Postcards from camp: Chargers
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
Setting The Scene
The Chargers train at their facility in Murphy Canyon, a five-minute drive from their home field, Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley. It is a typical San Diego afternoon: 70 degrees, royal blue skies, F-14s in the distance, flying test runs over the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar. Fans sit in bleachers at the base of the canyon, eating from the grill, and a family tent is set up for players' friends and relatives. The Chargers' facility is not as picturesque as their old campsite, over the Pacific Ocean at UCSD in La Jolla, but it works nonetheless. After cornerback Cletis Gordon makes an interception, he runs over to the bleachers for a little love from the fans.
1. Now is the time. With running back LaDainian Tomlinson indicating he will play only two or three more years, and stars such as Shawne Merriman, Marcus McNeill, Philip Rivers and Chris Chambers due to become free agents after next season, the most popular phrase at Chargers' camp is "window of opportunity." In other words, the window is wide open, and the Chargers had better hurry up and climb through it. Just as the Steelers and Colts had to suffer in the playoffs before winning the Super Bowl, the Chargers believe they have paid their dues and are ready to give San Diego its first championship in a major sport in the modern era. "It's such a great city you wonder why it hasn't come sooner," said safety Eric Weddle, a San Diego native. "But there's a consensus in the locker room and in the community that this could be a very special year."
2. The Super Bowl parade could be a goodbye party. Despite a loaded roster and a zealous fan base, the possibility that the Chargers will leave San Diego has never been more real. The Chargers want a new stadium, and if they do not have a deal by January 1, they are free to leave town as long as they pay off about $50 million in stadium bonds. The Chargers have repeatedly professed their desire to stay in San Diego, but Mayor Jerry Sanders and the city government have basically stopped negotiating with them, citing a lack of funds. San Diego may indeed have more pressing projects that need attention. But if the Chargers get away, Sanders and his staff will be subject to a level of national scrutiny and civic outrage they probably cannot fathom. For now, the Chargers are trying to negotiate with Chula Vista, a smaller city within San Diego County, but no deal appears anywhere close to imminent.
3. Not since the days of Anthony Miller -- or maybe Charlie Joiner -- have the Chargers gone into a season without questions in their receiving corps. But this year, the Chargers have pass catchers galore, with Chambers, Vincent Jackson and the speedy Craig "Buster" Davis out wide. The real question is at tight end, traditionally a position of strength for the Chargers. Antonio Gates has not practiced with the team because he is still recovering from surgery on his left big toe, which he dislocated in the playoffs against Tennessee, and then played on against Indianapolis and New England. From the beginning, the injury was more severe than Gates anticipated. He is doing individual drills and expects to return early in the season, but he has no idea how effective he will be. "You wonder if you'll be the same person you were in the past," Gates said. "That's common. It's human nature when you've been out for a while. I wonder if I'll still be the impact player that I was."
New Faces, New Places
Running back Jacob Hester went from a team that won the national championship to a team that believes it can win the Super Bowl. Hester, drafted by the Chargers in the third round out of LSU, has a knack for putting himself in the best possible positions. The Chargers will use him to back up Tomlinson, block for Tomlinson, and spell Tomlinson in goal-line situations. The last person to have that job, Michael Turner, left in the offseason to become the starter in Atlanta. Hester is not as fast as Turner, but he is a ferocious runner with a sense for the goal line. In his first preseason game against Dallas, he scored two touchdowns. "When I got to San Diego, my wife and I were driving around, and I was thinking: 'I'm in the NFL, I'm living here and I'm backing up the best running back ever in my mind," Hester said. "What a great spot to be."
Looking At The Schedule
The Chargers open with Carolina, but receiver Steve Smith will be suspended. Then they go to Denver, but receiver Brandon Marshall will be suspended. They follow with the Jets, but Brett Favre will just be learning the offense. Like all first-place teams, the Chargers have a difficult schedule, but it looks relatively manageable. Their showdowns with New England and Indianapolis are both at home. Their road game against the Saints is in London instead of New Orleans. The Chargers should cruise through the AFC West, but they still need to prove they can beat the Patriots, who ushered them out of the playoffs the last two years.
Facing an all-out rush in 11-on-11s, Rivers found tight end Brandon Manumaleuna in the flat with a funky sidearm throw -- even more funky and sidearm than usual. "A little Brett Favre action," chirped one of the Chargers. Rivers has always endeared himself to teammates, but never more so than when he played on a torn ACL in the AFC championship game at New England in January. The Chargers lost, but Rivers solidified his place as a team leader. Of all the ludicrous stories that filled air time last season was the one about Rivers somehow being a bad citizen because he jabbered with Denver quarterback Jay Cutler on the field and participated in some playful dialogue with fans in Indianapolis during a game. The NFL has plenty of diva quarterbacks. Rivers comes across as one of the most down-to-earth, a guy who got married when he was in college at NC State, but made sure to ask his coach for permission first. His personality, relentlessly upbeat and engaging, should be embraced by the league, not quashed by it.
Gates is not the only one needing foot massages these days. Center Nick Hardwick is also still recovering from foot surgery and will probably be out longer than Gates.
The Chargers lost cornerback Drayton Florence and safety Marlon McCree to free agency, but they should not miss either of them. Antonio Cromartie is clearly an upgrade at corner, and Weddle could easily be an upgrade at safety.
The Chargers signed defensive end Luis Castillo to a seven-year extension, meaning defensive end Igor Olshanky will probably hit the free-agent market after this season.
When Tomlinson, Gates and Chambers are at full strength, nobody in the NFL has a better job than receiver Vincent Jackson, who draws very favorable match-ups.
If the Chargers had not won that divisional playoff game at Indianapolis, Norv Turner might be one of the coaches on shaky ground. Instead, he won himself some security.