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Coaching Carousel 2016: San Diego Chargers Offense

A detailed look at the impact of Frank Reich's departure and the hiring of Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. 

Hoping Lightning Strikes Twice

Things haven't gone according to plan under head coach Mike McCoy. When the Chargers fired Norv Turner, they believed McCoy would maintain the offense and build off what Turner had already implemented. Yet, three seasons into McCoy's tenure paints a much bleaker picture:

  • 2013 -- 396 points (12th in NFL)
  • 2014 -- 348 points (17th)
  • 2015 -- 320 points (26th)

That's a disturbing trend, particularly when you juxtapose the regression against the consistency under Norv Turner's watch:

  • 2007 -- 412 points (5th in NFL)
  • 2008 -- 439 points (2nd)
  • 2009 -- 454 points (4th)
  • 2010 -- 441 points (2nd)
  • 2011 -- 406 points (5th)
  • 2012 -- 350 points (20th)

Turner fielded five consecutive Top 5 offenses before being fired for a 20th ranked season. Meanwhile, McCoy's teams have scored LESS than Turner's worst season in each of the last two seasons.

It's understandable why McCoy jettisoned OC Frank Reich, but he surprised some by bringing back Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt was McCoy's offensive coordinator in 2013 before leaving for the Titans head coaching job. He now returns with dual goals: A) Reestablishing his reputation as a top-tier play caller and B) Saving McCoy's job by returning the Chargers to offensive respectability.

Schematically, Nothing Changes

Norv Turner, Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt are all disciples of the Ron Erhardt-Ray Perkins coaching tree, and Whisenhunt is merely returning to the offense he set up three years ago. The playbook, formations and terminology all remain the same. The only different will be Whisenhunt calling plays instead of Frank Reich. Reich was the Chargers quarterbacks coach in 2013 and tried to emulate his mentor. Needless to say, he wasn't up to the task.

A Re-Emphasis on the Ground Game

In 2013, the Chargers were 6th in rushing attempts and 22nd in passing attempts. The running game wasn't great on a per-carry basis (21st in yards per rush, 25th in rushing TDs) BUT Whisenhunt believed that a balanced offense was critical to allowing the play-action passing game to work optimally. One might say his game plan worked since the Chargers finished 4th in passing yards and 5th in passing TDs that season in spite of throwing the ball 544 times (22nd, as we stated previously). In the last two seasons under Frank Reich, the Chargers ground attack was woeful:

  • 2014 -- 398 rushing attempts (23rd), 1,367 yards (30th), 6 rushing TDs (29th) and 3.4 yards per attempt (31st)
  • 2015 -- 393 rushing attempts (22nd), 1,358 yards (31st), 4 rushing TDs (32nd) and 3.5 yards per attempt (32nd)
Whisenhunt has made it clear the ground game is his top priority:
 
"The first thing I will say is there were a lot of good things that were done last year offensively," [Whisenhunt] said, via the team's official website. "But the one thing that stands out is we need to run the football better than we did last year. There is no blame associated there, as there are always factors that are involved. But that is probably the biggest thing we have to do, because then your play action builds off of that, your time of possession increases where you can control the ball and you are in better third down situations. All of those things tie in together. Now, it's hard to say you can improve on all of those things significantly in the offseason because there are no pads, but I think you can lay the groundwork for what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. That will carry over into training camp."
Of course, the Chargers thought they had taken an important step toward fixing that ground game last spring when they selected Melvin Gordon in the 1st round. Gordon was an outright bust unfortunately and has a lot to prove entering his second year. Whisenhunt -- ever the optimist -- is saying all the right things:
 
"Obviously one thing that jumps into everybody's mind are his fumbles, but if you think back to Tiki Barber and what a great player he was, well he struggled with fumbles early on, too. So let's not panic about that," Whisenhunt said. "Yes, it is something we've got to work on, but Melvin is a talented guy. The important thing for us is what does he do well from a run game perspective? Is it a power/counter scheme, or is it a zone scheme? What are his strengths, and how do they fit with us? How can we put him in those situations? I think it is important he gets reps, and comfortable with the courses he is taking. Last year, he didn't get a chance to be exposed to that, so it will be easier for him with us having him for the whole offseason. He is also a good receiver, and catches the ball well out of the backfield. I'm excited about what he is going to be, and I am looking forward to that."

John Davidson an underappreciated hire

The Chargers hired Offensive Line Coach John Davidson away from the Minnesota Vikings, and his appointment will play a big role in whether Whisenhunt can fix the offense. Davidson worked wonders in Minnesota for five seasons; routinely getting better play from the collective than the talent of the individual players warranted. In his five seasons coaching in Minnesota, the Vikings ranked 1st in yards per rush, second in rushing yards and third in rushing touchdowns. Of course, a lot of that had to do with Adrian Peterson.
 
Matt Bitonti ranks the Chargers line 20th overall but gives them a B+ for run blocking:
 

SAN DIEGO

  • Preseason rank: 20th. Difference from the end of last season: +1.
  • Run Blocking: B+. Pass Blocking: C. Total: C+.
  • Projected Starters: LT King Dunlap, LG Orlando Franklin, C Matt Slauson, RG D.J. Fluker, RT Joe Barksdale.
  • Key Backups: Chris Hairston, Trevor Robinson, Max Tuerk, Tyreek Burrell, Kenny Wiggins, Chris Watt.

Last year this unit was decimated by injuries. But they all should be healthy this season, and even added some help via trade. The Chargers’ improved their line this offseason with a trade for Bears’ center Matt Slauson. Slauson was considered a glue guy for Chicago and should at least be solid at the position for San Diego.  The left side of tackle King Dunlap and guard Orlando Franklin have bulk and should be effective opening holes in the running attack. Right guard D.J. Fluker and right tackle Joe Barksdale are also maulers in the running game and the team clearly wants to emphasize that aspect of the offense. When looking at the Chargers’ offensive line as a group, it is notable how all of their starters excel at run blocking. The flip side to these players is that few if any can be considered above average pass protectors. The team drafted Max Tuerk to develop at center behind Slauson and they usually find a way to get Chris Hairston and Kenny Wiggins into the lineup. Overall this is a clearly run-happy group who could have shortcomings protecting the quarterback.  

Summary: Sometimes Small Changes Can Yield Big Results

Opinions are divided about Ken Whisenhunt, particularly after the way his tenure in Tennessee ended. History tells us he's a good play-caller though and that is exactly what the Chargers need. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are three years older than the last time Whisenhunt was calling plays for them, but they both remain effective (particularly Rivers). The real question is whether the offensive line improvements (coaching and personnel) and Whisenhunt's focus can fix a substandard rushing offense. Barring major injuries, it's hard to imagine the Chargers won't be better in 2016 -- but don't expect this team to evolve into a Top 10 offense; at least while Mike McCoy remains in charge.