Shawne Merriman, San Diego Chargers in Search of "Super" Season

James StephensContributor IMay 18, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS - JANUARY 13:  Shawne Merriman #56 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates after their 28-24 win against the Indianapolis Colts during their AFC Divisional Playoff game at the RCA Dome on January 13, 2008 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Early Outlook: 2009 San Diego Chargers

The initial wave of free agency has passed, with big names such as Albert Haynesworth and Brian Dawkins having left their old teams for large contracts. The ultimate hype machine that is the NFL draft has come and gone. And teams’ first mini-camps, where the prized rookies get their initial peak at NFL life, is in the books.

It’s that time of year, where rosters are virtually set (save for a few tweaks here and there), the 32 coaches have seen their new additions, and preparation for the 2009 NFL season begins.

Optimism reigns supreme for every GM, coach, player, and fan, as teams get set to install their plans on how to make 2009 a success. With offseason coaching sessions about to begin, it’s time to examine the expectations facing A.J. Smith, Norv Turner, and the rest of the San Diego Chargers.

Ask any die hard fan of the Chargers and they will all give the same answer: Win the Super Bowl.

While these expectations may be high, as only one out of 32 teams achieves this goal, Chargers fans are not unrealistic with this expectation, as this team has won the AFC West the last three years (and four out of five), and is considered by many to have one of the most complete rosters in football.

While fans have the “Superbowl or bust” mentality, general manager A.J. Smith is more grounded in his expectations. Smith’s philosophy is the same as it has been for the last five years or so; just get into the tournament.

Smith believes that any team in the playoffs has a chance to go all the way, and recent history has proved this philosophy correct, with the Steelers, Colts, and Giants all having won the Superbowl as wild card entrants.

It is safe to assume that the Chargers believe they are good enough to get into the playoffs for a fourth straight season, and that they can accomplish this by winning their fourth straight AFC West crown.

To win their division, and possibly the Superbowl, this team needs to play to their abilities. They are loaded at nearly every position group. On offense they are led by Phillip Rivers at QB.

The sixth year pro is coming off his best season, having led the NFL in passer rating and touchdown passes (tied with Drew Brees), while directing the team to 27.4 points per game, second in the league behind New Orleans.

Rivers also boasts an impressive record as a starter with a 33-15 regular season record, along with three postseason victories. Rivers is helped by a solid offensive line, with four of the five starters having received Pro-Bowl honors during their careers, and a great set of skill players.

LaDainian Tomlinson, while not necessarily the MVP back from a couple of years ago, is still one of the best in the business and a touchdown machine. He will share time with Darren Sproles, an explosive back who plays much larger than his 5’6” frame.

Both backs are explosive players who excel in both the running and passing games; Sproles is almost unstoppable at times in the screen game.

At receiver, Rivers has equally explosive targets. Antonio Gates, when healthy, is still the most dominant receiving tight end in football. He is complimented by two excellent wide receivers in Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson, who is coming off his first 1,000 yard season.

The 6’5” Jacksonis a matchup nightmare with his combination of size and speed. When the Chargers trot out multiple receiver sets, Legadu Naanee and Malcolm Floyd have shown the ability to produce against favorable match-ups.

Defensively, the Chargers struggled in ’08 with pass defense, due mainly to a lack of pressure on the quarterback. That should change this year, with the return of Shawne Merriman, who has 39.5 sacks in three years, and the addition of first round pick Larry English, a pass rushing specialist.

The team also expects big things from defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who improved the Chargers’ defense dramatically after taking over for Ted Cotrell at mid-season.

In addition to Merriman, the Chargers have play makers throughout the defense. Jamal Williams is still a force at nose tackle, and Luis Castillo has been very productive at defensive end when healthy.

Linebackers Shawn Phillips and Stephen Cooper are very productive players who are near Pro-Bowl level in their play, and the team added Kevin Burnett from Dallas, a coverage LB specialist.

In the secondary, Antonio Cromartie is recovered from a hip injury, which hampered his big-play ability a year ago. He is joined by solid players on the back end in Quentin Jammer, Antione Cason, and Eric Weddle. Rivera and the Chargers expect to return to the defense that led the league in sacks in ’06 and turnovers in ’07.

In addition to offensive and defensive stalwarts, the Chargers boast some of the best special teams in the league. Nate Kaeding has been one of the most consistent kickers since coming into the league in ’04.

Mike Scifres is also one of the very best, as he punts it high and far, with a knack for pinning opponents inside the 20 consistently. Coverage teams are excellent, as the Chargers rarely allow big returns, and Sproles has returned three kicks for scores in the last two years.

While this team appears to have all the pieces in place for a Superbowl run, they are not without their obstacles and concerns. One thing is injuries. While injuries can derail any team’s season, the Chargers may be more concerned than most, as injuries have helped derail their last two playoff runs.

Additionally, the Chargers enter their second straight season with star players coming off of injuries. Merriman had knee surgery and missed all but one game in ’08. Tomlinson is coming off of a groin tear that forced him to miss the playoff game against the Steelers.

Also, Jamal Williams, left tackle Marcus McNeill, Cromartie, Gates, and Castillo all suffered significant injuries last year and are still recovering from them as training camp approaches.

Besides injuries there is the competition. While the Chargers are no doubt one of the best teams in football they have yet to prove they can translate that into winning the big games in the playoffs.

The Patriots and Steelers have ended the Chargers seasons the last two years; two teams that have proven they can go all the way. The Chargers need to learn how to finish the deal in the playoffs like these teams, and will more than likely face one or both of these teams in the postseason.

The Chargers look poised to make a serious run at a Championship this year. While there are injury concerns heading into this year, all indications are that these players are progressing right on time, and will be ready by training camp, unlike last year when several key players weren’t healthy until the second half of the season.

And while coach Turner has received criticism in the past, he has out-coached Jeff Fisher and Tony Dungy (twice) in the playoffs the last two seasons, only losing to Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin.

The defense gets their star linebacker and emotional leader back, and the players are excited to work with Ron Rivera from the start. If the Chargers can keep their stars healthy, it could be a very Super season.