Struggles likely to continue in S.D.
The Chargers were 4-12 last season and things don't look much better for 2004.
Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.
This time there is no false bravado. No general manager talking about making it a "push year'' and going to the playoffs. No coach talking about having a "damn good football team.''
There's good reason. This time it also could be argued there is no hope.
The Chargers tied for the worst record in the NFL last year, and despite numerous offseason changes -- shedding DEs Marcellus Wiley and Raylee Johnson, WR David Boston and OTs Vaughn Parker and Damion McIntosh -- the smart money already is on the club gaining sole possession of that distinction this year. In fact, college players everywhere probably are calling Eli Manning for advice on how to avoid the franchise.
The club's reputation wasn't helped by the Manning affair or by the long contract dispute (which finally ended Aug. 24) with the player they acquired in exchange for Manning, QB Philip Rivers. Despite a lack of preseason reps, head coach Marty Schottenheimer had not ruled out Rivers leap-frogging the incumbent starter, Drew Brees, in time to be the Week One starter.
The defense has its own problems -- it allowed a club-record 36 TD passes and more points than every team but Arizona -- but the Chargers are hoping new coordinator Wade Phillips and a switch to a 3-4 will help.
Just think where this team would be without LaDainian Tomlinson.
Quarterbacks: Over the past seven seasons, the Chargers are 35-77, an embarrassing .313 winning percentage in a league designed to promote parity. One big reason: lack of consistency at quarterback. Brees was the 10th different quarterback used by the Chargers since their last playoff game (1995), and the team has won four of his last 20 starts. He's not solely to blame, as the line has been shaky, and he's had few playmakers to work with, but Brees has his faults. His lack of size and arm strength limits the throws he can make, particularly down the middle. Neither issue figures to be a problem with Rivers, but even with a full training camp, the rookie would have struggled. Doug Flutie, who will be 42 in October, is good insurance, but not for any long stretches of time. Grade: C.
Running backs: The only thing Tomlinson didn't do last season was make the Pro Bowl, but that's more a reflection on the voting process than anything the Chargers' lone superstar did. He led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,370, the second-highest total in league history, and became the first NFL back to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes in the same season. He even threw a TD pass. If there was any problem with Tomlinson, it was that he didn't carry the ball enough; he had fewer than 20 attempts in half the Chargers' games last season, including five straight during the middle of the season. The Chargers have no proven backup, but it's not like it matters: Jesse Chatman and Leon Johnson had only 12 carries between them last season. Lorenzo Neal remains a quality fullback. Grade: A-minus.
Receivers: Other than Tomlinson, the leading receiver returning is TE Antonio Gates, who had all of 24 catches as a rookie. Gates, a former college basketball player, has the size and speed to become a star, although he's still inexperienced. The receivers all have question marks, particularly when it comes to their durability. The top four - Eric Parker, Tim Dwight, Reche Caldwell and newcomer Kevin Dyson - all missed substantial portions of last season with serious injuries. Playing time figures to rotate between those four and Kassim Osgood. The other tight ends, Justin Peelle and Josh Norman, are better receivers than they are blockers. Grade: C-minus.
Offensive linemen: This year's starting lineup will look totally different than last year's, and that's not a bad thing. A pair of veterans, OG Mike Goff (Bengals) and OT Roman Oben (Bucs), were brought in, and former second-round pick Toniu Fonoti returns from injured reserve at left guard. They'll combine with second-year OT Courtney Van Buren and rookie C Nick Hardwick to form a unit that could be better than many expect. And, as Tomlinson has shown, he doesn't need much space to get his yards. Depth comes from versatile OG-OT Phil Bogle, who gained some experience last season, and OT Leander Jordan. C Jason Ball, the starter the last two seasons, missed all of training camp in a contract dispute. Grade: C.
Defensive linemen: NT Jamal Williams gives the Chargers a 350-pound force in the middle, but he sometimes has trouble staying healthy, and his backups aren't nearly that big, although DeQuincy Scott had 61z2 sacks last year. DE Adrian Dingle started every game last season and posted six sacks, but he was at less than full strength this summer with a knee injury. The other starting end, 6-foot-7 Otis Leverette, has only 12 games of NFL experience and zero starts. The Chargers will be looking for rookies Igor Olshanky and Dave Ball to learn quickly. Grade: C.
Linebackers: There are no superstars in this unit, although ILB Donnie Edwards has been to one Pro Bowl. There is, however, a lot of depth. Edwards and Randall Godfrey likely will start inside, although Zeke Moreno and especially Stephen Cooper played well during training camp. Ben Leber and newcomer Steve Foley will be on the outside and be counted upon to improve a pass rush that was fairly woeful last year. Carlos Polk and rookie Shaun Phillips also will see time on the outside. Grade: B-minus.
Defensive backs: All new a year ago, the secondary returns in full, with three young starters - third-year CB Quentin Jammer, second-year CB Sammy Davis and SS Terrence Kiel - joining one of two veterans at the FS spot, Kwamie Lassiter or Jerry Wilson. Jammer showed improvement last season but must take another step forward this year. Davis is stronger than he was as a rookie, and another second-year corner, Drayton Florence, will be the nickel back. Grade: B.
Special teams: The Chargers used their fifth-round pick in 2003 on a punter and their third-round pick this year on a kicker. The team let veterans Darren Bennett and Steve Christie go, so now it's up to P Mike Scifres and PK Nate Kaeding to show those picks weren't wasted. Johnson, Dwight and Florence all can return kickoffs, and Parker likely will be used on punt returns. Grade: C-plus.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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