The San Diego Chargers' 2009 season comes at a critical time for the team, for reasons both on and off the field. Some may feel that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than the team's so-called window of opportunity.
The never ending stadium issue still hangs over the team and its future here. Several key players are up for contract renewals after this season and not all of them will be back in 2010.
A look at the product on the field raises more questions and provides few answers: Will Shawne Merriman come back from knee surgery and be the freak that he was? Can Norv Turner show his critics that he can win? Will LaDainian Tomlinson have an MVP season, or will turning 30 finally catch up with him?
There are not enough gigabytes of disk space in a Best Buy showroom floor to provide all the answers, but I'll take a stab at it.
San Diego should be able to go 5-1 or 6-0 in their division, but don't tell them that. Both games against last year's 2-14 Chiefs and a road game against the Raiders are perfect examples of how no one can take even a struggling opponent for granted.
If Kansas City does not decide to go for two points when they were down 20-19 in one game and Dwayne Bowe fields an onside kick cleanly in another, the Chargers might not have won either game against the Chiefs. At Oakland, the Raiders had a 15-0 lead before the Chargers woke up to win that game.
Even though the Chargers struggled at times last season, both Denver and Kansas City are making substantial changes in coaching, personnel and playbook. Oakland could be troublesome with the addition of Jeff Garcia at quarterback, but the Raiders definitely have no shortage of holes on their roster.
The non-divisional schedule poses some challenges. The Chargers play the NFC East, where no team finished below .500 last season and fell short of having three teams make the playoffs.
The Chargers have not beaten the Dolphins since Mark Seay's touchdown catch made Hootie cry after the 1994 season. They also haven't beaten the Steelers at home since that season either. Baltimore and Tennessee are sure to leave some bruises.
So taking all those factors into consideration and giving the Chargers credit for their strengths, I expect them to finish the regular season at 11-5. The non-divisional schedule is simply too brutal to duplicate the 14-2 season three years ago.
How far the team goes after that will depend on a lot of factors. The reality of the past few seasons is that the road to the Super Bowl either goes through Foxborough or Pittsburgh. This is likely to be the case again in 2009.
From a so-called intangibles standpoint, the team is historically more successful as an underdog than as a favorite. They cannot get afford to get caught up in any hype that may be said about them. After an 8-8 season, that shouldn't be a huge problem.
It is absolutely critical that Tomlinson is healthy and as close to 100% physically as possible for the Chargers to go anywhere in the postseason. It is equally critical that there is no cliff-like drop in performance like that of Shaun Alexander a few seasons ago in Seattle. Early reports suggest that Tomlinson has no lingering maladies from 2008 and has trained hard in the off-season.
Another person who must also remain healthy is Gates. He played well in 2008, considering the effects of a lingering toe injury following the 2007 season, but his numbers last season were the lowest he's had since becoming a starter in 2004.
Norv Turner is going to have to open up the playbook some more, given the stout defenses that the Chargers will face. For a couple of seasons, the versatility of Legedu Naane has been touted, yet it remains to be put to use in any significant way.
Since the team made the effort to franchise tag Darren Sproles and keep him in lightning bolts for one more season (hopefully more) is there any chance he could be used in the offense more, other than swing and screen passes and to backup L.T.?
The defense, which dropped from 14th overall in 2007 to 25th in 2008, should improve with a healthy Merriman and Antonio Cromartie, who played through a hip injury that saw his interceptions drop from 10 in 2007 to two last year.
It will also help that coordinator Ron Rivera has had a full off-season to design schemes. The defense improved after Rivera took over the coordinator position in the middle of last season, but there is only so much a coordinator can do during a season.
The biggest concern on defense is the health of aging nose tackle Jamal Williams. The Chargers have yet to draft, sign or even groom a viable backup or eventual replacement. If injuries cause Williams to miss significant time or hurt his performance, all bets are off on slowing down opposing offenses.
The Chargers should have a pretty good season in 2009, but do not expect it to be a cakewalk. It is critical that the team stay healthy if it is to finally make it to the Super Bowl and relieve its fans of the frustration of coming up short for one reason or another in the playoffs.