Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers are ready, even if it was just a preseason game between San Diego and the Seattle Seahakws on Thursday night. With NFL free agency finally coming to a close, it's time for some actual football. In what signified the official end to a drawn-out offseason, the first games of the 2011 NFL preseason kicked off on Thursday night. 10 teams showed off their offseason acquisitions for the first time, including Superbowl-favorites in the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. ESPN's primetime coverage, however, was focused on the west-coast matchup between the San Diego Chargers and the Seattle Seahawks.
During the frenzied free agency period, the Seahawks primarily signed offensive free agents: wide receiver Sidney Rice and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, both of whom played for the Minnesota Vikings last season, and tight end Zach Miller, who previously played for the Oakland Raiders.
Norv Turner's Chargers, on the other hand, eyed help on defense, signing ex-49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes and former Colts' safety Bob Sanders. Keeping the offense together was also a high priority for San Diego, and with the re-signing of both starting wide receivers (Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd), the feat was accomplished.
So when the two teams faced off in Qualcomm on Thursday night, fans from all over the country watched to see how the shortened offseason might impact teams.
Which back-up was most impressive Thursday night?
The Seattle Seahawks disappointed in the debut of star wide receiver Sidney Rice, who failed to even step foot on the field. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle's other major free agent pick-up, fell short of expectations as both of his backups severely outplayed him. Third-string quarterback Josh Portis threw for 69 yards on only nine attempts and tied the game with a six-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the night was Brian Walters' 103-yard kick return touchdown at the end of the third quarter. But the most memorable moment from the first day of the 2011 NFL preseason was at the start of San Diego's first possession.
After a six-yard completion to Vincent Jackson, Philip Rivers was lined up in shotgun for the Chargers' first third-down attempt of the season. He dropped back after the snap, eyed Jackson sprinting down the sideline and slung the rock.
Everyone in Qualcomm held their breath; everyone knew what was coming next.
The ball fell right into Jackson's hands, and the pass was complete, for a 48-yard completion. The stadium roared its approval, and the message was clear: the Bolts are back in their groove and ready to play.
After Rivers and Jackson connected on the bomb, the Bolts marched down the field and scored on a six-yard pass to Mike Tolbert. From here on out, without the starting lineup on the field, everything began to slide downhill for the Chargers.
After scoring 10 in the third, the Seahawks tied the game at 17-17 on Portis' touchdown pass with four minutes remaining. Soon after, Seattle capitalized on a late turnover with a 25-yard touchdown run for a seven-point lead.
San Diego's third-string quarterback, rookie Scott Tolzien out of Wisconsin, ended up with a 4th-and-3 with less than a minute remaining. The initial pass was deflected, and a desperation attempt at catching it fell short.
While the ending of the game may have seemed disappointing, the San Diego Chargers generated optimism with the progress they showed. Defensively, newcomers Takeo Spikes and Bob Sanders played consistently and effectively during their few plays. Offensively, Rivers proved in one possession that the shortened offseason hasn't limited him at all (5-for-6, 87 yards, 1 TD), and it definitely hasn't limited the team's powerful receiving core.
But the biggest development was the special teams unit, which made no errors. After last season's display of special teams' woes, Chargers fans were praying for any form of consolation—and they got it, with solid kicking and punting. Rookie Brian Walters also made a splash with his great kick returns. Make no mistake: the Chargers are ready for the 2011 NFL season.
Preseason games hold very little significance in the overall course of an NFL season, and no pattern can relate preseason success to any success beyond this point. But after the painful, grueling CBA talks, any and all football fans were relieved to be watching their beloved sport once more. The importance of the game didn't matter at all. However unimportant a game and its outcome may be, though, the preseason does serve a purpose: these early matchups can indicate the poise of a football team.
And on Thursday night, the San Diego Chargers were the most poised team on the field—for the first drive, anyway.