Tuesday, January 13, 2009- Nick Canepa
So now that Pittsburgh has ladled its cold, bitter soup into the Chargers' bowl, we must ask: What's the next course?
The 2009 Chargers will be quarterback Philip Rivers' team, as was 2008's. But he doesn't have to be the sole proprietor. It also should be linebacker Shawne Merriman's team.
And, as we sit here now looking at the club's current roster – one soon to be tossed with General Manager A.J. Smith's Own dressing – it also should be tailback LaDainian Tomlinson's team.
Except, in this case, two out of three may be bad.
I'd wager a short part of what little I own that this great running back, this San Diego icon, has made his last juke and cut as a San Diego Charger.
Life without LT? Prepare.
He has three years remaining on perhaps the NFL's most lucrative running back contract. His salary cap number in 2009 will be $8.8 million, and when you consider he's now 30 and due to injury basically has been a nonfactor in the team's last two failed playoff runs, doing the arithmetic isn't necessary.
LT's fate will be a business decision and help, which the Chargers need in more than one area, will cost money. He makes a lot of it, and it's unlikely he will be asked to take a pay cut.
“The areas are glaring,” Smith says, knowing the Steelers smoked out the weaknesses.
Once cornerback Quentin Jammer went out with a leg problem in Pittsburgh, the defensive front seven was dominated and the Steelers went after Jammer's replacements with considerable success.
“When Jammer goes out of the football game,” Smith says, “that's too bad – too bad for the Chargers and good for Pittsburgh.”
Once that opened up, the Chargers couldn't stop the run and couldn't get to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, so they couldn't stop anything. Not a good cocktail and it burned the hell out of their throat. More help is needed on the line and at deep safety.
The right side of the offensive line, especially, needs shoring up. Without LT, there was an overwhelming inability Sunday to run the ball – unless you think 15 yards on 11 carries is good.
Darren Sproles, soon to be an unrestricted free agent, is a terrific runner, perhaps the most exciting player in The League, but he's not an every-down back. That much was evident Sunday. The Chargers were able to get away with him a week earlier, but the Indianapolis defense isn't Pittsburgh's, for one thing, and the Colts, not knowing the extent of LT's groin injury, still had to prepare for him.
The Steelers, despite spreading manure all week that LT was going to play, knew he wasn't. Tomlinson didn't help matters any when someone in his camp put the severity of the injury out there. It didn't come from the organization, which was furious.
So that's it. Am I pleased? No. All I can do is look at the team's running back situation. LT. Likely gone. Sproles. Could be gone. Michael Bennett. A serviceable journeyman. Jacob Hester. His future is at fullback. Mike Tolbert. An undersized fullback.
The only every-down back there is LT. Hard to believe he can be let go without a very good replacement. There are no guarantees Tomlinson won't get hurt again. There are no guarantees he won't.
But the Chargers know Sproles isn't an every-down guy.
“A lot of people say I dance around it and avoid the question,” says Smith, not exactly Baryshnikov. “Darren Sproles was drafted by the San Diego Chargers to help us in three areas – kick returns, spot play as a running back and catching passes out of the backfield.
“We will be pursuing Darren for exactly the same reasons.”
In other words, Smith has hard thinking to do over the next month as he begins to piece together the 2009 roster. It's beyond doubtful he can replace a Hall of Fame running back with another Hall of Fame running back, so he has to know there's a man in waiting somewhere before the cord is severed.
“You're assuming,” Smith says, “that, if we have to move on, we're not capable of getting another running back.”
I'm not assuming anything. All I can do is look at the chart, envision it without LT, and know for a fact he has no everydown back and he has a coach in Norv Turner who puts the run first.
As for the defense, even those with severe brain flatulence know the loss of Merriman to knee surgery was a disaster. The defense played better under coordinator Ron Rivera, but the great player couldn't be replaced, which is why we must wonder if LT can be replaced.
“I don't discuss injuries during the season,” Smith says. “The season's over now. Unless we figure out how to stop the passing assaults on this defense and get off the field and establish a sound running game, we will not get to where we want to go.
“We were not good enough in the postseason to go (on). We didn't stack up. We got our butts kicked. We missed Shawne Merriman.”
Finally. He said it.
But who's going to run the ball? He can't say.
In the end, this is A.J. Smith's team. As suspected.
I can't say anything will surprise me about the NFL...but LT not being a Charger...not sure.
We all know the Chargers got burned by Michael Turner, but is it worth putting all their eggs into Sproles and maybe a draft pick.