The San Diego Chargers were an enigma in 2010: a team with enough potential to win a Super Bowl, yet somehow, they found a way to lose seven games and miss the playoffs. They led the league in Net Yards per Pass on both offense and defense last year, normally a pretty good indicator of a leading Super Bowl contender. Yet they lost five of their first seven games, and when they needed wins against non-playoff teams later in the season (Oakland, Cincinnati), they were blown out.
The biggest culprit was a historically-inept special teams unit. Each of the first three losses, all by a single score, featured at least one special teams touchdown allowed. They also lost a game against New England in which they doubled the Patriots in total offensive yards, but had things like a lateral/fumble that wasn’t picked up by the offense and returned by the Pats, and a game-tying field goal miss.
When they won, they often won big, winning 6 of their 9 games by more than three touchdowns. As a result, despite a record of 9-7, they outscored their opponents on the season by 119 points.
I am bullish on the Chargers entering the 2011 season (well, as bullish as I can be while still not trusting Norv Turner) and think the special teams issue–which they focused on heavily in the draft–can be resolved, while the offense can be just as good with Philip Rivers. The receiving group had lots of missed time, including Antonio Gates missing 6 games, Vincent Jackson missing time due to the holdout/suspension, and Malcolm Floyd and Patrick Crayton getting hurt. Ryan Mathews was a rookie last year at running back, and battled lingering ankle injuries all season. If health improves, and they don’t take too much of a net loss once free agency begins, they could be an elite unit.
BUT . . . BUT . . . there’s that big question of how they couldn’t win games when it was on the line in 2010, and how that translates going forward. I’m a big believer in looking at point differentials going forward (and more detailed things like rate stats and play by play performance), but perhaps the teams that put up gaudy point differentials but lost more games had some flaw that continued to manifest itself.
I looked at all teams in the 16-game era that had a season point differential within 20 of the Chargers (+99 to +139) and then recorded how many wins they had, and how they did the following season. As you might imagine, the Chargers are toward the bottom of the win scale; only 7 other teams since 1978 had a point differential in this range and failed to win at least 10 games. Interestingly, the 2010 Atlanta Falcons are also on the list, and were kind of the anti-Chargers, a team that won close games in the regular season and was considered “clutch.” Here is a summary of the other 78 teams from 1978-2009:
|Wins, Yr N||No.||Win Pct.||Playoffs, Yr N+1|
*includes one 15 win team, 2004 Pittsburgh; **includes one 8 win team, 1989 Cincinnati
Well, there you go. No evidence that the Chargers are more likely to fail in 2011 than teams with similar point differential profiles but that managed to win more games. In fact, the teams like Atlanta, who had 12 or more wins, only made the playoffs 32% of the time the next season. Teams with 10 or fewer wins on this list–the chokers and stat whores that put up big numbers but lost more close games–made the playoffs the following year 70% of the time.
Is it random? Probably somewhat. I also suspect that teams that are talented but fail to reach the playoffs or disappoint in close games may have either a specific flaw that they address, or focus on those issues more. You are not going to get a letdown factor with the Chargers in 2011, unlike perhaps a team that won 13 games and felt overconfident in their performance. I also suspect that a year from now, Philip Rivers’ ranking (he’s now led the league in yards per attempt three straight seasons, joining only Kurt Warner, Steve Young, and Norm Van Brocklin) will look criminally low, and he could join recent guys like Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in shedding the “stat compiler” labels that have been ridiculously applied prematurely.
[photo via Getty]