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Tuesday, December 30, 2008
AFC West team evaluations

By Bill Williamson

Posted by's Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers (8-8)
Did the San Diego Chargers underachieve with an 8-8 record? Of course. This is a team that was expected to win 11, 12 or even 13 games. Does it matter at this point? No, not at all. The Chargers are going back to the playoffs and, at this point, that is all that matters. San Diego's 4-8 start has been forgotten. It is in the playoffs and it heads to the postseason as one of the most dangerous teams in the 12-team tournament. San Diego has won four straight games and it is clicking. And that is all that matters as the calendar turns to NFL playoff time. Grade: C+

Biggest surprise: It has to be San Diego's slow start. The Chargers talked about starting fast for all of 2008. San Diego started slow in 2007. It was 5-5 at one point before it won its final six games of the regular season. The Chargers' 2007 season ended in the AFC Championship Game. This season, the Chargers started even slower. They were 4-8 before finally regrouping with four straight wins to end the regular season, becoming the first 4-8 team to rebound to make the playoffs. It all ended well, but still it is surprising the Chargers put themselves in this position for the second straight season.

Biggest disappointment: The San Diego run game lost its groove in 2008. And it came without much notice. While LaDainian Tomlinson still got his 1,000 yards, the Chargers' run game was not as fearsome over the course of the season as it has been in recent seasons. It is not all Tomlinson's doing. He suffered through a turf toe injury for the first half of the season. In addition, San Diego's run blocking was off for much of the season. Tomlinson is not done, but it certainly wasn't the season in San Diego that was expected.

Biggest need: The Chargers need some help on defense. The unit really missed star linebacker Shawne Merriman, who missed all but one game because of season-ending knee surgery. There are several young linebackers available, and the Chargers, who play a 3-4 defense, need to pick one up. If San Diego gets another standout linebacker, it should be strong again on defense in 2009.

Missing Merriman: The Chargers knew they would miss Merriman when he was put on injured reserve after the first game with a knee injury. However, the Chargers did not know they would miss him that much. The Chargers' pass rush went from fearsome to inconsistent at best. The Chargers' pass defense was ranked at or near the bottom of the NFL all season. For those who thought the Chargers could be the same without Merriman, this had to come as a shock. There is now no doubt that Merriman is crucial to San Diego's defense.

Denver Broncos (8-8)
This season will not be remembered for the progress made in Denver during never-ending adversity. It cannot be remembered for the positives. It has to be remembered for the collapse. The 2008 Denver Broncos will forever be remembered as the team that fall apart. Denver had a three-game lead in the AFC West with three games to go -- and it blew the division title, losing to San Diego. Denver's dive ties the biggest collapse in NFL history. Denver will not be remembered for the youngsters it developed or having survived despite putting 16 players on injured reserve. It will be remembered for blowing the division and for nothing else. Grade: C-

Biggest surprise: No team got as much production from their rookies as Denver did in 2008. Nine rookies played key roles for Denver this season. First-round pick, left tackle Ryan Clady, and second-round pick, receiver/returner Eddie Royal, were both among the best rookies in the entire NFL this season. With the play of the youngsters in 2008, the future looks very bright in Denver in the near future.

Biggest disappointment: The Broncos were ravaged by injuries. Denver put 16 players on the injured reserve list this season. By contrast, San Diego put four players on the shelf during the season. Denver lost seven tailbacks to injured reserve. It also played a long stretch without all three starting linebackers and it had to play seven games without its best defensive player, left cornerback Champ Bailey.

Biggest need: The Broncos are going to concentrate on defense as they try to upgrade in 2009. The team will try to get better at defensive end, defensive tackle, middle linebacker and safety. Yet, their biggest need is a defensive tackle. Denver has long been looking for big men in the middle to set the tone for the entire defense, especially in run support. Don't be surprised if the Broncos end up being major players in the Albert Haynesworth sweepstakes during free agency. If Haynesworth ends up in Denver, the defense will instantly be upgraded.

The Shanahan Factor: This collapse has worn on Denver coach Mike Shanahan. Prior to the San Diego game, Shanahan said the organization was "disgusted" that it put itself in this position. Shanahan was confident going into the season. He strayed from his typically conservative word usage and said on a Denver radio station during training camp that Denver would make the playoffs. For Shanahan to say something like that, he must have truly believed it. Yet, for the third straight season, Denver did not advance to the postseason. Shanahan, who has coached Denver for 14 seasons, but only to a 24-24 record in the past three seasons, surely has been shaken by this collapse.

