As the Bolts charge forward looking for a bounce back 2016 campaign, Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is dead set on jumpstarting a rushing attack that has been dormant in recent years.
San Diego's offense was electric at times over the two seasons between Whisenhunt's stints as OC, and he is quick to point out all the good the staff accomplished with Philip Rivers at the helm. Nonetheless, the Chargers made a number of coaching changes on offense as only one coach remains in the same position heading into 2016.
A major reason for that change was a need to improve the ground game. The Bolts ranked under 13th in the NFL under Whisenhunt in 2012, yet fell to 30th and 31st the past two seasons.
While the offensive coordinator has numerous priorities throughout the offseason, he admits that is chief amongst them.
"The first thing I will say is there were a lot of good things that were done last year offensively," he said. "But the one thing that stands out is we need to run the football better than we did last year. There is no blame associated there, as there are always factors that are involved. But that is probably the biggest thing we have to do, because then your play action builds off of that, your time of possession increases where you can control the ball and you are in better third down situations. All of those things tie in together. Now, it's hard to say you can improve on all of those things significantly in the offseason because there are no pads, but I think you can lay the groundwork for what you are going to do and how you are going to do it. That will carry over into training camp."
It's also no secret that an improved rushing attack will bring balance to an offense that drastically leaned on the passing game in 2015.
"You can do so many things when you are blessed with a quarterback like Philip Rivers," Whisenhunt continued. "We've got to be able to do things that will complement him, and a good running game is one of those that we have to get better at."
Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead are expected to be the lead dogs in a running back corps that also includes proven rushers Branden Oliver and Donald Brown. Even though Gordon's rookie year didn't live up to his expectations, Whisenhunt sees a bright future in store for number 28.
"As a young player, you never know how that first year is going to go," he said. "Just like the ball didn't quite bounce the team's way last year, the same went for him. But I can say this. I've talked to Melvin a little bit, and had a chance to meet him briefly. I didn't get a chance to spend much time with him, but with all of the work we did on him as a player coming out, I was very excited about him as a player and what he brings to the table. The same for some of what I saw of him on tape from last season."
It's no secret that Gordon struggled with ball security his rookie season as he coughed it up far too many times. Still, that is not uncommon for young players as Whisenhunt drew a comparison to one of the most dynamic running backs of the 21st century.
"Obviously one thing that jumps into everybody's mind are his fumbles, but if you think back to Tiki Barber and what a great player he was, well he struggled with fumbles early on, too. So let's not panic about that. Yes, it is something we've got to work on, but Melvin is a talented guy. The important thing for us is what does he do well from a run game perspective? Is it a power/counter scheme, or is it a zone scheme? What are his strengths, and how do they fit with us? How can we put him in those situations? I think it is important he gets reps, and comfortable with the courses he is taking. Last year, he didn't get a chance to be exposed to that, so it will be easier for him with us having him for the whole offseason. He is also a good receiver, and catches the ball well out of the backfield. I'm excited about what he is going to be, and I am looking forward to that."
Catching the ball out of the backfield is also Woodhead's strength, as he paced the Bolts last season with career-highs of 80 catches, 755 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. Number 39 also led all NFL running backs in receiving yards and tied for the most receptions.
So how does Whisenhunt plan to use both Woodhead and Gordon, not to mention the other talented running backs on the roster?
"Hopefully it will be something similar to what we did in 2013, when we had different packages for guys. Ryan (Mathews) had a good year as he ran for a career-high in yards. Danny led the league that year too in a couple of categories. So this goes back to what I said earlier about being in third and makeable situations for easier conversions. Being able to sustain drives. We've got to get better at that so guys can get more opportunities, and we are more successful as an offense."
Meanwhile, David Johnson filled a hybrid role for the Bolts the past two seasons as a tight end and fullback, yet is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. As the game evolves, Whisenhunt explained what he sees as the role of a fullback nowadays.
"I think the ideal fullback in today's NFL is a guy who can do all those things you want him to do as a fullback to the degree he can be a factor, can contribute for you on special teams and can be a potential emergency third down back. Someone who understands protections and can even be a potential end of the game runner. We have a young guy in Melvin Gordon that I think can do that no matter what. But as far as talking about different guys in the backfield that can do different roles, that fullback guy has to also be able to do those different roles. Those are all the things we look at in a fullback."
Have a look at Danny Woodhead's best moments from the 2015 season.