach in the league that still maintained a career losing record.
When Turner failed to bring the Chargers to the playoffs for three consecutive seasons after the team had made it in each of the first four seasons with Rivers as starting quarterback, the Chargers not only fired the head coach but also made a change at general manager, believing that the problems on the field were due primarily to the lack of competent player acquisition and coaching.
In place of Turner, the Chargers hired Mike McCoy, who at the time was the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and had never held a head coaching position. When he was hired, McCoy was the youngest head coach in the NFL. In place of general manager A.J. Smith, long-time Chargers president Dean Spanos hired Tom Telesco, who at the time was also among the youngest GMs in the league.
Concurrent with their move to Los Angeles, which was approved by the other NFL owners in January of 2017, the Chargers also announced that they once again made a change at head coach, firing Mike McCoy and hiring former offensive coordinator and interim head coach of the New York Jets Anthony Lynn.
Lynn, a former running back and long-time running backs coach for five different teams in the league, promises to return a ground-and-pound approach to the Chargers, and work to make them more physical up front.
In this context, with a new head coach and a new city, it’s very difficult to say just how well and how quickly the Chargers will be able to adjust to their new situation. Regardless of player acquisition or financial position, the team will undoubtedly have difficulties simply becoming acquainted with a new home and a new fan base.
At the start of the new league year, the Chargers had the 11th-smallest amount of available cap space in the league, with $23 million available for free agent acquisitions and re-signings. In addition, the team had 24 players set to become free agents at the beginning of the league year.
As of the time of this writing, the Chargers have made the following roster moves, in addition to the customary practice squad maintenance that all teams undergo soon after the season ends.
In the first category of moves made by the Chargers, the team re-signed several of its key players to new contracts, including the following: pass rusher Melvin Ingram, safety Jahleel Addae, offensive guard Kenny Wiggins, quarterback Kellen Clemens, defensive lineman Damion Square, defensive lineman Tenny Palepoi, running back Branden Oliver, long-snapper Mike Windt, and tight end Jeff Cumberland.
Secondly, the team saw several of its players leave in free agency, including wide receiver Jeremy Butler, who went to the Buffalo Bills; offensive guard D. J. Fluker, who went to the New York Giants; running back Danny Woodhead, who went to the Baltimore Ravens; and linebacker Manti Te’o, who went to the New Orleans Saints.
Finally, the Chargers brought in three players through free agency: kicker Phil Dawson, from the 49ers; halfback Kenjon Barner, from the Eagles; and offensive tackle Russell Okung, from the Denver Broncos.
After all of these moves have been made, the Chargers hover right around league average in terms of both number of players under contract as well as amount of remaining cap room, with roughly $13.5 million available as of the time of this writing.
Looking back at the roster moves made by the Los Angeles Chargers so far this offseason, it’s clear to see that the team did not intend to make any big splashes in free agency, as the only real big-name player signed was offensive tackle Russell Okung.
It’s entirely possible that the front office believes that the mountain of injuries the team sustained last season are the primary reason why they fell short of their goals, and that instead of trying to run around like a chicken with its head cut off to put out all of the little fires that started burning in the roster last season, management is instead simply opting to try and get healthier, and see what happens.
In some cases, after a team has been stricken by injuries particularly badly in one season, the following season can see a grand resurgence, as the young or new players that were brought in during the injury plague will have received an extra amount of experience that can serve them the following season. As a rule, position groups receiving a lot of injuries one season generally become deeper when the injured starters return the following season.
In addition, however, while the Chargers’ roster may not have changed very much so far this offseason, the team is also undergoing a huge amount of change in other areas, including moving to a new city and starting with a new head coach, as we previously mentioned.
In the context of these changes, it becomes more difficult to forecast exactly how well the team will perform next season. However, there are several key factors that we can use to make our prediction for how high the Chargers will be able to climb in 2017/18.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this, is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7-28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16-12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45-16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7-9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Chargers, the numbers are quite compelling: When we plug in the number of points the team scored last season and the number of points they allowed into the Pythagorean Expectation formula, we see that the Chargers should have won exactly 7.7 games last season (which we will round up to 8 games).
Given the fact that the team won only 5 games, in reality this means that in their last season in San Diego, the Chargers under-performed by a whopping 3 games, the second-most in the league.
When we look back at the actual games that the team played, it completely makes sense why this statistical pattern would have come about. As we mentioned above, statisticians with the Wall Street Journal calculated that the probability of the Chargers losing four out of the first five games of the season in the dramatic fashion in which they did was roughly 1 in 30,000,000.
This type of statistically anomalous performance is precisely the type of bad luck that is picked up by the Pythagorean Expectation formula, which serves to distribute a team’s points scored and points allowed more evenly over the course of the season and determine whether or not the team should have won fewer games than it did (indicating an over-performance) or, as in the case of the Chargers, should have won more games than it did (indicating an under-performance).
