SAN DIEGO — George Stewart understands the importance of finding a game-changer in the return game.
Recently hired as special teams coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers, Stewart experienced first-hand how an electric return man can change the complexion of the game during his decade with the Minnesota Vikings. Speedsters Percy Harvin and Cordarrelle Patterson made many plays for Minnesota while he served as receivers coach there.
Stewart said this week that the Chargers have to develop a playmaker like those two in the return game. He pointed to the Chargers’ AFC West rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, their dynamic playmaker, Tyreek Hill, and what a difference he makes.
The Chargers finished No. 27 in the NFL in punt return average and third-worst in the league in kick return average last season. The Chargers have not returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown since 2012.
Stewart said he likes the skill set of pending unrestricted free agent Dexter McCluster as a punt returner, and pointed out that Isaiah Burse did some nice things as a kick returner last season for the Chargers.
“We have to develop that here,” Stewart said. “And that’s one thing we’re looking for going into the combine, going into the draft. Our biggest area [that we have to improve] is the return game, in terms of getting positive field position for [Philip] Rivers.
“Any time you get positive field position for your offense, you have a chance to be successful.”
Stewart said kicker Josh Lambo, while showing some inconsistency on field goals in his second season, has a strong leg and could be an asset moving forward. Lambo led the league in touchbacks with 67. However, he missed a 45-yard field goal at the end of the game in a 13-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns late in the season. Lambo also had a field goal and three extra points blocked, and was 0-for-3 from beyond 50 yards.
“You have to have an opportunity to rhythm up with your kicker,” Stewart said. “And what I mean by that is you have to be in the same flow and rhythm as them. Most kickers and punters are not your typical players, like your receivers or linebackers. They’re different, and you have to come at them differently. I’m not a psychology major, but there has to be some psychology with those guys.”
Stewart added that, like Lambo, punter Drew Kaser has a strong leg, exhibited by his 46.3 average per punt in 2016. However, Stewart said the rookie sixth-round selection out of Texas A&M showed fatigue as the season wore on.
“That’s something we will address in terms of his conditioning to obviously take some kicks off of him,” Stewart said. “I’m a quality kick guy instead of a quantity kick guy, in terms of a coach. He will have some quality kicks during the week. He will have some rest. But also he will be in that weight room getting his core squared away.”
Both Lambo and Kaser struggled with confidence last season. Stewart didn’t rule out adding competition at both positions in training camp, saying that’s something he has to discuss with head coach Anthony Lynn and the personnel department.
“I always say it’s like going back home to mama,” Stewart said about dealing with confidence issues. “We’ve all had mothers, and when you get in trouble, you don’t look for dad, you look for mom. And so that means going back to fundamentals and what was the situation that got you successful.
“So if you’re a field goal kicker, you start kicking field goals from 10 to 14 yards, where he can consistently see the ball go through the uprights. Then you start to back him up. The more success he has, the better he becomes.”
Even though Stewart has not coached special teams in the NFL since 1998, when he was with the San Francisco 49ers, he can lean on his past success for guidance. During his decade as a special teams coordinator in the NFL, Stewart’s group finished in the top half of the league seven out of 10 years, according to Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings in the Dallas Morning News.
Stewart served as the special teams coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1989 to 1991, then took over special teams for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1991 to 1995 and served in that role for the 49ers from 1996 to 1998.
The Chargers finished last in Gosselin’s rankings for a second straight season in 2016.
“I’ve always taken over a team that’s been last,” Stewart said. “And obviously you get hired because it wasn’t good before. I’m not saying the guys in front of me did a bad job. It’s just the luck of the draw. We’ve been very fortunate to be a top-five team every place I’ve been, and hopefully with time, patience and with players, [that happens here].”