Postcard from camp: Chargers
Philip Rivers called this year's team the most talented he's been on in his career
New DC John Pagano is simplifying things in order to get the defense to play faster
Lack of depth on O-line means Chargers need Jared Gaither to live up to his deal
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about Chargers camp in San Diego, Calif., which he visited on Aug. 1. Read all of our postcards here.
At Chargers Park, the team's year-round training facility a few miles north of Qualcomm Stadium. There wasn't much to observe during my morning visit, as the squad was going through a pad-less walkthrough. Still, here are some thoughts from conversations with players, coaches and general manager A.J. Smith.
1. After years of being hyped as Super Bowl contenders in the preseason only to fall short in January, the Chargers are flying under most radars. They like it that way. But don't get it twisted; these players firmly believe the team's two-year playoff drought will end this season. QB Philip Rivers says this is the best team, players one through 90, he has been on. What excites him most, he says, is that he's surrounded by players who love playing the game. Football isn't just a job for them, it's a passion. Will that be enough? Time will tell. But there's definitely a sense of urgency in the locker room and the front office. "Any year if you don't go to the playoffs, you have wasted an entire season because you didn't allow yourself to chase a championship," Smith says. "The purpose of a regular season is to fight your tail off and get one of those special bids to go."
2. The defense will be better than it was a year ago, and not simply because it has no place to go but up after ranking last in third-down efficiency. Opponents converted on 96 of 195 third downs -- a staggering 49.2 percent conversion rate that was 11 points higher than the league average. Coordinator Greg Manusky was fired in the offseason and replaced by long-time team assistant John Pagano, who has eliminated many of the gray areas that resulted in breakdowns last year. The objective is to beat opponents with execution and technique rather than complicated schemes. Pagano believes there is a direct correlation between thinking less and playing faster.
San Diego also has upgraded its personnel, adding linebacker Jarret Johnson and safety Atari Bigby in free agency as well as pass rusher Melvin Ingram and end Kendall Reyes via the draft. No one is more aware of the improvements on defense than Rivers, who sees it each day in practice. "I hate to say it but yesterday we threw two interceptions and they stripped four balls in practice," he said. "Our defense has a huge emphasis on that this year. It seems like they're just flying around. There are more contested balls in the secondary; they're getting their hands on 'em. I know it's making us better as an offense."
3. Rivers can't contain his excitement when discussing the weapons at his disposal, most notably tight end Antonio Gates, who for the first time in several years is healthy and running without pain. Gates has been having his way with defenders in practice, meaning opponents won't have the luxury of single-covering him on Sundays. Secondly, Rivers can't stop gushing about slot receiver Eddie Royal. San Diego has not had an inside receiver like Royal since Rivers arrived in San Diego in 2004. The Chargers lost vertical threat Vincent Jackson in free agency and won't be able to replace him with one player, including Robert Meachem, who was signed to fill the No. 1 slot. But Meachem, Vincent Brown and Malcom Floyd together figure to see a lot of one-on-one matchups because of Gates and running back Ryan Mathews, who is poised for a breakout season in Year 3. Mathews shared time with Mike Tolbert the past two years, but the Chargers allowed Tolbert to leave as a free agent, which means Mathews will have an even more prominent role in the offseason.
Jared Gaither, left tackle. The sixth-year pro was a life-saver for the Chargers last season. After Baltimore allowed him to leave as a free agent and Kansas City released him, he was claimed off waivers and inserted into San Diego's starting offense. He quickly provided stability to an injury-ravaged line and helped San Diego stay in playoff contention. In the offseason the Chargers signed him to a potential $24.5 million deal that includes virtual guarantees of $13.5 million, but the 6-foot-9, 335-pounder has been missing in action at camp. Reportedly suffering from cramping and back spasms, he has participated in only one practice. Personnel people throughout the league are viewing the situation with arched eyebrows. They questioned when he signed the contract whether his desire would remain as strong once his pockets were full. He has to step up because the Chargers don't have a legitimate option behind him.
Jarret Johnson, outside linebacker. Johnson is one of those football junkies to whom Rivers referred. He plays with high intensity, is no-nonsense and last missed a game in 2006. In other words, just what the Chargers defense needs. Johnson won't overwhelm you with stats -- he had a total of four sacks the past two years and never has had more than six in a season -- but he's the type of selfless player who can make an inconsistent defense efficient.
The schedule is conducive to a quick start. The Chargers open at Oakland, which is breaking in a new coaching staff and lost some key players in cost-cutting moves in the offseason, then they host Tennesssee and Atlanta. There's no reason to believe they won't come out of those games 3-0, which means nothing considering they lost six in a row last year after starting 4-1. Two key stretches that could greatly impact their season: Sept. 30 through Oct. 15, when they visit Kansas City and New Orleans before hosting Peyton Manning and the Broncos; then Nov. 1 through Dec. 9, when they'll host the Chiefs and visit the Bucs before playing four 2011 playoff qualifiers: at Denver, vs. Baltimore and Cincinnati, and at Pittsburgh.
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