Early last March, San Diego's star running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, sat at a sushi bar trying to persuade prized free-agent wideout David Boston to sign with the Chargers. The bar was at Seau's, a Mission Valley restaurant that is owned by future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, though the proprietor, perhaps appropriately, was nowhere to be found.
"Hey, man, I need a big-time receiver," Tomlinson said to Boston. "Drew [Brees] needs a big-time receiver."
"Cool," Boston replied. "I need a big-time running back!"
The next day Boston, who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2001 with the Cardinals, canceled a planned visit to Baltimore and signed a seven-year, $47 million contract with the Chargers. That deal, along with the trade of the 34-year-old Seau, who is probably the most popular player in franchise history, to the Dolphins and the release of strong safety Rodney Harrison—long the Robin to Seau's Batman—sent a clear message to Chargers fans: Get ready for some electricity, because San Diego is going to be an offense-driven team. "There are going to be games when we'll need 40 points to win," says Brees, who is entering his second season as the starter. "With all our weapons, we're capable of doing that."
Such potency would seem incompatible with Marty Ball, the name given to the control-the-clock approach that usually characterizes coach Marty Schottenheimer's teams. But as tempted as he might be to hand the ball to the quick, physical Tomlinson on every play, Schottenheimer knows Boston's skills are too enticing to ignore.
At 6'2" and 245 pounds, and with bulging biceps like Popeye's, Boston caused double takes the first time he stepped onto the Chargers' practice field. Blessed with speed, explosiveness and fabulous footwork, Boston was taken with the eighth pick in the draft by the Cardinals in 1999. He racked up 1,156 receiving yards in his second season and 1,598 in his third year before trouble set in. First came an off-season arrest for driving under the influence (he pleaded no contest to two DUI charges), and then Boston tore a tendon in his right knee, which limited him to eight games and 32 receptions in 2002.
When the Cardinals elected not to resign Boston following last season, the Chargers were standing by ready to recruit him. "I made my bed in Arizona, and I was going to lie in it," Boston says. "But as soon as they didn't name me their franchise player, I knew they didn't want to win. I had a chance to pick what I wanted in a team, and the first tiling was a strong running game."
With 2,919 rushing yards in his two seasons, including a franchise-record 1,683 in 2002, Tomlinson was an obvious attraction. "He has an opportunity to become one of the preeminent backs in NFL history," Schottenheimer says. "He reminds me a lot of Walter." As in Walter Payton. No pressure there.
To help Tomlinson fulfill those expectations, the Chargers signed punishing fullback Lorenzo Neal, a blocker so gifted that he made last year's Pro Bowl as a member of the Bengals. Then again, you won't hear many Bengals jokes in San Diego. Having gone seven years without a winning season—only five fewer than the Bengals—the Chargers have the second-longest such streak in the NFL.
Last year the Chargers started 5-1 and were 8-4 before dropping their final four games. Then, in April the team lost general manager John Butler to lung cancer. With stadium issues raising doubts about whether the team will remain in San Diego, this franchise can use some good news.