In 2008, the San Diego Chargers won the AFC West for the third straight year, and fourth time in five years. For the second straight year, they beat the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. Their quarterback, Phillip Rivers, led the league in passer rating and tied Drew Brees for the lead in touchdown passes.
But the Chargers were expected to contend for a Championship in '08. Instead, the team limped to the end of November with a 4-8 record, and their regular season record of 8-8 was their worst since going 4-12 in 2003. Their running game was inconsistent at best, and the defense struggled to stop opponents or get off the field.
The Chargers have been considered one of the most talented teams in football over the last five years, yet many players had sub-par seasons in '08. Again, the team enters the '09 season with high expectations. For the team to rebound, and perhaps finally live up to their vast potential, these five players will need to have bounce back seasons in '09.
Castillo, a first-round draft pick in 2005, appeared to be headed for stardom. The 290 lb. defensive end is strong against the run and, unlike most 3-4 defensive ends, showed the ability to get after the quarterback, as his seven sacks in only 10 games in 2006 proved it.
Unfortunately, injuries have plagued the talented Castillo. Though he managed to play in 15 games in '08, back and knee injuries hampered Castillo, and he was largely ineffective, recording only one-and-a-half sacks and getting pushed around in the running game.
The Chargers need Castillo to return to his havoc-wreaking ways from the '05 and '06 seasons, in which we saw him record 86 tackles, 10.5 sacks, three deflected passes, and one interception.
Chambers, a Pro Bowler in '05 with the Miami Dolphins, joined the Chargers during the bye week of the '07 season. In his first game with the Chargers against the Texans, he scored a touchdown.
The addition of Chambers opened up the San Diego offense, and was a big reason the team reached the AFC Championship game that year.
Coming into the '08 season, with a full training camp with the Chargers under his belt, most experts believed Chambers would regain his Pro Bowl form. Unfortunately, Chambers hauled in a meager 33 catches for 462 yards (both career lows) in 14 games.
When healthy, Chambers is a big-play threat capable of stretching the field. With other playmakers such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, and Vincent Jackson receiving so much attention, Chambers will receive plenty of favorable matchups. The Chargers need him to take advantage of these opportunities and get back to a Pro Bowl level of play.
In 2006, the San Diego Chargers used the 19th overall pick in the draft to select Antonio Cromartie, a tall and fast cornerback from Florida State University. Although Cromartie was athletically gifted, there were concerns about him because he only started one year in college and was coming off an ACL injury.
In 2007, Antonio Cromartie started paying dividends, leading the league with 10 interceptions, as well as setting the record for longest play in NFL history with a 109-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown. He was named to the Pro Bowl as well as first team All-Pro, and appeared to be the next Deion Sanders.
Cromartie's fortunes changed in 2008, as he fractured his hip in Week One, and had (in his words) his worst game as a pro in a Week Two matchup against the Broncos' Brandon Marshall. To make matters worse, the pass-rush (minus Shawne Merriman) was a shell of its old self, while the coaching schemes often left the entire secondary confused.
When Ron Rivera took over as defensive coordinator at the midway point last year, Cromartie's game improved, as did the entire defense.
This year, with a full training camp under Rivera, the return of Merriman, and the addition of pass rusher Larry English, the Chargers' pass rush should once again be a force. Cromartie should have plenty of opportunities to provide the big plays that the Chargers are looking for.
From 2001-2007, LaDainian Tomlinson was the most dominant back in football, racking up yards and touchdowns at an alarming rate. In 2008, LT struggled. Bothered by a sore toe hurt in Week One and inconsistent line-play all year, LT rushed for only 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tomlinson also appeared to have lost his great burst, and was unable to cut as in years past.
In Week 17, Tomlinson was back, as he gained 96 yards on only 14 carries. He scored three times, burst through holes, made his patented "jump-cut", and ran through tacklers. But a torn groin in the third quarter sidelined him for the rest of the game, and aside from a few plays in the wildcard game, the rest of the playoffs.
After two straight seasons finishing the year injured and unable to be a factor in the playoffs, people are wondering if father time has caught up with Tomlinson.
His coach Norv Turner, however, believes in him. Turner said that he expects Tomlinson to carry the ball over 320 times in '09, and thinks he can gain 1,500 yards or more. It's up to Tomlinson to reward his coach's trust in him.
From 2005-2007, the San Diego Chargers averaged nearly 50 sacks a season. In 2008, that number fell to 28.
The missing piece was Shawne Merriman, who recorded 39.5 sacks from 2005-2007, but missed all but one game in '08 with a knee injury.
Merriman wasn't missed only for his production, but for his leadership and passion as well. He is one of the unique players that makes everyone around him better, as he forces offensive coordinators to adjust their game plans to account for him.
The Chargers need Merriman to be the force he is known as. The only question is whether or not his surgically repaired knee will hold up. What no one questions is the power, speed, and ferocity Merriman plays with.
Merriman is also playing in the final year of his contract, and his future in San Diego has been publicly questioned, which are two more things to motivate a player who has never had a motivational problem.
The '09 Chargers look to rebound from a disappointing 2008 season. Unlike last year, the team will enter training camp with few, if any, significant injuries. If they can have bounce back years from these five players, along with continued production from the rest of their young stars, the Chargers might realize their enormous potential with the franchise's first Super Bowl Championship.