UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Postcard from Camp: Chargers

SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Jim Trotter had to say about the Chargers' camp in San Diego. For an archive of all the camp postcards, click here.

Many of the Chargers' stars contend there's a different feel to this year's camp. Part of it has to do with the absence of fans, who are unable to attend workouts at the team's year-round facility because city workers are repairing the underground drainage systems behind the practice fields. That's where spectators previously watched practices from temporary bleachers. The other reason is a heightened sense of urgency that it's time to take the next step.

For the last few years the Chargers have been credited with having some of the league's best talent, if not its best depth. Still, they failed to convert that into a Super Bowl appearance, losing in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago and the divisional round last season. As much as those defeats hurt, general manager A.J. Smith and some players believe the losses could pay off this season because the Chargers are hungrier and "battle tested."

"I do believe there's an attitude here that if you want something, you better go take it," says coach Norv Turner, whose three wins in two postseasons tie for the franchise record.

Adds tight end Antonio Gates: "I can see the sense of urgency, the sense of understanding that when the opportunity comes, you need to embrace it. We have a lot of guys who've traveled down the path of being humbled, and that enables them to understand what it takes to not only get to your goal, but actually achieve it."

The urgency also stems from the fact that changes could be looming. Quarterback Philip Rivers, linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill, wide receiver Vincent Jackson, running back Darren Sproles and wideout Chris Chambers are in the last year of their contracts, and the deals of Gates and cornerback Antonio Cromartie expire after the 2010 season. It'll be tough to keep everyone, unless 2010 is an uncapped year and free agency is pushed back to six years instead of four. Under that scenario, which would benefit the organization tremendously, Merriman, McNeill, Jackson and Sproles would be restricted free agents instead of unrestricted free agents.

But that's a conversation for another day. At this time the focus is on taking that next step and reaching the Super Bowl.

1. Keep an eye on LT. Arguably the most impressive player in camp has been running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who is determined to prove that he's not on the decline after rushing for a career-low 1,110 yards last year, in his eighth season. Teammates, coaches and club officials echo two words when describing Tomlinson this camp: explosive and quiet. "That's a good combination," Tomlinson says, chuckling. "I like that."

Tomlinson, who turned 30 in June, has heard the drone of critics who say that running backs traditionally fall off the cliff at that age. It's motivation for him, although he doesn't go into great detail when discussing it. But the determination to silence his critics can be seen in his eyes, where there is an unblinking intensity when he talks about it.

Two things that speak to a bounce-back year from Tomlinson should he stay healthy: The offensive line is healthier than a year ago, and the defense is stronger with the return of Merriman, who missed the final 15 games with a knee injury. If the defense can hold down opponents, the Chargers will be able to go to their four-minute offense, which is when many backs chew up yards while running out the clock.

"That's something we have talked about, being up and scoring points, then taking that ball in the final four minutes and running it," Tomlinson says. "In four-minute, you can get almost 100 yards. You start wearing people down and then there are opportunities for big runs. You usually get anywhere from seven to 10 carries in four-minute, because you're thinking two first downs. So that's a big part of your run game."

2. Don't underestimate continuity. One of the keys to an improved defense is having a full offseason under Ron Rivera, who was promoted to coordinator midway through last season. Rivera is widely respected and harps on the details.

"We eliminated a lot of the gray areas," says cornerback Quentin Jammer. "I know last year there were times that [cornerback Antoine] Cason had a lot of questions because they were telling him to play the same thing two different ways. They were confusing the safeties, telling them to play the same Cover 2 two different ways. Ron came in and eliminated all of the gray area and made sure there was only one way to play the coverage. There's no deviation. We won't have three people telling everybody to play the coverage three different ways."

3. The offensive line is determined to rebound from a poor 2008. The year started poorly with center Nick Hardwick missing three games with a foot injury and left tackle Marcus McNeill missing two with a neck injury (they also missed training camp). The unit didn't really find its rhythm until late in the year. This season, everyone is healthy. The group lost right guard Mike Goff to free agency, but believes veteran Kynan Forney or rookie third-round pick Louis Vasquez should fill in nicely (although each has missed time with injuries).

McNeill has been especially impressive in camp. In one practice he stoned Merriman four times in a one-on-one pass rush drill. McNeill went to the Pro Bowl after each of his first two seasons and, after overcoming a neck injury last season, appears ready for another trip to Honolulu, er, South Florida.

"We take pride on being able to run the ball, and whenever we got caught not being one of the best running teams in the league last year, that really struck a blow to our ego as an offensive line," McNeill says. "We pride ourselves on dominating the trenches and trying to be one of the best offensive lines in the league, and we didn't feel like we were up to standards last year."

As a reminder, McNeill has the oversized shoulder pads and neck roll he wore last season hanging above his locker. "I keep those big ugly pads there to let me know it was a hard road last year, but I can go back to looking good this year," he says.

Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. OK, OK. He's not new to the team, but he did miss the final 15 games last season with a knee injury and, unquestionably, is the most important "addition" to the team this year. Merriman's greatness is that he makes those around him better. The Chargers thought they could make up for his absence last year, but the pass rush fell from 47 sacks in 2007 (12.5 by Merriman) to 28 in 2008.

