4 San Diego Chargers
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Wanted: a running game that can carry a fair share of the
By Jeffri Chadiha
One of the Chargers' priorities during the off-season was to upgrade a rushing attack that ranked last in the NFL in 2000. But as training camp dragged on, San Diego's corps of runners looked anything but new and improved. Battered and bruised better described its state. Not only did rookie running back and No. 1 draft choice LaDainian Tomlinson hold out for a good portion of the preseason, but the two players behind him on the depth chart -- Jermaine Fazande (groin and ankle) and Terrell Fletcher (hernia) -- were also sidelined with injuries. The Chargers got so thin at the position that general manager John Butler signed Madre Hill, who couldn't make it with the ground-game-challenged Browns, so the Chargers would have enough healthy rushers to practice.
San Diego entered camp with high expectations for an offense that was largely to blame for a 1-15 record last season. Thanks to a league-leading 50 turnovers, the Chargers lost eight games by eight points or less, and the newly hired Butler, who had helped build the Bills' Super Bowl teams, got busy as soon as he arrived in January. He signed free-agent quarterback Doug Flutie. Then he traded the first pick in the draft (and the opportunity to select Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick) to the Falcons, but still got Tomlinson, an All-America from TCU, with the fifth selection and Purdue quarterback Drew Brees with the first choice in the second round. Nevertheless, with so many key players missing time in camp -- tight end Freddie Jones was also on the shelf after undergoing surgery for a hernia on Aug. 1 that was expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks -- don't expect the offense to show that much improvement in Week 1.
"If there's any good in this, it's that all these injuries have happened early," says wide receiver Jeff Graham. "We still expect to get the offense rolling when all these guys come back, and I think with Doug, our receivers and a true featured back, we'll create some good matchups."
Tomlinson is the key. At 5'10", 221 pounds, he's a durable runner who also impressed teammates with his receiving and blocking during off-season workouts. How dire is the Chargers' need for a productive back? Well, Tomlinson holds the Division I single-game rushing record of 406 yards. Last season Fletcher was San Diego's leading rusher, with 384 yards, and the Chargers' total was only 1,062 yards, a figure that was eclipsed by 19 players in the NFL. The coaching staff's chief concern is how far Tomlinson has been set back by his missed time in camp. "I'm sure LaDainian is in great shape, but you can't simulate the physical part of this game -- putting on the gear, getting hit, running and changing direction at full speed," says coach Mike Riley. "Our worst fear is that he'll get hurt."
The Chargers would like to make Tomlinson the fulcrum of a ball-control attack, but to do that they must also rely heavily on a suspect line. Left tackle Vaughn Parker and center Roman Fortin are the only proven talents, while right tackle Ed Ellis and right guard DeMingo Graham have a combined 12 career starts. Left guard Kendyl Jacox is a fourth-year player who made starts at both guard spots and H-back last season.
The 38-year-old Flutie has already excited teammates with his ingenuity and improvisational skills, and if he can cut down on the mistakes that have been typical of San Diego quarterbacks (since 1997 the Chargers have thrown 54 touchdown passes and 109 interceptions), he'll gain even more favor. His upbeat approach has been a welcome contrast to the dour attitude exhibited by his predecessor, the banished Ryan Leaf.
"Our whole team was defined by Ryan," says strong safety Rodney Harrison. "The first thing people would ask was whether he really was that bad. That's not right when you have other guys working hard and trying to win. With his departure, it feels like a black cloud has been lifted."
On defense the Chargers upgraded a unit that ranked fourth in the league last year against the run with the free-agent signings of end Marcellus Wiley, linebacker John Holecek and cornerback Alex Molden. End Raylee Johnson has looked good in camp after missing all of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Still, San Diego will need a break or two to contend in a talented AFC West.
"It feels like I've been saying for years that we have a breath of fresh air around here, but it really seems that way now," says Parker, who has been with the Chargers since 1994. "I think we're moving in the right direction, and things can't get much worse. When we get our offense together, we'll be fine. It's time for us to hold up our end of the bargain."
Issue date: September 3, 2001