Long considered an NFL doormat, the San Diego Chargers are now widely regarded as one of the top teams in football. Fresh off their third consecutive AFC West title, the Chargers enter 2009 with similar expectations to the past couple of season. Those goals are simple: Win the Super Bowl.
I always hesitate to use the phrase "Super Bowl or Bust" when discussing an NFL team because so many things can happen. But 2009 for the Bolts is just that. The questions of past years appear to be gone. We can no longer ask the questions about Philip Rivers' development, the team's health or the transition into a new coaching staff. The questions are answered. Now there must be results.
The San Diego Chargers have suffered slow starts in both of Norv Turner's seasons at the helm. There's many reasons as to why they've had slow starts, whether it's the injury bug, a learning curve or just plain awful luck. What the Chargers must do is replicate their second half success in the early part of the season.
A good start will help prevent the Chargers from having to play in a cold weather city like New England, Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the postseason. Now that's not saying home field advantage is an automatic trip to Miami, because it's not; the Chargers only have to look back to 2006 to realize that. But avoiding those blizzard games in January would be nice.
The 2007 postseason saw the Chargers' defense turn into one of the league's elite units. But after Shawne Merriman's season ended just a couple of hours into 2008, the Chargers' defense took a giant step back. Sacks were down, the secondary reverted to its old 2004 self and Ted Cottrell was the one deemed responsible for the mess. Enter Ron Rivera, who helped get some aggression back into the unit late in the year.
Enter Shawne Merriman. You don't have to do much more than read his Twitter to find out that he's a man on a mission. He's heard the criticisms about his knee injury and his Hollywood persona. But lets be frank here. When healthy, Merriman is arguably the best defensive player in football.
Even if he's not recording sacks, he's making every other player on the defense better. Getting Merriman back not only gives the Chargers their defensive mojo again, but it also turns guys like Shawne Phillips and Luis Castillo back into their old selves. Add Larry English, the surprising pick out of Northern Illinois, and the Chargers' pass rush is going to be straight nasty again.
Offensively, the Chargers will always be in good hands under Coach Turner. Philip Rivers took a giant leap in 2008 and became one of the league's elite quarterbacks. With a completely healthy Antonio Gates at his disposal this year, Rivers' numbers might be even better. Meanwhile, LaDainian Tomlinson went through the most criticized 1100 yard, 11 touchdown season in NFL history.
He suddenly became labeled as "injury prone," even though he played 16 games for the seventh time in his eight year career. I don't see LT going out with a whimper; No. 21 has a fire in his belly after reading offseason press clippings about his demise. I would be shocked if he wasn't up near 1400 yards and 15 touchdowns again.
So, how can the Chargers realize their vast potential and reach the Super Bowl they've been on the cusp of? It begins with a good start. The cluster that is the AFC West should lend itself to, at worst, a 5-1 division record for the Chargers. Then there's the matter of getting breaks. Call it what you want, whether it's bad luck or poor execution. Either way, you simply cannot expect this team to lose four games in the final five seconds again. No way.
What can stop this team from reaching the promised land? I still have some doubts about the middle of their defense. Landing Kevin Burnett via free agency was a solid pickup. He's a 3-4 linebacker capable of playing the pass, ala Donnie Edwards. That role was never quite filled by the likes of Matt Wilhelm, so Burnett's inclusion into the third down defense will help this team get off the field.
Is Clinton Hart ready to go after last year's mess? He'll have to be. And the biggest question of all. Which Antonio Cromartie will we see? The injury-plagued disaster of 2008 of the NFL's best playmaker of 2007? Probably somewhere in between will be just fine.
There you have it, the expectations for my San Diego Chargers. I used over 750 words in that analysis, but for most fans, they can be summed up in four. Super Bowl or Bust.