"I remember one play against the Jets last year where they were on the goal line and Brett Favre stood back there and went through his reads twice and threw a touchdown," says Jammer. "I was like, damn! It was rough."

Merriman has looked good in camp and says he feels even stronger than before the injury, adding: "When I had the injury, I kind of found some of the other things I was lacking in, the little things like the balance, the flexibility, the other stuff that we sometimes take for granted because we're such good athletes we don't focus on them. I was able to get stronger in those areas."

Outside linebacker Larry English, the team's first-round pick, has been slowed by a hamstring injury. He won't start but is expected to play a big role in the pass-rush rotation. He's not as big as starters Merriman and Shaun Phillips, but the coaches say he plays with excellent leverage and has a high-revving motor.

Rivers pump-faked left, then threw to his right, down the right numbers. Jammer was trailing in coverage and broke under to make a play on the ball. Safety Eric Weddle also broke on the ball from above the play and nailed the unsuspecting Jammer, who lay on the turf, face down,[ for what seemed like an eternity. Ultimately everyone was OK, but the play cast a pall over practice.

1. Merriman's impact on the field is obvious; he has 39.5 sacks in 43 games. But his impact away from the field is just as important. Like in the weight room. "If guys come in and they're doing the weights and they know they can do more but they pick up a [lighter][weight, it's not going to go down if I see it," Merriman says. "It's not going to happen. I'm going to talk so much [mess] to you that you're going to go over there and pick up another weight."

2. You hate to beat up on a guy, but wide receiver Buster Davis continues to be a disappointment because he can't stay healthy. He has appeared in only 17 games (one start) since being drafted in the first round in 2007, and has been a regular on the sideline in camp. The former LSU standout has tremendous athletic ability; the question is whether the team and fans will ever get to see it consistently in games? His current problem, reportedly, is his quadriceps.

3. Tight end Gates has got his "swag[ger]" back. Good health will do that to you. Gates told me that when he saw one-on-one coverage in training camp last year, he wasn't 100 percent sure he could beat it because he was still recovering from offseason foot surgery. He would come back to the huddle and just move on to the next play. Now? "When I come back I look at Philip like, 'Man [coverage]? Come on,' " Gates says, chuckling. "You just feel like that."

4. Cromartie has generated a lot of attention this camp for being fined $2,500 by the team for what it considered an inappropriate posting on Twitter. (Cromartie joked that perhaps the Chargers missed the Super Bowl the past two seasons because the food in training camp stinks.) The fourth-year pro figures to generate even more attention on the field after fully recovering from a hip injury that slowed him in 2008. Cromartie saw his interception total fall from 10 in 2007 to two last season. But he has looked terrific in camp. In the offseason he trained in Los Angeles with a group that included wideouts T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, and the reviews from Houshmandzadeh were thumbs-up. "He looked good," Houshmandzadeh said. "He's going to have a big year."

Says Cromartie: "Right now I feel better than I have in a long time, a very long time."

5. Tomlinson and Merriman admittedly have chips on their shoulders to prove wrong people who say they've lost something. One person who likes that attitude is their GM. "I love chips on shoulders,," Smith says. "I love it for a head coach, I love it for the individual players. Anytime there's an issue that you want to take on for your own motivation -- I love chips. I hope there are more chips out there going on than you can imagine."

6. Smith on the team's failure to reach the Super Bowl despite being popular preseason picks in recent years: "We're not good enough to beat the big boys. Who are the big boys right now? For us that's the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts. Pittsburgh two [championships], New England two, Colts one. The odd-ball team in that since I've been here is the Giants. So the teams that have been knocking us out, that have been very, very good, have racked up five [titles]. We've got nothing. We're not good enough yet. You're not good enough until you beat them and hold up the trophy."

7. Count Tomlinson among those hoping to see Michael Vick return to the league. He told Vick as much when he contacted him after Vick was released from federal custody, after serving 18 months for his role in a dogfighting operation.

"We had a good conversation," said Tomlinson. "It was basically just a way to say, 'Hey, man, whatever you've been through, as a brother we're behind you. We're looking for you to come back and make a positive story out of this. But if you ever want to talk about anything, I'm here.'

"I'm in the same situation as far as celebrity status," Tomlinson continued, "and sometimes you can't talk to everybody. Sometimes you need somebody who kind of understands the same things that you may be experiencing. That's where I was coming from, just to reach out to him and let him know that I'm here if he needs to talk."

Tomlinson and Vick share a bond in that they were part of a 2001 pre-draft trade bonanza. San Diego sent the first pick of the draft to Atlanta, which used it on Vick. The Chargers then selected Tomlinson with the fifth overall pick that the Falcons owned.

Tomlinson used to think that their careers would forever be linked, but not so much anymore. "Our careers have taken two different paths," he said. "I'm still playing and he's, obviously, looking for a team now. So it's hard for me to even think about the comparison of what happened in the draft. It's funny how things change. I just hope he gets that opportunity to play again."

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.