The AFC West is comparable to college football's Big Ten or Major League Baseball's AL West (until this season): a collection of middling teams dominated by a flawed championship contender. The Big Ten has Ohio State, the AL West has the Anaheim Angels (or whatever city they claim they're from now), and the AFC West has the San Diego Chargers, a team with probably the most across-the-board talent in the league that is held back by an over-matched head coach. The division race should be over by Halloween; the more intriguing race may be for the number one pick between all of the teams not from San Diego.
ORDER OF FINISH
y-San Diego Chargers 13-3
Oakland Raiders 6-10
Denver Broncos 5-11
Kansas City Chiefs 2-14
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego
The fact that Rivers isn't considered the top of the second tier of quarterbacks (behind Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Peyton Manning) is shocking to me. The NC State product broke out in a big way last year (4009 yards, league-leading 34 TDs to only 11 INTs, league-leading 105.5 QB rating), and no one really seems to be talking about it. Maybe it was his antics in the 2007 playoffs, or maybe it's just because there are so many other marquee players on the Chargers offense, but Rivers is a stud, and I may even move him past Manning (in terms of stat-production, at least). Considering the season he had last year while dealing with injuries to TE Antonio Gates and RB Ladanian Tomlinson, this season could be even better.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Oakland
The prime of perhaps the best defensive player in the league being wasted on a team that at best will go 8-8 is one of the overlooked NFL tragedies of the past 10 years. Asomugha is a one man blanket over an entire side of the field; the fact that Oakland finished 8th in pass defense last season can be attributed almost entirely to Asomugha (well, Asomugha and the fact that Oakland opponents were almost always playing with a lead). The corners opposite him were DeAngelo Hall (who played so poorly, he was cut midseason) and Chris Johnson. The safeties were Gibril Wilson (cut after the season) and draft bust Michael Huff. To say that Asomugha was alone on an island the entire season would be fair. With the news that he may miss the season opener with a wrist injury (he says he will play, but we'll see), and considering what New Orleans just did to the Raiders even with Asomugha, I would play any and all Chargers in fantasy week 1.
BEST COACH: Unbelievably, Norvell Turner, San Diego
Norv Turner is a fantastic offensive coordinator. You could argue that it would be pretty hard to screw up an offense that included Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith, and Michael Irvin, but there's no denying the effects he had in Miami, San Francisco (the only year Alex Smith looked like a passable NFL quarterback), and San Diego (prior to being named head coach). As a head coach, however, Turner's track record is a little more dicey. In Washington, he made the playoffs only once, and only after Dan Snyder bought every free agent on the market. In Oakland, he failed to utilize or inspire Randy Moss. And in San Diego, he has made a habit of blowing late leads and generally under-performing. All that said, he is clearly the best coach in the division. Oakland's Tom Cable got his team to show some life at the end of last season, but any goodwill built on the late season rally was swept away when he punched out one of his own coaches. Josh McDaniels and Todd Haley, of Denver and Kansas City, respectively, are first year coaches who have shown a knack for creating turmoil. McDaniels, of course, ushered Jay Cutler out of town, and may soon be doing the same to Brandon Marshall. Not wanting to be outdone, Haley fired his offensive coordinator two weeks before opening kickoff, as well as insinuated that Brody Croyle may take Matt Cassel's job before Cassel got hurt, which of course meant the job went to--Tyler Thigpen.
1. Shouldn't the Chiefs be better than 2-14?
Sure. I just don't see them being much better, especially without anyone to throw the ball to except Dwayne Bowe (trading Tony Gonzalez made no sense to me), or with Tyler Thigpen continuing to start at quarterback for at least two weeks, or with Larry Johnson continuing to serve as one-man proof of the curse of 370, or with an offensive line that badly needed attention in the offseason being largely ignored. Instead, the Chiefs reached for a 3-4 end (Tyson Jackson) with the third pick in a draft overflowing with offensive tackles. If they were going to reach for a defensive lineman to fit into their new 3-4, they should have at least taken nose tackle B.J. Raji. Now there is no one to play the nose (Tank Tyler will try his hand, but he will probably ultimately end up at end) and the 5th overall selection in the 2008 draft, Glenn Dorsey-- a potentially devastating one-gap player being asked to stretch into a two-gap system--is essentially a man without a position. Mark Vrabel, whom New England considered too old (and they love old linebackers!), is being counted on to lead a linebacking corps lacking in 3-4 linebackers (Tamba Kali and Turk McBride are moving from end to linebacker, while Derrick Johnson, the only difference-maker on the Chiefs defense, is moving inside). The Chiefs look like a team without the pieces to do what they want, but that's still going to do it anyway. Maybe Chan Gailey really was the problem, but paint me skeptical.
2. Which team will be a bigger mess, Oakland or Denver?
Since Super Bowl 38, the Oakland Raiders have been a sad joke, with one bizarre incident being outdone by the next, leading to the largest collective death wish for one individual since Osama was still making movies. This is the reality the Oakland Raiders have become:
2003 The Raiders are embarrassed by the Bucs and former coach Jon Gruden in Super Bowl 38, 48-21. Gruden knows every play Oakland runs on offense, largely because Raiders coach Bill Callahan doesn't bother to take the time to change any of the language, hand signals, or audibles quarterback Rich Gannon uses. Oakland follows up their Super Bowl run with a 4-12 season that costs coach Callahan his job. The season is basically over after Gannon goes down for the year with a shoulder injury in Week 7. The Raiders are 2-5 at the time. Gannon's replacement, Marques Tuiasospopo, is so bad the Raiders turn to former Seahawks draft bust Rick Mirer, who had last appeared in a game in 2000.
