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Late-season contrast underscores OL importance
SAN DIEGO – Football coaches in general are more hesitant than fans, players and the media to attribute team-wide trends to a single position or move.
NFL head men keep their explanations general and tend to cite effort, preparation, improved health, execution and coaching adjustments as reasons for a team playing better.
So while Head Coach Norv Turner didn’t say ‘earning Jared Gaither off waivers won us four of the last five games,’ it’s notable how close he came.
“Having an offensive line intact for the last five weeks made an unbelievable difference,” Turner said. “I’ve said it and I’ll say it again. I don’t know where we would’ve been if we had not been able to sign Jared Gaither.”
Season-ending injuries to Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman, as well as a cluster of missed games from several other linemen played a major factor in the Chargers’ 2011 season.
Turner and the coaches shuffled the lineup more often than a Vegas card dealer. San Diego started 11 different offensive linemen and played 13.
Flash back to August: the Chargers re-signed right tackle Jeromey Clary during the truncated free agency period days before training camp opened, ensuring San Diego one of most experienced offensive line groups in the NFL. All five starters and all three backups played at least two previous seasons in San Diego. The eight players all started multiple games for the Chargers prior to 2011.
That foundation dissipated near midseason, then resurrected itself with the addition of Gaither and Tyronne Green’s return to left guard.
San Diego fell to 4-7 after a six-game losing streak, then crushed four of its last five opponents by an average of 20.8 points per win. The Bolts averaged about 10 points per game more during the last five games (31.4) than the previous five (21.6).
Gaither arrived in San Diego five days before a game at Jacksonville, during which the Chargers broke the streak and scored 31 points less than three minutes into the second half.
Green also started despite a broken hand that forced him to miss the previous two games. Dielman’s backup, the Chargers considered sliding Green to left tackle against the Jaguars until Gaither was ready on such short notice.
Philip Rivers didn’t get touched in the Pro Bowl, but the final five games of the season weren’t much different. With the same starting lineup for all of December, the offensive line shut out pass rushers playing for Jacksonville, Baltimore, Detroit and Oakland.
Gaither is a component of vital offensive line decisions for San Diego this offseason. The 6-foot-9, 340-pound behemoth still is young at 25 years old, but missed the entire 2010 season with a back injury. Kansas City released Gaither in November after he committed a crucial false start penalty against Pittsburgh as a late-game substitution.
“There’s a place for a player like Gaither on your football team,” Turner said. “This has been his rebirth, a chance to show what he’s all about, and I think he’s answered a lot of questions for everybody. He’s a good football player.”
Said Gaither: “I would love to be here. I had a great (time) here. I had a great time with Norv Turner and the rest of the guys, and I look forward to hopefully coming back. I definitely appreciate everything the Chargers have done for me and I definitely appreciate the opportunity.”