There is an air of despair in Southern California, and it isn’t all the smog that pollutes it that is the cause of concern.
The San Diego Chargers are a team that has not reached its potential. The Chargers are a team that has overachieved, underachieved, and choked their season away, and this has all happened in the last three seasons.
Ever since San Diego went 14-2 and then gave the New England Patriots the AFC Divisional round playoff win in 2006, the Chargers have been seen as an elite, should-win, Super Bowl contender.
But they have failed to ever get to Super Bowl Sunday the last two years.
And as Chargers fans hold their breath and wait on the clock to strike midnight on LaDainian Tomlinson’s career, those same fans also wonder how much longer can San Diego be considered an elite team.
Many consider this to be the Chargers’ last legitimate shot at the Super Bowl—at least for a while.
They look at a backfield led by an aging star in Tomlinson.
They look at a defense led by an enigmatic linebacker, who—when he takes the field in August—will not have played in almost two years.
They look at the receivers and not see any star power.
They look at a secondary full of holes.
They look at an offensive line that couldn’t open the rushing lanes.
And they look at an aging defensive line that has no real pass rush.
If anything, the Chargers are an enigma. They’re a puzzle—a fickle character in a larger play known as the NFL that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Clearly, general manager A.J. Smith still believes his team can contend now, with the personnel that it has now. The only player drafted this year that can have any real impact will be the first rounder Larry English.
The rest of the draft seems to been have geared towards the far future and not the immediate future.
But even with all the questions, this team is still a contender. This year, more than ever, it is Super Bowl or bust.
Fans must hope that Tomlinson runs like a vintage Italian car, instead of a beat up old Ford. They must also hope that the offensive line remembers how to block for him.
Fans must hope that Shawn Merriman reverts back to his old form. Fans must hope that the secondary can find its hands again and that the defense can get a sack again.
If all goes well—if LT runs like LT, if Merriman gets his sacks, if the offensive line learns how to block, and if the secondary doesn’t play scared—then the Chargers can have a repeat performance of that 2006 or 2007 season.
If not, then the team will struggle like it did last year, only to find its stride late in the year.
And even with all the questions, the one true answer that anyone has about this team is at quarterback.
Philip Rivers alone makes the team a contender. The gunslinger was the most proficient quarterback in the NFL last year.
San Diego was able to ride his arm into the playoffs. They might have to do it again this year.
But if Rivers gets a little bit more help, this team will find itself in Miami—which is where the Chargers played their one and only Super Bowl.