How do you build a winning football team? Over the next few weeks I am going to look at a handful of teams that are either relatively early in their rebuilding process or on the verge of a possible rebuild. The purpose of this is not to reflect on past regime decisions compared to the current decisions but rather to start the analysis from day one and evaluate personnel decisions along with contract structures and styles to see if certain trends help produce a winning franchise.
State of the Franchise and Front Office
The San Diego Chargers have continued to uphold their label as one of the NFL’s biggest underachievers. After going 13-3 in 2009, the Chargers have since failed to win 10 games or make the playoffs. Despite going 4-2 against AFC West division opponents, the Chargers finished the 2012 season a disappointing 7-9. While not seemingly rebuilding, the Chargers did shake up the organization after another lackluster campaign in 2012. Tom Telesco replaces longtime General Manager A.J. Smith, while Mike McCoy replaces Norv Turner as Head Coach.
Contract Strategies and Trends
With only one offseason of data, the sample size for how new GM Tom Telesco will structure his contracts is quite small. Under former GM A.J. Smith, the Chargers rarely structured any contracts with roster or workout bonuses, with Nick Hardwick being the only player on the roster brought in by A.J. Smith not under his rookie contract receiving a roster bonus. Hardwick is due a $500,000 roster bonus in 2013 and 2014. Thus far, Telesco has utilized roster bonuses much more than his predecessor. Free Agent acquisition Derek Cox is due a $300,000 roster bonus in 2014, 2015, and 2016 as part of his 4-year/$20 million deal and Dwight Freeney is also due a roster bonus of $500,000 in 2013 and $1 million in 2014 as part of his free agency deal after Melvin Ingram went down earlier this offseason with a torn ACL in his left knee.
Freeney’s $500,000 roster bonus in 2013 and $500,000 of the $1 million dollar roster bonus in 2014 are actually per game roster bonuses of $31,250 per game. For salary cap purposes, the roster bonus is treated as a LTBE incentive. Because Freeney played in 14 games in 2012, his 2013 roster bonus cap hit is currently $437,500 ($31,250 x 14). This setup is an extremely team friendly mechanism for the Chargers. The per game roster bonus works just like a standard P5 salary except the P5 is still fully guaranteed in the event of injury or deactivation while the per game roster bonus is not. If Freeney plays all 16 games this year, his actual cap hit will be adjusted upwards after the season to the full $500,000 ($31,250 x 16) and if he plays less than 14 games, for example 0, his cap hit will be adjusted downwards after the season to $0 ($31,250 x 0).
Telesco has also been more proactive in using workout bonuses. Last years third round pick Brandon Taylor is the only player on the roster from the A.J. Smith era who received a workout bonus. Under Telesco, free agent acquisitions King Dunlap and Johnny Patrick, along with rookie wideout Keenan Allen, received workout bonuses in their new deals.
Biggest Upcoming Roster Decision
Is Philip Rivers still the future of the Chargers? Once regarded as one of the bright young superstars under center in the NFL, Rivers has come under increased scrutiny after back-to-back subpar seasons. With two years and just under $31 million left on his current deal, it would appear at first that Telesco’s hands are tied with his options at quarterback. A closer look reveals that it’s quite an easy feat to accomplish if Telesco wanted to move on from Rivers and hand pick his own quarterback after the 2013 season. Rivers has a cap hit of $15 million in 2014 and $15.75 million in 2015 but nearly all of the money in both years is unguaranteed P5 salary. With only a $1.2 million hit of dead money in 2014 and no dead money hit in 2015, the cap effects of moving on from Rivers after 2013 would be negligible.
However, barring a catastrophic injury or an incredibly disappointing season, I do not see the Chargers moving on from Rivers. An inept offensive line has failed to give Rivers a clean pocket consistently or provide any sort of viable running game. If incoming first rounder D.J. Fluker can lock down the Right Tackle position and allow Jeromey Clary who struggled at Right Tackle to help shore up the Right Guard position, the right side of the offensive line might actually become a strength of this team rather than one of its biggest weaknesses. With the potential upgrade to even adequate offensive line play, Rivers should look more like the top-tier quarterback we are accustomed to and less like the mediocre version we have watched over the past two seasons, making Telesco’s possible decision easy.
It is worth noting that Telesco is no stranger to franchise altering quarterback decisions. During Telesco’s first season as an area scout with the Colts in 1998, the Colts drafted now division rival quarterback Peyton Manning 1st overall and was also part of the decision making process that landed 1st overall pick Andrew Luck in Indianapolis in 2012 before Telesco joined the Chargers this year. While I do not think Telesco ultimately moves on from Rivers after the 2013 season, it is certainly an available option.
Tulane University Law School
J.D. Candidate 2015