NFL preview 2014: San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers was reborn under Ken Whisenhunt last season. But can he keep that going with his favourite offensive guru? (Gregory Bull/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the San Diego Chargers.

Last year’s record: 9-7

Coach: Mike McCoy

2014 is about… Keeping this thing going. This time last year, Philip Rivers was on the decline, Ryan Mathews (RB) was a perpetually injured disappointment, the receiving corps was either hurt or ineffective and the defence was aging rapidly. There were hopes, but little basis for them. But Ken Whisenhunt revived Rivers, Mathews stayed healthy, Keenan Allen was a revelation and Manti Te’o (ILB) and Melvin Ingram (OLB) gave the defence some young pieces to build on. Suddenly things are looking up.

Core players: Philip Rivers (QB), Eric Weddle (S), Keenan Allen (WR), Donald Butler (LB)

But they lost… Not a lot of consequence–on the field, at least. The Chargers’ biggest loss was probably Whisenhunt, who rebuilt the offence and then promptly departed for Tennessee to take a head coaching gig. Under Whisenhunt, the Chargers improved from the NFL’s 31st-ranked offence to its fifth-best. A dramatic turnaround to say the least. McCoy has to hope that the system works without its architect and that Rivers has internalized enough of it to run it on his own.

Yeah, but they got… They didn’t lose much, and they didn’t make many additions, either. Brandon Flowers (CB) arrives to hopefully regain the form he lost under the Chiefs defensive system. He’s a former Pro Bowler and could obviously help the secondary. In the hopes of keeping their excellent ground game humming, San Diego also added former Colt Donald Brown (RB). He’s not extremely flashy, but basically outplayed Trent Richardson in Indy last year and is more than capable of giving Mathews some much needed breathers. He’s also the source of the Chargers biggest off-season upgrade–at the Internet Meme position (more on that in a minute).

Growing from within: This is where the real improvement should come. Ingram missed most of last year with a torn ACL, but when he got back into game shape toward the end of the year, he showed signs of being a dominant pass rusher. He’ll get some more help in the form of DL/LB Jeremiah Attaochu, and together they could terrorize opposing QBs for years to come. On offence, the Chargers can’t realistically hope for more from Allen, who turned in a superb rookie season. But as Antonio Gates (TE) winds his career down, Ladarius Green seems to be winding his up—the lanky six-foot-six, 240-lb. tight end has the speed and hands to be almost uncoverable downfield. He flashed lots of promise in limited snaps in 2013 and improved as the season moved along.

Why this team? Because they are the exact sort of motley-but-successful crew they make movies about. Rivers is the super-intense QB who never swears. Allen is the hotshot rookie who could change everything. Gates and Dwight Freeney (OLB) are the grizzled veterans dispensing football wisdom. Te’o is the kid who had that fake girlfriend that turned out to be a dude and then he pretended “she” was dead and it turned into a thing—he’d be the protagonist, obviously, played by a slimmed down Jonah Hill perhaps. Ingram and Attaochu are the frat boys who love to party and sack QBs. And Mike McCoy is the look-I’m-a-cool-guy-too head coach who loves wearing visors and can’t stop telling stories about how he used to coach Peyton Manning. Oh, and they have the prettiest uniforms in the NFL, too.

Why not? Mainly because all that fun stuff could be a mirage. Like, a total one-season blip. Before Whisenhunt arrived, Rivers had put up back-to-back seasons of mediocre and bad quarterbacking. Ingram has already battled serious injury. Te’o looked lost at times his rookie year—and that could be an adjustment period, but he also could simply not be fast enough for the NFL, as many scouts said before he was drafted. Gates and Freeney could easily have nothing left in the tank, it would shock nobody if Mathews went down with another injury and Ladarius Green is promising—but it’s still mostly just promise at this point. It’s always dangerous to judge a team based on a season where everything that could have gone right, did.

Perfect for fans of… Cool uniforms, gorgeous weather and just generally being chill and enjoying football. Honestly, it’s a shame the Chargers no longer employ Charlie Whitehurst—his look basically made him a mascot for Chargers football.

How much hope? 7/10. There will be challenges this season, but for the first time in a while it seems the Chargers have enough talent at different positions to compensate for an unfortunate break or two. And they’re younger than they’ve been in a while. That always makes it easier to dream big.

Will you be mocked for front-running? Nope. You might get ribbed a little bit for jumping back on the bandwagon of a team as soon as they show signs of life—but man, the Chargers were third in the division and will be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot this year, too. This ain’t front-running, it’s a genuine rooting interest.

A Meme To Remember: Oh, Donald Brown. You can say goodbye to Peyton Manning. You can be as quietly effective as you like. You can run to the West Coast. You can say all the right things. But you’ll always be “Dammit Donald” to us.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.