The big news out of San Diego Chargers training camp is… not much.
Among Chargers fans – and more than a few players – the sentiment is that this season is now or never. The team made a considerable psychological breakthrough last year by reaching the AFC Championship game, and the veterans on this year’s club are exuding a quiet confidence because the confluence of experience, talent and favorable schedule could possible lead to a Super Bowl appearance.
For the past several years, the consensus among media members covering the NFL is that San Diego’s line-up is among the best in the league. There will be precious few roster spots open for this year’s squad, which means keeping an eye on two key dates: Aug. 26, when the roster must be trimmed to 75 players, and Aug. 30, when the roster is reduced to 53 players.
Outside of the normal Football Gods whimsy, the most significant question mark facing the Chargers is the injury recovery status of key personnel, including quarterback Philip Rivers (knee), tight end Antonio Gates (toe), center Nick Hardwick (foot) and LaDanian Tomlinson (knee). Rivers, Gates and Tomlinson appear to be on-track for the week 1 opener against Carolina, but Hardwick is still questionable.
I anticipate the Chargers averaging 28 points per game this year. Not 2008 New England Patriots explosive, but well balanced and dynamic when combined with a top-five defense that lead the league last year in take-aways and consistently put pressure on the quarterback. Tomlinson and the two-headed monster of Darren Sproles and rookie Jacob Hester (LSU) will lead the ground attack, while multiple threats at the receiver and tight end positions will be potent through the air. Simply stated, the Chargers offense can create too many match-up problems for most defenses, even without a 100-percent effective Gates to start the season.
The Norv Factor?
Entering year two under head coach Norv Turner’s direction cannot be underestimated. Last year’s horrendous beginning could not be better exemplified by chants of “Marty! Marty! Marty!”(referring to departed head coach Marty Schottenheimer) raining down from the Charger faithful during an uninspired week four loss to Kansas City at Qualcomm Stadium. Eventually, the team righted the ship and went on to win 11 of its last 13 games before falling to New England. The transition and tumult from last year has been washed away, and from all appearances, the team has confidence that Turner can lead the Chargers to greater post-season success.
The Chargers kick off the pre-season Saturday night against Dallas, which should be entertaining and a lively way to begin the 2009 campaign. Look for Rivers to play a few series, perhaps the first quarter, followed by back-up Billy Volek taking the second quarter and third-year quarterback Charlie Whitehurst under center the second half. The key here – probably for both teams considering how stacked each roster is – to avoid injuries to starters and let those fighting for roster spots get significant playing time.