San Diego no longer an elite program

Under Norv Turner, Philip Rivers and the Chargers never delivered on championship potential. Harry How/Getty Images

The championship window has closed in San Diego.

Once considered the best roster in the league, the San Diego Chargers have seen impressive depth dwindle, they’ve gotten old in key spots and they have lacked toughness. The result has been a steady decline in the last two years.

“They are one of the most confusing teams I’ve ever seen,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “You expect so much from them and then they don’t deliver … They should be so much better, but then you watch them and they can’t do it. I just don’t get them.”

The Chargers -- widely considered as a Super Bowl contender going into this season -- stagger into a Monday night game at Jacksonville on a six-game losing skid. It is the Chargers’ longest such streak in 10 years.

After starting 4-1 and looking like a playoff team, San Diego is now 4-7 and apparently on course to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. After owning the AFC West for four years, the Chargers are 13-14 since the start of the 2010 season.

When a rift developed between general manager A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer after the Chargers went 14-2 in 2006, Smith hired Norv Turner to take a stacked roster to the Super Bowl. That probably won’t happen. Turner, who is 45-30 as Chargers coach, is expected to be fired unless the Chargers, who are three games behind in both the AFC West and the AFC wild-card races with five games to go, make a miraculous playoff run. Smith's job could also be in danger, particularly if San Diego ownership wants to break the bank and make a run at someone like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. There have also been indications that the team is open to continuing with Smith as the top football decision-maker.

However, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Saturday that the team may be leaning toward firing Smith.

The Chargers have long been lauded for their roster of big-name talent. In the past decade, they drafted potential Hall of Famers in LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers and signed potential Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates. They also drafted Shawne Merriman, who had a strong first three years as a premier pass-rusher before disappearing because of injuries.

All the Chargers have remaining from that group is Rivers, who turns 30 this month, and Gates, who is 31 and who has been dealing with serious foot injuries for three years.

Whoever coaches the Chargers in 2012 – Cowher and Jeff Fisher are already being mentioned as potential candidates – will have some work to do. Some solid core players remain, starting with Rivers, who is struggling through his worst NFL season. Still, the Chargers probably will have to be rebuilt in several areas.

“They aren’t as deep as we always thought they were,” Horton said. “They have problems on the offensive line, their receivers aren’t that strong and the defense doesn’t pass rush anymore."

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks San Diego has some core players -- but not a ton of them, and some of them have question marks. Williamson says Rivers, receiver Vincent Jackson, Gates, guard Kris Dielman, defensive tackle Antonio Garay, linebacker Shaun Phillips, cornerback Quentin Jammer and safety Eric Weddle are all players who can help the team in the future. Williamson also thinks the team’s last two first-round picks, running back Ryan Mathews and defensive lineman Corey Liuget, have a chance to be core players.

Jackson, who has been inconsistent this year, is a free agent after the season. The Chargers may place the franchise tag on him. Rivers, Gates, Dielman (out for the season with a concussion), Garay, Phillips and Jammer will be 30 or older next season. Still, Williamson believes a coaching change could help provide a spark.

“It’s not all Norv’s fault, but he is not maximizing his team’s potential, which is obviously a key component to his job,” Williamson said.

Horton said he believes that if the Chargers do make a coaching change, they need to bring in a taskmaster. There have been whispers among scouts the past couple of years that the Chargers get outmuscled too often. There have been times when San Diego has been manhandled on both lines, including a few instances against the more physical Raiders.

“I like Norv, but I get the feeling they are not playing hard for him,” Horton said. “They always look soft to me, and they often don’t play with a sense of urgency.”

Still, the Chargers have not been blown out this season and they could have won all seven of their losses; indeed, they have made crucial fourth-quarter (or overtime) mistakes in each of their losses. Turner said this week that effort is not a problem.

“Go through the tapes and there’s great effort,” Turner said. “These guys play hard.”

The players I have talked to in San Diego’s locker room know that change is likely to come, and they say they feel bad that Turner is probably going to be the person to pay for the team’s failures. But it is clear that the Chargers’ time as elite playoff contenders is over. If they are going to re-open their Super Bowl window, it will probably be with new leadership.