2004 New coach Norv Turner leads the team to a 5-11 record. Rich Gannon's career is ended in week 3 by a helmet-to-helmet hit, and replacement Kerry Collins plays like Kerry Collins pre-2008. Free agent prize Warren Sapp registers 2.5 sacks. Jerry Rice is traded to Seattle in a rare mid-season deal.
2005 After an exciting offseason that welcomed in RB Lamont Jordan and Randy Moss, the Raiders rebound to their 2003 form and finished 4-12, which includes a six-game losing streak to end the year. Norv Turner is fired after the season.
2006 After nearly hiring Sean Payton (phew!), the Raiders bring back Art Shell (or at least a wax figure of him). Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter start 8 games each at QB, nearly breaking Randy Moss (42 catches, 553 yards, 3 TDs) in the process. After a 2-14 season, Art and his bed-and-breakfast buddy are shown the door.
2007 With the first pick in the draft, the Raiders select LSU QB Jamarcus Russell, who instantly enters the discussions of both biggest draft bust and biggest bust on an NFL quarterback. New coach Lane Kiffin (whom Al Davis introduced as Lance Kiffin at his first press conference) proves once again that 31-year-old college coordinators with no head coaching experience can't succeed in the NFL (won't owners ever learn?), going 4-12 in his first season. Randy Moss rebounds with 98 catches for 1493 yards and an NFL record 23 touchdowns, but for the New England Patriots. The Raiders instead get 7 catches and 90 yards from former Detroit Lions draft bust Mike Williams. After the season, owner Al Davis drafts a resignation letter for Kiffin to sign; he refuses.
2008 Following an offseason that brought WR Javon Walker, WR Ashley Lelie, CB DeAngelo Hall, and DT Gerard Warren to town, expectations are high (at least for one man). So naturally, after a disappointing 1-3 start (that included this 76 yard "Fuck You" field goal attempt), Lane Kiffin is fired. Following the firing, a level-headed Al Davis explains that Kiffin is "a flat-out liar" and is guilty of "bringing disgrace to the organization." Offensive line coach Tom Cable steps into the interim head coach position, and earns the job full-time after a roaring 4-8 finish, giving the Raiders their best finish (5-11) since 2004. Following the season, DeAngelo Hall (cut midseason) and Ashley Lelie are let go.
2009 With the seventh overall selection, the Raiders select Darrius Heywood-Bey, passing on Texas Tech wide receiver and consensus sure thing Michael Crabtree. Prior to the draft, Heywood-Bey (who caught 42 passes in his final collegiate season) was not expected to be drafted until the late first round at the earliest. Not to leave any doubt that they (he) are bat-shit crazy, the Raiders then use their second round pick on Ohio University safety Michael Mitchell, whom ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper rates as his 40-70th best safety (that's a pretty big range, but still, the 40th best safety shouldn't be getting drafted in the second round). Jeff Garcia is brought in to destroy JaMarcus Russell's confidence, and Charlie Frye and Bruce Gradkowski are brought in to share MAC flashbacks with Mike Mitchell. Sensing that the team needs a kick in the ass, head coach Tom Cable punches defensive assistant Randy Hanson in the jaw, sending Hanson to the hospital. Twenty-four days later, New Orleans destroys the Raiders 45-7 in a preseason game. Anticipation for the season is at a fever pitch.
Pretty astounding, huh? Believe it or not, Denver's offseason is almost as tumultuous as Oakland's previous seven seasons.
December 30, 2008 Long time coach Mike Shanahan is fired following an 8-8 season. Over his fourteen year run in Denver, Shanahan compiles a 136-86 record, including 2 Super Bowl titles and only two losing seasons.
January 11, 2009 33 year-old New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is hired as new head coach.
February 28 Reports emerge that McDaniels engaged in discussions with New England and Tampa Bay regarding a three-way trade that would send Denver quarterback Jay Cutler to Tampa Bay, Matt Cassel to Denver, and a first round pick to New England. The trade falls through (Cassel ends up in Kansas City), and Jay Cutler is extremely unhappy with his new coach.
April 2 After over a month of bickering through the media, the Broncos trade Cutler to Chicago for quarterback Kyle Orton and two first round picks. Cutler made the Pro Bowl in 2008; Kyle Orton did this.
April 25 Despite the additions of just about every running back on the free agent market and gaping holes in their new 3-4 defensive alignment, Denver uses the 12th overall pick on Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno.
August 28 Talented wide receiver Brandon Marshall is suspended indefinitely for insubordination following lackluster effort in practice. Speculation ensues that he will join Cutler as a former Bronco.
August 30 Orton injures his hand in a preseason game against Cutler's Bears. At least one of the knuckles on his throwing hand is dislocated, and ligament damage may have occurred. He is questionable for the season opener, and, coupled with Chris Simms unavailability, Ingle Martin may be starting on opening day for the team that used to employ John Elway, and he may be throwing passes to a receiving corps made up of Eddie Royal, Brandon Stoakley's ghost, and former Redskins legend Brandon Lloyd.
So who's going to be a bigger mess? Looks like a wash to me.
3. Can the Chargers overcome Norv and win the Super Bowl?
Anything's possible, especially when it involves the best team in the league (on paper) winning the championship. It will probably come down to playoff match-ups. If the Chargers can avoid New England, Tennessee, or Pittsburgh--three teams with clear coaching advantages--San Diego should be able to advance to the Super Bowl. The odds of such a scenario playing out are almost impossible to imagine, though. San Diego is going to have to beat one of those teams, and probably two of them. Even if they make the Super Bowl, though, do you really think Norv will be able to handle the spotlight?
2009 NFC South Preview
2009 NFC West Preview
2009 NFL Preview Schedule