On the field, little has gone well for the Los Angeles Chargers in recent years. The team reached the playoffs just once over the last seven seasons, a period which saw two coaches fired and star quarterback Philip Rivers move on after setting nearly every meaningful franchise passing record. The last two years proved especially frustrating for the Chargers who lost 16 games by a single possession and posted a 12-20 record over that span. Waves of injuries didn’t help, with superstar safety Derwin James, do-everything running back Austin Ekeler, and the offensive line all suffering major blows that contributed to the poor output.
But despite the Chargers’ various shortcomings, they have genuine reason for optimism. Justin Herbert, the No. 6 overall pick from a year ago, almost immediately established himself as one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks. Herbert took over during the second week of the 2020 season and proceeded to deliver one of the finest statistical campaigns in team history, completing 396 of his 595 attempts for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns, and just 10 interceptions. The rookie also rushed for five scores.
Herbert’s rise could finally push the Chargers out of their malaise and into regular contention, but other obstacles remain. They play in the same division as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, and many of the key pieces outside of the quarterback have already celebrated their 30th birthday or will do so in the near future. Given how many health issues Los Angeles has faced in recent years, depending on aging players to stay on the field might well prove foolhardy.
7-9. 3rd in AFC West
Points: 26.6 points per game, rank 22nd (tied with 1 team)
Yards: 5.5 yards per play, rank 13th (tied with 2 teams)
Football Outsiders ranking: 20th
Points: 24 points per game, rank 20th (tied with 1 team)
Yards: 5.4 yards per play, rank 20th
Football Outsiders ranking: 15th
Super Bowl: +3300
AFC/NFC Champion: +1600
Win Total: 9 (Over -110, Under -110)
After back-to-back losing seasons, the Chargers moved on from head coach Anthony Lynn, hiring Brandon Staley as his replacement. Though Staley has coached almost exclusively on the defensive side of the ball, his background includes two years as the starting quarterback at Dayton. That combination of perspectives made him one of the most attractive coaches on the market and helped convince the Chargers he had the necessary skills and approach to develop their budding star under center.
On the field, the Chargers have invested more resources into their offensive line. Among the likely starters, only Bryan Bulaga returns from last season. The rest of the unit features two proven veterans (Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler), a first-round rookie (Rashawn Slater), and a late bloomer (Oday Aboushi). Even if the unit doesn’t reach its potential in 2021, it almost can’t perform as poorly as it did last season.
The defense also received attention during the offseason with most of the big changes occurring in the secondary. The Chargers released former All-Pro corner Casey Hayward Jr. to free cap space, some of which went toward Michael Davis’ new contract. The team also added Asante Samuel Jr. in the draft to help fill the void. Safety Rayshawn Jenkins also left in free agency, leaving former second-round pick Nasir Adderley as his likely successor.
Biggest question entering training camp
The coaching change brought along a new offensive system, one that Herbert will have to master to fully unlock his potential. Staley pegged Joe Lombardi, a longtime New Orleans Saints assistant, to install and run a new scheme built around Herbert’s talents.
“I wanted our offense to run through Justin Herbert,” Staley said during a recent interview with The Athletic, adding, “I think that ultimately, those are the most dangerous quarterbacks to defend, where the quarterback becomes the system.”
Herbert possesses all the physical tools necessary to terrorize opposing defenses, and Lombardi comes from one of the most efficient offenses in the modern NFL. However, any second-year quarterback will endure growing pains and Herbert delivered some clunkers as a rookie. Additionally, Lombardi struggled mightily the last time he served as an offensive coordinator, a stint with the Detroit Lions that lasted less than two full seasons. How well and how quickly the two mesh together will have a dramatic impact on more than just the 2021 season.
What needs to happen for the Chargers to win the Super Bowl?
The Chargers have not lacked for talent the past two seasons, but they haven’t maximized their roster. That appeared especially concerning on defense where the unit finished 20th in DVOA last year despite featuring Joey Bosa, Chris Harris Jr., Melvin Ingram, and a handful of other playmakers. Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill believe their system — one derived from principles used by current Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio — will better deploy the team’s defenders.
The Chargers have plenty working for them, but their path to a Super Bowl remains obstructed by Mahomes and the Chiefs. That likely puts the AFC West title out of reach for Los Angeles, but it doesn’t prevent the team from competing for a wild-card berth. If the Chargers can finally ward off their injury curse, they have the quarterback and the supporting cast to return to the postseason.