Philip Rivers has been derailed by leg injuries the past two years. The Chargers are going to need every man they've got to continue their mastery of the Colts, while breaking the Patriots' mastery over them.
Today I will list 10 most-important players or groups of players. The order is not overly important, but I did list them in the order that would give me the biggest Fred Sanford-style heart attack if they did go down.
10. Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper: Luckily for the Chargers, they have a couple of capable guys to back these two up. Cooper has been suspended for the first four games of the 2008 season. These two patrol the middle of the field and had a big hand in stopping those short, quick passes that killed the Chargers in early 2007. They also blitzed occasionally, causing havoc in the backfield.
9. Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie: Jammer is a very solid defender who is good at stuffing the run and is solid in pass coverage. When Drayton Florence was starting on the other side, quarterbacks avoided Quentin Jammer. Cromartie may not be as solid in coverage, but he has the ability to make plays that almost all other defensive backs shouldn’t even attempt to make, unless they want to give up a touchdown.
Quarterbacks shudder to think that Antonio Cromartie should be even better next year. Jammer has also improved every year. Uh-oh.
8. Chris Chambers/Vincent Jackson: Talking heads like Keyshawn Johnson claimed that the 2006 San Diego Chargers had a weakness at wide receiver. Ridiculous! With Keenan McCardell and Eric Parker at wide receiver—along with Antonio Gates, Lorenzo Neal, and LaDainian Tomlinson—Philip Rivers almost always had someone open. Folks, that’s five All-Pros. Gee, I wonder why the Chargers offense seemed to be unstoppable in mid-2006?
The Bolts were limited in a major way when they parted ways with McCardell, and Parker went down with a toe injury. The Chris Chambers trade solved this problem almost immediately—taking merely a few weeks.
Cam Cameron (not Marty Schottenheimer) made the foolish decision to bench McCardell in favor of Vincent Jackson around the same time Eric Parker was injured in 2006. Philip Rivers became inconsistent immediately and didn’t start playing consistently again until Vincent Jackson stepped up his play in 2007.
While Cam’s decision is going to benefit the Chargers now, it may have cost San Diego a Super Bowl in 2006. Cam was a great coordinator, but let someone else make personnel decisions.
7. Shawne Merriman: The Chargers have won all five games that Merriman has missed since he became a starter. However, the result was that San Diego became the first team in NFL history to win four games in a row while giving up 24 points or more. Twice they came back from way down to win games, including 21 and 17-point second-half deficits in consecutive weeks—also an NFL first.
Merriman brings attitude and swagger to the Chargers. Fans and writers of other teams hate him, which means the Chargers love him. Similar to Antonio Cromartie, Merriman makes big time, game-changing plays. Fans and players of other teams may detest Merriman’s “Lights Out” dance, but it fires up the whole team, along with the fans.
Merriman’s big-time pass rush of Peyton Manning—forcing a floundering fourth quarter incompletion on fourth down—was one of the biggest plays in the 2007 NFL Playoffs for the Bolts.
6. Antonio Gates: Gates is LaDainian Tomlinson, Vincent Jackson, Chris Chambers, and Philip Rivers’ best friend. If Gates had been healthy, the Chargers MAY have been able to topple the Patriots, even with all the other injuries. Gates's ability to move without the football and get open using completely unconventional moves has befuddled defenses for years.
If Gates is still hobbling next season, that is a huge blow. Antonio Gates cannot be replaced. If teams have to deal with both Tomlinson and Gates in the red zone, they have a serious problem. If they don’t have to deal with either of them, the Chargers have the problem.
Gates could easily be No. 1 on this list. The combination of Tomlinson and Gates may be the most important offensive duo in the league.
5. Nick Hardwick: LT will tell you himself. Without the offensive line, the running back is going nowhere. Nick brings attitude and smarts to the Chargers' offensive line. The rushing attack suffers tremendously when he is not in there. They seemingly can’t get it done without this guy. The Chargers were very fortunate to sign center Jeremy Newberry as an insurance policy.
4. The entire defensive line: With an ailing Jamal Williams, an injured Jacques Cesaire, and Luis Castillo out due to injury, Adrian Peterson stomped for 253 yards in the second half of the Chargers’ battle against the Minnesota Vikings. About 245 of those yards came two plays after the quick and powerful Castillo went down.
When the defensive line does their job of taking up blockers, the Chargers are damn near unbeatable. When they don’t, the offense had better score, and score big, to keep up with the other team.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson: LT has tormented defenses for years now. He can do anything you need a running back to do. His absence in the AFC Championship game was felt when the Chargers went 0-4 in the red zone, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. Tomlinson is a red-zone beast, so who knows what would have happened if he was in there.
Contrary to what Deion Sanders and Jim Brown think, Tomlinson's leadership ability is second to none. It was a hard pill for LT to swallow to have to sit out the AFC Championship game against the hated Patriots. If you don't believe Tomlinson is set to dominate next season, prepare to figure it out in a hurry.
2. Marcus McNeil: When McNeil burst onto the scene as a rookie two seasons ago, he put on a dominating performance that Charger fans hadn’t seen from the tackle position in years—Vaughn Parker and Damion SacIntosh anyone?
The most encouraging thing was to see McNeil be completely schooled against Pro-Bowlers Jared Allen and Kyle Vanden Bosch in his first games against the two, and then come back and totally annihilate them the next time he faced them, in the SAME season. This goes to show you that the two-time Pro Bowler could become one of the top tackles in the game.
I was somewhat confused when A.J. Smith passed on USC tackle Winston Justice (Philadelphia Eagles) in the first round to take Antonio Cromartie, and then "settled" on McNeil in the second round. Three Pro Bowls in a combined four seasons later, and A.J. Smith looks like a genius.
1. Philip Rivers: Regardless of the national scorn Rivers has received, he is still a tremendous leader that never loses confidence. He has been known to slam his helmet down, he’s been known to tell off an All-Pro defensive player or two, he has been known to play through pain, and he’s been known to complete passes with ease that other quarterbacks won’t even attempt.
Unfortunately, he has also been known to go on cold streaks that have frustrated fans and LaDainian Tomlinson to no end.
Rivers’s doubters forget that Rivers performed extremely well late in the season, and did extremely well in the playoffs. Anyone comparing Rivers' first-year starting to his second is missing the point. Turner switched up the system on Rivers in order to get him ready to make big-time plays in the playoffs.
While Rivers' play early in the year was certainly not on par with the previous season, his play certainly exceeded it by the time the playoffs rolled around.
Of course, replacing the supposedly hard-partying Shane "the Beastie Boy" Olivea at right tackle didn't hurt either.
The Chargers have several guys that make a huge impact on how well the entire team fares. For example, the Chargers weren’t going anywhere in the playoffs had Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers not stepped up. The Chargers lost three games because they couldn’t stop the run. Jamal Williams just so happened to be hobbling in all three of those games.
I didn’t mention kicker Nate Kaeding or punter Mike Scifres, and that was a mistake. Both of these guys are invaluable to the Chargers.
Mike Scifres is an absolute weapon. His sky-high directional punts totally neutralized Devin Hester’s punt-return ability against the Bears, while his pin-point accuracy resulted in overtime disaster for the Tennessee Titans, as they were forced to start a drive from their own one-yard line, leading to an LT touchdown in OT.
Scifres big play catapulted the Chargers into the playoffs, while nearly forcing the Titans to miss the playoffs.
Nate Kaeding has been one of the most accurate kickers in the game since he was drafted. After hitting all four of his attempts against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, he may have shaken the stigma of being a choke artist in the playoffs.