- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SAN DIEGO -- The hangover from January's playoff loss to New England lingered with Chargers players. They woke up the next morning believing the worst -- that their coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was going to be fired.
Weeks later, the firing occurred. For the first time in NFL history, a 14-win team was an orphan. Quarterback Philip Rivers, halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and linebacker Shawne Merriman had to put the pieces back together.
"I think the way it happened was the shocker, the surprise," Rivers said. "The timing of it is what made it like, 'What in the world is going on?' I got together some of the key players and said, 'Listen, guys. Whatever happens, and this is crazy, we've got the same guys in there. We are going to be the same ones out there on the field Sunday.'"
The last time such a staggering divorce between a franchise and a coach happened was in 1993. Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson parted ways after Dallas won two Super Bowls, and Barry Switzer took over. Certainly not the most highly respected coach of his era, Switzer inherited one of the best teams in NFL history. Whether Switzer attended the Saturday night meeting or flew to Norman, Okla., to meet with his girlfriend on Saturday nights, the Cowboys had a 12-4 season in 1994 and won the Super Bowl the next year.
The Chargers, who might be the most talented team in the league on paper, inherit a coach they like and respect. Norv Turner might not elicit memories of Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh or Bill Parcells, but players like him. They respect him. He has only one trip to the playoffs in nine years as a head coach, but the Chargers hope he's the right man at the right time to get them to a Super Bowl.
"I was excited with the hire," Rivers said. "He fits great. We think a lot alike. His passion of the game is similar. He's going to be the offensive playcaller, so, as a quarterback, I'm going to know if he's calling a play to take a shot or just calling it to get a completion."
Despite the turmoil of the coaching change, life isn't much different in San Diego. Tomlinson only gets better with age, and the coaches know not to use him up in the preseason or use him too much in practices. Rivers, in his second year as a starter, is more confident. Gates is unstoppable as a tight end. Merriman is toning down his celebrations and gearing up his pass rushes.
"Right now, everything seems similar to me with the way Marty ran things," Tomlinson said."I think Norv's whole approach is that we've won a lot of games over the past two years. We've talked about this. He said he's going to put his touches on things, not trying to change anything. In camp, there doesn't appear to be much of a change."
Turner installed the same offense the Chargers were using when he was their offensive coordinator in 2001, Tomlinson's rookie season. Rivers likes it because it's a quarterback-friendly system in which he gets rid of the ball quickly. Tomlinson became the game's best running back in this system.
Perhaps the biggest transition will occur on defense. Had the coaching change happened immediately after the season, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips might have been promoted. Instead, he left for the Cowboys, which opened the door for longtime NFL veteran Ted Cottrell. So far, the system looks the same.
Cottrell has maintained the aggressive, blitzing style that enabled the Chargers to be a 14-game winner last season. So far, the green light is on for their aggressive pass-rushers, and the players like it.
"I can't tell you what Game 1, Game 2 or Game 3 will be like, but as of right now, all things are the same," Merriman said. "We're still going to be the same defense. We're still going to get a lot of pressure on quarterbacks and force them to make quick decisions. A few things in terminology has changed, so we have a few things to learn. But everything else is about the same."
Twenty of the 22 starters return from the 14-win team. General manager A.J. Smith, who assembled this talented group, has signed most of the key players to long-term extensions, meaning these will be the Chargers of the next several years. The key is to get back to the playoffs first, then to start to win in the offseason.
"The things that have been extremely impressive to me is the team is very physical and very athletic," Turner said. "There are a lot of guys who get attention, but the offensive and defensive lines are outstanding, and to me, that's where it starts. I believe we will continue to pressure the quarterback the way we have. Offensively, we are going to be able to run the ball. We need to continue to get better at wide receiver."
It was the little things that led to the Chargers' downfall in the playoff loss to the Patriots. Defenders made plays, then fumbled. Dumb penalties hurt at key times. A team that prided itself on smart play and controlled violence unraveled at the wrong time. That has to be fixed.
"I still regret throwing that one interception at the Patriots' 30," Rivers said. "I missed a couple of sight adjustment and hot reads. Some things didn't click. It was just a lot of little things. If you miss those plays in the regular season, it's not the worst thing because you are going to play again the next week. Those mistakes magnify in the playoffs because they can essentially cost you a chance to play again."
The toughest part for the Chargers will be the climb back into the playoffs. They can't take anything for granted. Opponents will be treating them like a Super Bowl team because of their talent and swagger. The schedule is a little tougher than last year's, but not as tough as the schedule that pulled them down to 9-7 in 2005. First, they have to make the playoffs. Then, they have to see whether this coaching move was the right one.
"There is a trust there," Tomlinson said of Turner. "I can tell the players who hadn't been with him to trust him when he says, 'Guys, this is the way it's going to be.'"
Turner issued a warning to an offense that averaged 30.8 points a game. He went through the statistics and trends and found that more than half of the games were against some of the worst defenses in football. This year, more than half of the games will be against the best teams.
The players trust Turner. They believe in themselves. What they have to do next is win a playoff game and see whether their talents on paper can translate into a championship run.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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