The chargers' future is like a blank canvas. They are the closest thing to an anonymous team that the NFL has had in years. Other than running back LaDainian Tomlinson and the backup quarterback, Doug Flutie, can you name three San Diego players? One receiver? One defensive lineman? During training camp at The Home Depot Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson, there was more fan interest in the nearby X Games than in the only NFL franchise in Southern California.
"You're right," says general manager A.J. Smith, no household name himself. "If you're a fan and you look at us, you say, 'Who are these people?' Our plan is to build through the draft, not with the big-dollar, Pro Bowl free agents. That doesn't work. We've had 16 nonwinning seasons in our last 20, but if we make the right draft choices, and they develop, we'll win."
The uncertainty of youth--the Chargers will start 15 players 25 and younger--is how coach Marty Schottenheimer characterizes the coming season. "With a group of young guys," he says, "sometimes you look into their eyes and all you see are the backs of their heads." Schottenheimer will have to speed up the learning curve, if he hopes to reach .500 this season and save his job on the heels of 8--8 and 4--12 seasons.
One of the top priorities is fixing a pass defense that last year allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.5% of their attempts (25th in the league). New coordinator Wade Phillips is looking for a pass rusher from among a thin pool of candidates. Does he bank on defensive end Adrian Dingle, a sixth-year veteran who's playing on a shaky knee? Or linebacker Steve Foley, a free-agent pickup who has 101/2 sacks in 67 NFL games? Or rookie Igor Olshanky, who played tackle in college but is making the switch to end in Phillips's 3--4?
Players like cornerback Sammy Davis, who started all 16 games and intercepted two passes as a rookie last year, have to put their on-the-job training in 2003 to good use this season. "It's a must for the young guys in the secondary to be good for the team to be good," he says. "You can't ask LaDainian to do it all. We're young, and nobody knows us yet, but I can guarantee you the defense will be a lot better this season."
Smith says he was embarrassed by the play of a once-formidable defense that ranked 27th in the league last year and 30th in 2002. After one loss last season, mindful of the long road to respectability, he went up to Tomlinson, who in his first three seasons has rushed for 4,564 yards on a team that has won 17 games, and told him, "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure your career is not played in vain."
On offense San Diego needs to balance its attack, and to that end the team used the first pick in the draft on a quarterback. Even that blew up. The Chargers were rebuffed in their efforts to bring Eli Manning into the fold, so they traded his rights to the Giants for the fourth overall selection, Philip Rivers, only to have to deal with a nasty holdout by the gifted passer out of North Carolina State. Rivers finally agreed to a six-year contract on Aug. 23.
With Rivers coming in late, it was left to fourth-year veteran Drew Brees, who has mostly failed in 27 tries as the San Diego starting quarterback, to lead the young unknowns through camp. When Brees stepped into the huddle, he looked around and saw two linemen (center Jason Ball and tackle Phil Bogle), a tight end ( Antonio Gates) and a wide receiver ( Eric Parker) who weren't even drafted and had a total of 10 years of NFL experience.
One summer day Tomlinson overheard the bright-eyed Parker talking about San Diego making the Super Bowl this year, and the star running back told him, "Eric, man, you have to be realistic."
Says Tomlinson, "I've studied NFL history, and it's pretty rare that you go from 4--12 to winning the Super Bowl in one year. [The 1999 Rams were the only team to do so.] My freshman year at TCU we went 1--10. The next year we were 7--5 and beat USC, and we were on our way. That's why, for us, we have to think about .500 right now. Get to 8--8 and build from there." --P.K.