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Who is the greatest Charger ever?

Posted by Chase Stuart on February 22, 2010

Yesterday, the Chargers released star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, bringing an end to one of the most successful eras in San Diego history. When Tomlinson was drafted by the Chargers they were the worst team in the league. San Diego had gone 1-15 the year before LT arrived and were still feeling the aftershocks from Hurricane Leaf. As Tomlinson fades into the sunset, the San Diego skies are much brighter: his Chargers have won the AFC West each of the past four seasons. And while general managers John Butler and A.J. Smith have done a masterful job remaking the Chargers, much of San Diego's turnaround in the '00s can be traced back to Tomlinson. But does that make him the best Charger ever?

This is one of those questions that Doug's Approximate Value system was designed to help us answer; using AV we can compare the contributions of players across positions and eras. Here are the 20 players who accumulated the most AV in the 50-year history of San Diego Chargers football (disclaimer: 2009 AV, while incorporated below, has not yet been published by P-F-R):

Rk Player From To Lg G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Dan Fouts* 1973 1987 NFL 181 171 15 6 2 162
2 Junior Seau 1990 2002 NFL 200 199 13 12 6 162
3 LaDainian Tomlinson 2001 2009 NFL 141 141 9 5 3 142
4 Russ Washington 1968 1982 TOT 200 196 15 5 0 137
5 Doug Wilkerson 1971 1984 NFL 195 195 14 3 1 108
6 Charlie Joiner* 1976 1986 NFL 164 155 11 3 1 99
7 John Hadl 1962 1972 TOT 154 124 11 5 0 96
8 Walt Sweeney 1963 1973 TOT 154 0 11 9 2 94
9 Kellen Winslow* 1979 1987 NFL 109 94 9 5 3 93
10 Antonio Gates 2003 2009 NFL 109 105 7 6 3 93
11 Ron Mix* 1960 1969 AFL 130 0 10 8 9 91
12 Lance Alworth* 1962 1970 TOT 110 0 9 7 6 87
13 Leslie O'Neal 1986 1995 NFL 133 125 9 6 0 86
14 Gary Johnson 1975 1984 NFL 134 123 10 4 2 83
15 Jamal Williams 1998 2009 NFL 148 121 12 3 2 77
16 Gill Byrd 1983 1992 NFL 149 146 10 2 0 74
17 Gary Garrison 1966 1976 TOT 131 126 11 4 0 73
18 Don Macek 1976 1989 NFL 162 150 14 0 0 72
19 Billy Shields 1975 1983 NFL 127 116 9 0 0 72
20 Woodrow Lowe 1976 1986 NFL 164 151 11 0 0 71

(Note: The AV number listed above represents the sum of each season's AV score, and does not use the 100-95-90 dropoff system that we often use to calculate career AV; that's why the numbers are probably larger than faithful readers would expect. Additionally, there is a steep AFL penalty involved with AV, which too drastically deflates their value; we plan to address this in the off-seaoson.)

I think we can pretty quickly whittle that list down to seven names:

-- Fouts
-- Seau
-- Tomlinson
-- Winslow
-- Gates
-- Mix
-- Alworth
I'd give honorable mentions to Russ Washington (fifteen straight seasons starting) and Walt Sweeney (nine straight Pro Bowls). Including those two, eight of perhaps the nine best Chargers ever played on offense, which says a lot about the history of San Diego football. Looking at our final seven, all are arguably in the top ten of all-time at their respective positions.

