On the surface Takeo Spikes's joining the Chargers smacks of a desperate attempt by a veteran player to chase a Super Bowl ring—which it is, to some extent. Despite playing for four teams and starting 183 of 187 games during his 13 years in the league, the veteran inside linebacker has never been to the playoffs and has played for only one team that had a winning season. An opportunity to sign with a Chargers club that has had winning records in six of the past seven seasons and advanced to the playoffs in four of the past five, understandably, was attractive.
San Diego more than welcomed Spikes's interest. The Chargers were so hungry to find an interior linebacker who could bring physicality to the field and authority to the locker room that general manager A.J. Smith called Spikes within 10 minutes of the start of free agency in August. The message behind his message was that the team didn't just want Spikes, they needed him. "A.J. said, 'I want leadership, but I want playmakers first. We need both those things to get to the next level,' " Spikes recalls.
Spikes's arrival followed the March signing of veteran safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 defensive player of the year with the Colts who missed 39 of 48 games the last three seasons because of injuries. Like Spikes, Sanders brings a commanding presence on and off the field. If Sanders stays healthy, his acquisition could be the steal of the off-season. During his last full season, in 2007, Sanders had 97 tackles, 3½ sacks, two interceptions, six passes defensed and one forced fumble. He also provided an intimidation element that is less quantifiable.
"We know why he was available, because he's been hurt," coach Norv Turner says. "But there have been guys like that who've come back to be productive. There was one here: Rodney Harrison. People thought he wouldn't stay healthy [he was released by the Chargers after the 2002 season], and he went to New England and won two Super Bowls. When I was in Washington we couldn't keep Mark Schlereth because there were three or four [physical] things wrong with him, but he goes to Denver and extends his career five or six more years and wins a couple of Super Bowls."
Super Bowl has become an epithet of derision in San Diego, where the Chargers annually are hailed as having some of the league's top personnel only to flame out in the playoffs. In fact, they failed to even reach the postseason last year, largely because of poor special teams play, especially during their fourth straight 2--3 start under Turner.
Still, the feeling is that their top-ranked offense—with quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates, wideouts Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, and running backs Mike Tolbert and Ryan Mathews—is so good that, with just a little more help in the other phases of the game, a title run is a strong possibility.
Defensively that means producing more takeaways. For all the talk about the Chargers' ranking No. 1 in defense, they were 10th in points allowed (20.1 per game) and tied for 14th in interceptions (16), 26th in forced fumbles (10) and 23rd in takeaways (23), even though they tied for second in sacks with 47.
Turner privately told team insiders that there were occasions when the unit could have been more aggressive, which, in turn, could have produced more game-changing turnovers. When defensive coordinator Ron Rivera left in January to become the Panthers' coach, Turner quickly turned to former San Francisco coordinator Greg Manusky, whose aggressive, attacking schemes fit the Chargers' needs. It also didn't hurt that Manusky had a close relationship with Spikes from their three seasons together with the 49ers.
In Spikes, Turner sees plenty of a former Chargers stalwart. "Everyone knows when you lose a guy like [Shawne] Merriman—[you lose] a presence," Turner says of the former All-Pro linebacker who was waived last November because of a dropoff in production and frequent injuries. "Everyone wants to talk about the stuff before and after the snap, but I'm talking about what a guy like Shawne does when the ball is snapped. He would take his guy and knock him backward. He'd change the way the offense had to attack you.
"We'd like get more turnovers, we'd like to take the ball away more, and Takeo and Bob are the types of guys that do those things."