Postcard from Camp: Chargers
These Chargers realize the window of opportunity to win Super Bowl is closing
LaDanian Tomlinson has been the most impressive player in camp
Larry English, the team's first-round pick, has been slowed by a hamstring injury
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Chargers' camp in San Diego. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
Many of the Chargers' stars contend there's a different feel to this year's camp. Part of it has to do with the absence of fans, who are unable to attend workouts at the team's year-round facility because city workers are repairing the underground drainage systems behind the practice fields. That's where spectators previously watched practices from temporary bleachers. The other reason is a heightened sense of urgency that it's time to take the next step.
For the last few years the Chargers have been credited with having some of the league's best talent, if not its best depth. Still, they failed to convert that into a Super Bowl appearance, losing in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago and the divisional round last season. As much as those defeats hurt, general manager A.J. Smith and some players believe the losses could pay off this season because the Chargers are hungrier and "battle tested."
"I do believe there's an attitude here that if you want something, you better go take it," says coach Norv Turner, whose three wins in two postseasons tie for the franchise record.
Adds tight end Antonio Gates: "I can see the sense of urgency, the sense of understanding that when the opportunity comes, you need to embrace it. We have a lot of guys who've traveled down the path of being humbled, and that enables them to understand what it takes to not only get to your goal, but actually achieve it."
The urgency also stems from the fact that changes could be looming. Quarterback Philip Rivers, linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill, wide receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Darren Sproles and wideout Chris Chambers are in the last year of their contracts, and the deals of Gates and cornerback Antonio Cromartie expire after the 2010 season. It'll be tough to keep everyone, unless 2010 is an uncapped year and free agency is pushed back to six years instead of four. Under that scenario, which would benefit the organization tremendously, Merriman, McNeill, Jackson and Sproles would be restricted free agents instead of unrestricted free agents.
But that's a conversation for another day. At this time the focus is on taking that next step and reaching the Super Bowl.
1. Keep an eye on LT. Arguably the most impressive player in camp has been running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who is determined to prove that he's not on the decline after rushing for a career-low 1,110 yards last year, in his eighth season. Teammates, coaches and club officials echo two words when describing Tomlinson this camp: explosive and quiet. "That's a good combination," Tomlinson says, chuckling. "I like that."
Tomlinson, who turned 30 in June, has heard the drone of critics who say that running backs traditionally fall off the cliff at that age. It's motivation for him, although he doesn't go into great detail when discussing it. But the determination to silence his critics can be seen in his eyes, where there is an unblinking intensity when he talks about it.
Two things that speak to a bounce-back year from Tomlinson should he stay healthy: The offensive line is healthier than a year ago, and the defense is stronger with the return of Merriman, who missed the final 15 games with a knee injury. If the defense can hold down opponents, the Chargers will be able to go to their four-minute offense, which is when many backs chew up yards while running out the clock.
"That's something we have talked about, being up and scoring points, then taking that ball in the final four minutes and running it," Tomlinson says. "In four-minute, you can get almost 100 yards. You start wearing people down and then there are opportunities for big runs. You usually get anywhere from seven to 10 carries in four-minute, because you're thinking two first downs. So that's a big part of your run game."
2. Don't underestimate continuity. One of the keys to an improved defense is having a full offseason under Ron Rivera, who was promoted to coordinator midway through last season. Rivera is widely respected and harps on the details.
"We eliminated a lot of the gray areas," says cornerback Quentin Jammer. "I know last year there were times that [cornerback Antoine] Cason had a lot of questions because they were telling him to play the same thing two different ways. They were confusing the safeties, telling them to play the same Cover 2 two different ways. Ron came in and eliminated all of the gray area and made sure there was only one way to play the coverage. There's no deviation. We won't have three people telling everybody to play the coverage three different ways."
3. The offensive line is determined to rebound from a poor 2008. The year started poorly with center Nick Hardwick missing three games with a foot injury and left tackle Marcus McNeill missing two with a neck injury (they also missed training camp). The unit didn't really find its rhythm until late in the year. This season, everyone is healthy. The group lost right guard Mike Goff to free agency, but believes veteran Kynan Forney or rookie third-round pick Louis Vasquez should fill in nicely (although each has missed time with injuries).
McNeill has been especially impressive in camp. In one practice he stoned Merriman four times in a one-on-one pass rush drill. McNeill went to the Pro Bowl after each of his first two seasons and, after overcoming a neck injury last season, appears ready for another trip to Honolulu, er, South Florida.
"We take pride on being able to run the ball, and whenever we got caught not being one of the best running teams in the league last year, that really struck a blow to our ego as an offensive line," McNeill says. "We pride ourselves on dominating the trenches and trying to be one of the best offensive lines in the league, and we didn't feel like we were up to standards last year."
As a reminder, McNeill has the oversized shoulder pads and neck roll he wore last season hanging above his locker. "I keep those big ugly pads there to let me know it was a hard road last year, but I can go back to looking good this year," he says.
New Face, New Place
Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. OK, OK. He's not new to the team, but he did miss the final 15 games last season with a knee injury and, unquestionably, is the most important "addition" to the team this year. Merriman's greatness is that he makes those around him better. The Chargers thought they could make up for his absence last year, but the pass rush fell from 47 sacks in 2007 (12.5 by Merriman) to 28 in 2008.
"I remember one play against the Jets last year where they were on the goal line and Brett Favre stood back there and went through his reads twice and threw a touchdown," says Jammer. "I was like, damn! It was rough."
Merriman has looked good in camp and says he feels even stronger than before the injury, adding: "When I had the injury, I kind of found some of the other things I was lacking in, the little things like the balance, the flexibility, the other stuff that we sometimes take for granted because we're such good athletes we don't focus on them. I was able to get stronger in those areas."
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