It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next are the Los Angeles Chargers, who were eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday when the Steelers beat the Cardinals.
What Went Right
There’s a certain irony to the Chargers’ season ending on the day they played their best game of the year, but if you’ve been watching this team during the Philip Rivers era, that won’t shock you. The Chargers showed off everything we believed made them Super Bowl contenders during their 45-10 shellacking of the Jaguars on Sunday. Rivers looked like his old self, throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, and tight end Hunter Henry had a 30-yard score. The defense clamped down on Gardner Minshew II and Co., limiting them to 164 passing yards. It was a total group effort: Joey Bosa, who’s leading AFC defensive players in Pro Bowl voting, had two sacks and three tackles for a loss; Derwin James took another step forward in his return from injury; and breakout rookie Drue Tranquill led the team in tackles. But the true star was the same player it’s been all season for the Chargers: Austin Ekeler.
The third-year running back had 101 yards rushing and 112 receiving on Sunday. He now has 830 yards through the air this season and could eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in the team’s final three games. He’s been stellar since Week 1, when he started in place of the holdout Melvin Gordon, and he could be the key building block for the next great Chargers offense.
What Went Wrong
The Chargers have not won the AFC West since 2009. For all the team’s relative success this decade—six seasons finishing .500 or better, including a 12-win campaign in 2018—the Chargers had just two playoff appearances and two wild-card weekend wins to show for it. In that span, the Chargers have lost 51 games that were decided by seven points or fewer. They’ve lost only 80 overall. To do that, they have found new, creative ways to lose. And 2019 was a master class in that: There was the Melvin Gordon debacle against the Titans, the late pass interference call in their Week 13 matchup with the Broncos, and Rivers’s four-interception performance against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football last month.
That last one may get to the root of the Chargers’ problems: Rivers doesn’t look like the quarterback he once was. His QBR has fallen from 67.8 in 2018 to 48.0 entering Sunday’s matchup with Jaguars (which admittedly was Rivers’s best of the season). Scouts and evaluators have noted a steep drop in his performance, particularly on deep passes. After a seven-INT stretch in weeks 10 and 11, the team briefly flirted with benching him in favor of backup Tyrod Taylor. Rivers is currently wrapping up his 16th season in the NFL, he turned 38 on Sunday, and he’ll be a free agent this spring. As the Chargers get set to open their new home next season—one they’ll have difficulty filling—Rivers’s future looks as questionable as those of his fellow 2004 first-round quarterbacks, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. He seems to know it, too: “I do think that it only seems right to say, ‘All right, let’s take a deep breath and regroup,’” he told reporters last month. “I kept saying, a couple years, a couple years or a handful, and then I went to the ‘one year at a time.’ And I think that’s where it is, and that only makes sense when your contract is up and you’re going to be 38 here in a few weeks.”
Rivers is not the only underperforming offensive player the Chargers will have to make a decision on this spring. Melvin Gordon began the year as a contract holdout, returning to the field in Week 5. The Chargers’ running attack doesn’t appear to be better off for it: The unit ranked 25th in rushing efficiency heading into Week 14, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and Gordon has topped 100 yards once since he’s come back. Combined with Ekeler’s emergence, the team’s woeful rushing numbers since Gordon’s return don’t bode well for the fifth-year back’s desire for a big payday. His contract is up after this season, and Ekeler is slated to be a restricted free agent. Safe money is on Los Angeles rolling with Ekeler and Gordon suiting up somewhere else in 2020—and probably not for the money he thinks he deserves.
Other than Rivers and the running backs, most of the offense is set to return next year. Tight end Hunter Henry and guard Michael Schofield are the only other key contributors on that side of the ball slated to hit the open market. On defense, the team will have to make decisions on tackle Damion Square, linebackers Jatavis Brown and Nick Dzubnar, and safety Adrian Phillips. The Chargers currently have $58.8 million in projected cap space for 2020, and if Rivers chooses to retire, the team should have the money to flesh out the roster.
Turning to the sidelines, head coach Anthony Lynn’s job appears to be safe despite the dramatic drop-off in his team’s record (before going 12-4 last year, the Chargers finished 9-7 in his first season). The biggest order of business will be finding a full-time replacement for offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who was fired in October.
The Chargers could be headed toward a top-10 pick, which would likely put them in position to draft Rivers’s successor. Oregon’s Justin Herbert could make a lot of sense, and having a QB like Rivers—or even Taylor—to start for the year would give a young signal-caller time to develop.
The Chargers also desperately need help along the offensive line: Trent Scott and Sam Tevi have been terrible in pass protection this year, as was center Mike Pouncey before he was placed on injured reserve in October with a neck injury. Tackle Russell Okung hasn’t been stellar since his return in Week 8. This unit consistently grades out as one of the league’s worst, and an infusion of talent in the form of USC’s Austin Jackson, Washington’s Trey Adams, or Iowa’s Alaric Jackson could help in the long term.