Player Points - Philip Rivers
By Chase Stuart
July 15th, 2010

Over the last three seasons, the average NFL team ran exactly 1,000 plays. But over that span, the Chargers have run just 2,876 plays, fourth fewest in the NFL. San Diego is joined in the bottom five by Cleveland, Oakland, San Francisco and Buffalo, four of the worst offenses over that period. This despite the fact that the Chargers are one of just four teams to score 1300+ points over the last three seasons, and New England (3,229), New Orleans (3,139) and Green Bay (3,039) have run significantly more plays than San Diego. The Rams have scored the fewest points in the NFL since 2007, and they've run 3,006 plays. The Chiefs, Redskins and Lions are near the bottom in points scored but have run over 2900 plays. So what gives? Why isn't San Diego running more plays considering how prolific their offense has been?

It's an important question to figure out, because Philip Rivers has led the league in yards per attempt the last two seasons. If San Diego runs another 45 plays in 2010, and 25 of them are passes, that could equal another 200 yards and 2 touchdowns for Rivers. If the Chargers have run fewer plays than average because of bad luck or random events unlikely to repeat themselves, you'll want to take that into consideration when evaluating Rivers. (Or if they've run fewer plays because an aging Tomlinson couldn't extend drives by converting first downs but a young Mathews can, that's just as important to know.)

So have they? It's not hard to come up with reasons why San Diego hasn't run many plays. Rivers has completed a lot of long passes, which leads to drives that gain yards but don't take up many plays. He's super accurate, which leads to completions and not clock-stopping passes. And the Chargers run defense has been declining, which means teams have been able to control their time of possession by running the ball and limit the number of plays for the San Diego offense.

Many of those arguments would apply to the Colts, but they've run 2,969 plays the past three seasons, and 980 last year. All of those arguments would work for the 2009 Texans, but they ran 1,043 plays last season. The 2008 Saints would be a good match, but they ran 1,047 plays. I don't think the accurate quarterback/big-play passing game/bad run defense formula has to result in a low number of plays.

What about the coach? Is there something about Norv Turner that prevents a team from running the usual 1000 plays? In 2006, the year before Turner became head coach, San Diego ran just north of 1,000 plays. And Turner's teams in Oakland didn't run many plays, but that may have been because those teams had ineffective offenses. His last year in Washington, the Redskins ran over 1,000 plays, but that was ten years ago.

Perhaps it would help to do a game-by-game breakdown of the Chargers' 09 season:

Week
Opp
W/L
Pts
Pts All
Plays
Y/A
YPC
YPC All
4
PIT
L
28
38
47
7.1
12.1
4.9
8
NYG
W
21
20
53
5.8
8.7
4.0
9
PHI
W
31
23
55
9.2
11.6
2.2
7
OAK
W
24
16
56
10.0
15.6
3.7
5
DEN
L
23
34
59
8.3
13.7
3.1
12
CLE
W
30
23
59
15.2
20.7
5.2
14
CIN
W
27
24
60
8.1
12.8
5.4
17
NYJ
L
14
17
60
7.5
11.0
4.3
1
ROAK
W
24
20
62
7.0
10.5
4.6
3
MIA
W
23
13
63
9.2
16.8
4.8
11
KAN
W
43
14
63
11.4
15.1
5.0
16
WAS
W
23
20
63
7.0
11.3
3.0
13
DAL
W
20
17
64
8.5
13.0
4.0
10
DEN
W
32
3
65
6.6
8.5
6.8
6
KAN
W
37
7
66
8.9
14.9
4.0
2
BAL
L
26
31
68
9.7
17.4
4.1
15
TEN
W
42
17
69
9.4
12.6
6.7

The Steelers game stands out as the big outlier, and the Chargers' run defense was shredded in that game. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 28-0 lead and dominated time of possession, while the San Diego offense lost a possession when Jacob Hester scored a touchdown on special teams. But in sub-60 play games against the Giants, Eagles, Raiders and Broncos, the San Diego run defense performed admirably. In the Giants game, Rivers wasn't completing many big plays, either. But the Chargers lost two of their 11 possessions when Rivers threw an INT on the first play of one drive and when the Giants punted with just 0:12 remaining in the first half. The Chargers running game was totally shut down, making it difficult to extend drives.

In some games where the run defense was shredded, the Chargers ran a bunch of plays. In games where Rivers had huge yards per completion and yards per attempt average, the Chargers ran 56 plays or 69 plays. The number of plays a teams run in any game is dependent on a lot of situational factors, and I think those are difficult to predict. The short answer? I think the Chargers have been "unlucky" the past few seasons, and should probably be expected to run about 1,000 plays next season. As of mid-July, it's unclear how many games, if any, Vincent Jackson will play for the Chargers this season. Rivers has an ADP of QB7, which matches his season-ending rank from 2009. But with his high per-play numbers the past two seasons, I think Rivers' ceiling is a bit higher than most fantasy players realize.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to stuart@footballguys.com.

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