  • Dan Fouts: Comes in at #6 on my QB rankings; while Fouts is remembered for playing in a high-octane offense, few recall that the AFC West was a very tough division defensively during the early '80s. Fouts faced the toughest schedule of any of my top 10 QBs. He's tied with Washington for the most years to ever don the Blue and Gold (15) and he's tied with Junior Seau for the most AV (162). Fouts rewrote the record books during his time in San Diego; he became just the 2nd QB to throw for 4,000 yards in 1979 when he set the single-season NFL record. The next year, his 4,715 passing yards obliterated his own single-season NFL record. The next year, he broke his own record for a third time with 4,802 yards. He still holds the record for most passing yards per game in a season, when he averaged 320 passing yards in the 1982 strike-shortened season. He spent his entire career in San Diego, and retired as the second-leading passer in NFL history. The only black mark on Fouts' resume? For all he did, he was never able to win a Super Bowl. The Chargers have never won a Super Bowl, but blame for that (unfairly) tends to fall on the quarterback.
  • Junior Seau: Like Fouts, you need a microscope to find any fault with Seau's career. He made an absurd 12 Pro Bowls in San Diego, the most by far of any Charger and the most by any linebacker in league history. The great Sean Lahman ranked Seau as the best linebacker in NFL history and it's hard to argue against that selection. He's tied with Fouts for the most AV accumulated as a Charger, his 199 starts lead all Chargers, and his six NFL first-team All-Pros double that of the next highest Charger.
  • LaDainian Tomlinson: If anyone could follow that description of Seau, it'd be Tomlinson. "LT" was the clear best running back of the decade and set several major records during his career. He became the single-season leader in both rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns in 2006, picking up NFL MVP and AP Offensive Player of the Year honors along the way. He's led the league in rushing touchdowns three times, rushing yards twice and yards from scrimmage once. He's #2 all-time in rushing touchdowns behind only Emmitt Smith; he's the only tail back to ever catch 100 passes in a season. His 25 points of AV in 2006 is the most by far of any Charger in a season and is tied for third-most in our database. Only five times has a Charger earned 19 points of AV; LT has two of those seasons; he also has three of the six seasons of 18+ points of approximate value. Perhaps more than any other Charger, in his prime he was the clear best player at his position. He came in at #6 on my list of the most dominant running backs of all-time, but he was rushing behind an inferior offensive line for much of his career. The only knock on Tomlinson? An ugly post-season resume.
  • Antonio Gates: It seemed unfathomable that any Chargers tight end would ever surpass Kellen Winslow, but Gates is on his way to doing just that. Both players were three-time first-team All-Pro choices by the Associated Press and have a second-team choice on their resume as well. But Gates edges Winslow out in Pro Bowls (6 to 5) and also earned a first-team All-Pro nod by the Pro Football Writers in a fifth season. If you like fantasy football, both were the #1 TE in three different seasons and were in the top four in three other years. Gates' career is still going strong, of course, and if nothing else, he should beat Winslow out when it comes to longevity. Gates set a career high in receiving yards in 2009 and his career looks bound for Canton. Barring injury, he'll move into second-place all-time in receiving touchdowns by a tight end next season, and unless Jason Witten passes him, he's likely to be #3 on the all-time receiving yardage list by the end 2011. The last six seasons, he's averaged 76 receptions, 972 yards and 9.5 touchdowns. As much as Tomlinson is responsible for San Diego's success, the Chargers really began to take flight when Gates burst onto the scene in 2004.
  • Ron Mix: The only linemen on the list, and one of two AFLers, Mix is naturally disadvantaged. I suppose Mix will have to hang his hat on his eight consecutive first-team All-Pro selections and nine straight Pro Bowls. Lahman called Mix the 11th best offensive linemen in pro football history. His Pro Football HOF bio claims that he was called for a holding penalty just two times in his entire career. The AFL had some very good tackles (including Jim Tyrer and Winston Hill), but Ron Mix was named first-team All-Pro in each of the league's first nine seasons. On an offense that was constantly changing at every other position, Mix and Sid Gillman were the lone mainstays in a Chargers offense that was always one of the best in the league. The "Intellectual Assassin" was considered elite as both a pass blocker and run blocker, and in both '63 and '65 the Chargers led the AFL in both points scored and yards gained.
  • Lance Alworth: Perhaps the best player in the history of the American Football League, Alworth was the first player from the AFL to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Alworth led the league in receiving yards, receptions and receiving touchdowns three times apiece. In 1963 he was the UPI AFL MVP when led the Chargers to the best record in the league and the AFL Championship, after the Chargers (and Keith Lincoln) whooped the Boston Patriots, 51-10. Alworth was robbed of an MVP in 1965, when he had perhaps the greatest season by any receiver, ever. Alworth came in at #6 on my all-time WR list, and was at #3 before the Moss/Harrison/Owens era began. Ten years ago, I think Alworth may have been the closest thing there was to being the consensus #3 receiver of all-time, behind Rice and Hutson. Teaming with John Hadl in the mid-60s, Alworth and Hadl formed arguably the most dominant passing duo in professional football history.

In fifty years of history, the Chargers have had their fare share of extraordinary players. Tomlinson, like those who came before him, finished his career without a Super Bowl ring. But is he the greatest Charger ever? How would you rank the best Chargers in history?

This entry was posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2010 at 11:21 pm and is filed under Approximate Value, Great Historical Players, History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.