WHAT IN the name of Rex Ryan has gotten into Norv Turner? The Chargers coach is normally bland and monotone when he says anything for public consumption, but last June, Turner stepped before reporters and said, straight out, that this could be the best team he's had since he took over in San Diego in 2007. So out of character was the boast that listeners had to wonder whether Turner had adopted the old motto, If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Five months earlier Turner's Chargers had been bounced from the playoffs by the brash Ryan and his surging Jets. The defeat was particularly painful because it came at home, after San Diego had won 11 straight games to finish the regular season and seemed on a Super Bowl roll.
Maybe Turner believes that if he says it, his players will start to believe it. But consider: His first Chargers team—which had 11 returning Pro Bowlers from a 14--2 squad—advanced to the AFC Championship Game, and his third went more than two months without losing.
Turner's assessment is even more surprising considering what the Chargers have been through this off-season: They released LaDainian Tomlinson, their alltime leading rusher; traded away cornerback Antonio Cromartie, a three-year starter and former Pro Bowl selection; and took such a hold-the-line stance in contract talks with two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Marcus McNeill and top wideout Vincent Jackson that both have said they'll sit out the season unless they receive more money. Best team? Really?
"It's not spin," Turner says. "We're bigger, we're stronger, and we're faster. Some of the guys we've added and are going to ask to play, they're bigger, stronger, faster. So we have a chance to grow as a team."
The Chargers have been trending down the past few years. They won two playoff games in Turner's first season, one in his second and none last year. Something needed to change, and by jettisoning Tomlinson, a former league MVP who was the face of the franchise, the organization believes quarterback Philip Rivers will be able to fully spread his wings.
Rivers was always careful not to step on Tomlinson's toes—particularly when the two-time rushing champ chafed at Turner's decision to run the offense through Rivers's right arm. With that tension gone, everyone can relax and pull in the same direction. Now there's no doubt as to who leads the offense: It's Rivers, who since moving into the starting lineup in 2006 has thrown 105 touchdown passes and is 18--0 in December.
He'll be aided this year by 2010 first-rounder Ryan Mathews, the Fresno State back who was impressive in the preseason. The Chargers think Mathews has more burst and explosiveness than the late-era Tomlinson, whose average plunged under Turner: LT had 5.2 yards per carry in 2006 under Marty Schottenheimer, then 4.7 in Turner's first year, then 3.8 and 3.3.
But the absence of McNeill, Rivers's blind side protector, and Jackson, his favorite wideout target, undoubtedly will hurt. The Chargers have no experienced left tackle to fill in for McNeill. Brandyn Dombrowski, an undrafted free agent in 2008, is the projected starter. He performed well at right tackle in nine starts (including the playoff game) last season but has barely played on the other side of the line.
Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis are expected to pick up the slack for Jackson, but neither has his combination of size (6'5", 230 pounds), speed and athleticism. Jackson is the only player in the league to average more than 17 yards a catch in each of the past two seasons, and he's the target Rivers has looked for, even more than tight end Antonio Gates, when San Diego needs a big play.