- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SAN DIEGO -- A year ago, the Chargers were a bunch of strangers training in the Home Depot Center more than 90 minutes from their homes in San Diego. No one gave them a chance. Camp opened with Drew Brees awaiting Philip Rivers' arrival to replace him as the starter, a defense trying to make a switch to a 3-4 and an offensive line that wasn't given a chance.
"Playoffs" was one of the last words associated with the 2004 team.
"There was no way of knowing," Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer said of the fortunes of the 2004 team.
That team won 12 games. Brees went to the Pro Bowl, and Schottenheimer was coach of the year. Now, the Chargers are favored to repeat as champs of the AFC West, perhaps the NFL's toughest division.
"You know, we felt pretty good about ourselves last year but nobody believed it," Brees said. "It doesn't matter what people think on the outside. The only thing that matters is what you feel about yourself."
The Chargers believe, and they should. This is a good football team, solid on defense and sneaky good on offense. Ownership obviously believes in it, pointing out that the 24 starters -- kicker and punter included -- return, the only team in football to boast that claim of stability. Moving training camp to team headquarters raised the spirits in the locker room further. Ticket sales are up. Despite an unbelievably shaky political climate within the city, the Chargers still have hopes of getting a new stadium and staying in San Diego instead of moving up the road to Los Angeles.
Although the Chargers have confidence in themselves, they also are realistic. A year ago, they sneaked up on teams. Getting back to 12 wins might be difficult because of the schedule. At 139-117, the Chargers' schedule is second only to Miami as the league's toughest. The AFC West is tougher with the Raiders' addition of Randy Moss and the Chiefs' moves to solidify the defense.
San Diego's out-of-division schedule is ridiculous. The team makes long trips to play New England, Philadelphia, the New York Jets, Washington and Indianapolis. Last year, the only playoff team the Chargers beat was Denver, and it could be hard to tally a winning record for those five games. But if the San Diego does win three or more of those contests, 10 or 11 victories seems like a realistic goal.
"I think we are a better team than we were a year ago, but the schedule is as tough as any team in the league," Schottenheimer said. "With five trips to the East Coast against five quality teams, our work will be cut out for us. We'll coach them one at a time. But if you qualify for the playoffs playing the kind of schedule we've got, you are battle tested and better served to move forward."
Last year, the Chargers found themselves, and no player found himself better than Brees did. He turned a deaf ear to those doubting him. From the beginning of the team's offseason program in March 2004 -- a month before Rivers was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Giants -- Brees made sure everyone knew who was the boss and which player his teammates should follow to make the playoffs. Belief can be a powerful tool.
"I've always been a very confident person, and during the first three years of my career, I gained so much experience," Brees said. "The 2003 season [four wins and a 67.5 quarterback rating] happened for a reason. It presented me with a challenge to do what we did in 2004. There are always ways of turning negatives into positives. I think we would not have been able to have the season we did last year had we not gone through what we did in 2003. You get that hard shell of toughness that we were not going to go out like that."
Brees was masterful last season, and he earned every reward he received. He completed 65.5 percent of his passes, threw 27 touchdown passes and had a 104.8 quarterback rating, but his story goes beyond the stats. He stepped forward and became the leader when everyone doubted him except those who followed him. If he continues that growth -- and there is no reason he shouldn't -- it will be Brees getting the long-term contract next year and Rivers wondering about his future.
"My mind-set last year was that every time I was around these guys, I wanted to make sure they knew I was the starting quarterback even if it hadn't been announced yet," Brees said. "I've always been a very confident person."
Brees shows even more control of the team this year. He has trained even harder this offseason. His pass velocity is at its best; he's throwing much harder than his original scouting reports coming out of Purdue. He also is working with an underpublicized offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, who is starting to do with him the things Charlie Weis did with Tom Brady. Despite the presence of the league's best running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers' offense isn't "Marty Ball" -- totally reliant on the run.
"I made the comment last year that Marty Ball, as we know it, is dead," Schottenheimer said. "You have to be able to throw the ball to put points on the scoreboard. In this offensive system, we are not holding onto the ball very long. The ball is coming out."
Cameron uses three-receiver sets and a lot of quick passes, Brees' specialty. With his improved arm strength, Brees is getting the ball out not only quicker but also with more authority. The receiving crop is better and deeper. Keenan McCardell, brought in last season in a trade with the Buccaneers, is the main receiver. Eric Parker, Reche Caldwell, Vincent Jackson and Kassim Osgood aren't household names, but they are impressive athletes and give Brees a deep group of receivers.
The Chargers averaged almost 28 points a game last season even though no wide receiver caught more than 47 passes. Expect McCardell and maybe Parker or Caldwell to be 50-plus catch receivers this year, with McCardell being Brees' go-to wide receiver.
"I think we are a real interesting, fun group," McCardell said. "Everybody has their own knack in the game. We have different body styles. We got big guys. We got some medium-sized guys. We got small guys. We got a group that can surprise people."
Although Marty Ball might be dead, Schottenheimer's formula for producing playoff teams -- which he perfected in Kansas City and Cleveland -- hasn't changed. It still comes down to playing good defense. What the Chargers did last year bordered on the impossible. Thanks to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Chargers made the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in one season and improved the team's run defense from 25th in the league in 2003 to third.
General manager AJ Smith used that base to build on in trying to improve the pass-rush. The Chargers had only 29 sacks last season, 10 by blitzing linebacker Steve Foley. With his two first-round choices, Smith drafted pass-rushing linebacker Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo, who has a good chance of starting at left end early in the season.
"The Chargers were a great run defense last year, and stopping the run is one of my biggest strengths," Castillo said. "But I also can offer some help on the pass rush. They think I'm athletic and powerful enough to help there. The 3-4 is the perfect scheme for athletic defensive tackles in college. That's what Igor Olshansky [starting right defensive end] and I were. You have to have the power to make something happen and be quick enough and smart enough to use your quickness."
The Chargers have taken a meticulous, well-thought approach to restocking the team. Last year, they found their identity. As a team, the Chargers were scrappers, led by Brees and Tomlinson on offense, and they became solid on defense in switching to a 3-4. They made bold moves in picking up veterans who brought leadership last year -- McCardell, Foley, linebacker Randall Godfrey, left tackle Roman Oben and guard Mike Goff.
"Those five guys, in my view, had as much to do with the success of [the] team last year as anybody because of their play as well as their leadership," Schottenheimer said. "It will be a better defense this year because we have being doing it for more than a year."
The Chargers believe, and why shouldn't they? Their only free-agent acquisition was safety Bhawoh Jue, who is challenging Jerry Wilson for the starting free safety spot. All the starters are back, but the competition is better at most positions.
A year ago, the Chargers were a surprise. They might not be a 12-win team, but they will be a tough team to beat.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.