And it’s crucially important that we put this under-performance in the context of the second piece of information that clues us in to how well the Chargers will play next season, and that is the schedule that San Diego played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, assembled by the stat gurus at Football Outsiders and accounting for every single play of every game individually, the Chargers played the 15th-most difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, placing them right around the league average in terms of strength of schedule.
Given that the Chargers had a schedule of average difficulty last season, it stands to reason that if the team was blessed with a significantly easier schedule next season, they would potentially be poised to win more games.
Every year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is composed of the following games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Chargers, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Chiefs, the Raiders, and the Broncos
- 3 road games against the Chiefs, the Raiders, and the Broncos
- 4 games against the AFC East: the Bills (home), the Dolphins (home), the Jets (away), and the Patriots (away)
- 4 games against the NFC East: the Eagles (home), the Redskins (home), the Giants (away), and the Cowboys (away)
- 2 games against other 4th place finishers in the AFC: the Browns (home), and the Jaguars (away)
At first glance, this appears to be a very difficult schedule. Not only do the Chargers have six divisional games in the toughest division in football, but they also face off against the NFC East, which happened to be the second-toughest division in football last year. Both the AFC West and the NFC East were very close to sending three teams to the playoffs last season, and 9 of the Chargers’ 16 games will be played against those six teams (Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins).
In addition, the Chargers must face another division that sent two teams to the playoffs in the AFC East, which of course also happens to contain the incumbent Super Bowl champion. Road games in Foxboro, Dallas, and two games in MetLife Stadium all feature to be tough for the Chargers.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, the Los Angeles Chargers – one of the westernmost teams in the entire league – must also face off against both eastern divisions. With two road games in New Jersey, one in Florida, and one in Massachusetts, the Chargers’ players will have four tough road trips that cross not only the entire length of the country, but also four time zones, wreaking havoc on their circadian rhythms.
As any experienced gambler knows, the game following a four-time zone road trip is very often a stay away no matter who the opponent is, and the Chargers will be in this situation four times.
But even though this schedule appears to be very difficult, in order to determine how difficult this slate of opponents really is beyond merely the eye test, we can consider each team’s performance in 2016/17 in order to get a proxy of how well we think they will do in 2017/18, and how this aggregated performance compares to the opponents of other teams.
And indeed, when we tally up the number of games that the Chargers’ 2017/18 opponents won last season, and compare this aggregated win total against the comparable figure for the rest of the teams in the league, we find that the Chargers are the unlucky recipients of the 3rd most difficult schedule in the league next year. Los Angeles will play 10 opponents next year who had winning seasons last year, one of only two teams in the league who can say that.
So, in summary, with a good understanding of the offseason roster situation of the team, their Pythagorean Expectation, and their strength of schedule, we are now ready to make our prediction for what we expect to see out of the Los Angeles Chargers next season.
First, given the fact that the team should have won roughly 8 games last season, despite the fact that they were cursed with terrible luck and only won 5 games, we start them off at 8 games. Given the fact that their schedule becomes considerably more difficult, we dock them a game and start off at 7.
Beyond this, we are left to portend with the idea of roster improvement. While we do believe that the team will be healthier next season and that young players will take a step up, we also believe that with a new head coach and a new city, this improvement will be grossly overshadowed by the difficulties that the team will face in transition.
Ultimately, even though we do believe that there is still some gas left in the tank before Philip Rivers falls off the map, we’re not confident that the L.A. revival of the Chargers will start for another season.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Chargers:6-10.
Conclusion: The Story of the Chargers
The team we call the Chargers began with one season in Los Angeles in 1960, and to Los Angeles they will return in 2017 after 56 seasons played in San Diego. With the history of the franchise beginning with the interest to bring football to southern and western markets, it is only fitting that the team should remain in Southern California, even if it is difficult for San Diego fans to lose their team.
In total, though, despite the fact that it may be difficult to admit for long-time Chargers fans, the team enjoyed comparatively little success in San Diego after the NFL-AFL merger. Despite making the AFL championship 5 times in its first 6 seasons, the team has since only made it to one Super Bowl, which it lost, and three conference championships.
And this lack of postseason success has been especially piquant for the fans in the 21st century, during which the team has enjoyed 16 starts per year from an all-star quarterback for over a decade. Now on their third head coach and second GM with Philip Rivers under center, the fans wait with baited breath for the organization to finally put a championship-caliber team around Rivers.
Despite thinking that perhaps 2016/17 could be that year, the Chargers began the season with some of the most astronomically bad luck in recent NFL history, losing multiple games by fourth-quarter comeback in truly disheartening fashion. After a midseason surge, the team had a five-game losing streak to end the season in which it was so injury-stricken it could barely field a competitive team.
After being approved by the league to move to Los Angeles in January of 2017, the team announced the move in the same day as it announced the replacement of incumbent four-year head coach Mike McCoy for newcomer Anthony Lynn. Once again, the fans must endure another period in which a new organization tries to build a winning team around the franchise quarterback.
Ultimately, with the Chargers in a new city, with a new head coach and one of the most difficult schedules in the league next season, we don’t anticipate the team making it to the playoffs in their first season in L.A., even if they are able to stay healthier this season.