Oakland Raiders (5-11)
In the end, it was just another disappointing Oakland Raiders season. But this one stood out because expectations were high in Oakland. The Raiders were committed to changing their losing ways. Oakland was the busiest team in the offseason adding veterans. Oakland spent more than $255 million in contracts and bonuses in 2008. In the end, though, the spending didn't change the culture of losing in Oakland. The Raiders became the first team in NFL history to lose at least 11 games for six straight seasons. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: The DeAngelo Hall saga was strange even by Raiders' standards. In one of the craziest developments of the season, Oakland cut Hall after eight games. Hall was signed to a huge contract after he was acquired from Atlanta for second- and fifth-round picks. But the cornerback was not very good for Oakland and the Raiders abruptly cut him. In the end, Oakland surrendered two draft choices and $8 million for eight games of service from Hall.

Biggest disappointment: Receiver Javon Walker. He was signed to a six-year, $55 million contract in the offseason. The huge contract caused shockwaves around the league. Many league insiders thought Walker would have to sign a modest one-year contract to prove that he was healthy. Walker was cut from Denver in February after an injury plagued 2007 season. Walker's health issues in Oakland continued. He was often criticized by coach Lane Kiffin, who was fired after four games and Walker was talked out of retirement by Oakland owner Al Davis during camp. Walker's tumultuous first season in Oakland ended after 15 catches and a season-ending ankle surgery. It wouldn't be a surprise if Walker is cut in the offseason.

Biggest need: The Raiders have many needs, particularly on the offensive line. But it also needs a reliable receiver. The Raiders' receiver play was among the league's worst in terms of production. Oakland has a good running game, but young quarterback JaMarcus Russell needs a go-to receiver. Perhaps Oakland could try to get Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree in the draft or trade for one such as Chad Johnson or Anquan Boldin in the offseason. However it is addressed, Oakland needs to find a receiver in 2009.

Hire a quarterback guru: The Raiders are looking for a head coach again. Interim coach Tom Cable will likely be considered, but the team is also looking at other coaches. The new coach needs to be a quarterback expert. Russell, who will be entering his third season, needs someone with expertise in that area. He hasn't been getting it in Oakland. He needs his head coach to know quarterbacks.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-11)
The 2008 Kansas City Chiefs will be remembered for two things: The changing of the guard and the blown leads. Of course, the two are connected. Had it not been for the frustration created by the blown games, there likely wouldn't be the change that is going to occur in Kansas City in the next few weeks. In a nine-game stretch from Oct. 26-Dec. 21, Kansas City blew six late leads. Some of the blown leads were huge. It was the day after the game against San Diego on Dec. 14, in which the Chargers came back from being down 11 points at the 2-minute warning to win, that it was announced general manager Carl Peterson will be leaving the team after 20 years, effective at the end of the season. With Peterson now gone, the odds are strong head coach Herman Edwards will also leave, marking the beginning of a new era in Kansas City. Grade: D-

Biggest surprise: Quarterback Tyler Thigpen came in and made Kansas City competitive. The team started playing well when he took over Oct. 26 against the Jets. After season-ending injuries to Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard, Thigpen, the No. 3 quarterback, was given the job because the Chiefs had no other choice. The team even talked to veteran Daunte Culpepper, but after he turned them down to go to Detroit, the job was Thigpen's. While he wasn't perfect, Thigpen created an instant bond with star tight end Tony Gonzalez who flourished with the young quarterback throwing balls to him. The Chiefs used the spread offense because it fit Thigpen's comfort level. Gonzalez wants Thigpen back, but with a new regime, his future as the starter is up in the air. If the Chiefs won more games with Thigpen, it would be an easier sell.

Biggest disappointment: First-round pick Glenn Dorsey. The Chiefs had a strong draft with many rookies playing well. But Dorsey was the showcase of the Kansas City draft. He was expected to make an instant impact, but it never happened. The No. 5 overall pick from LSU was just another rookie defensive tackle. The Chiefs expected him to be so much more. It is way too early to label Dorsey as a bust. Young defensive tackles often need time to develop. And that will be the case for Dorsey, a player who many league observers thought was the jewel of the draft.

Biggest need: The Chiefs have plenty of needs, but their greatest area of they need to address is at defensive
end. Kansas City needs an impact pass-rusher. It had one in Jared Allen but he was traded for several draft picks in April. The Chiefs missed him. Kansas City had 10 sacks, which set an NFL record for fewest sacks.

Keep Gonzalez: While the Chiefs are entering a state of change, there needs to be one constant from the past. The team has to convince Gonzalez to stay. Even at 32, he is their best player. Gonzalez wanted to be traded in October, but potential deals near the deadline were scuttled. He said earlier this month that he'll need to see what direction the team is going in before deciding to ask for a trade again or whether he wants to return. If he believes the Chiefs can contend in 2009, Gonzalez will likely come back. The new Kansas City brass has to convince Gonzalez the team will win immediately. Losing its best player would be a major blow for Kansas City as it enters a new era of leadership.