SAN DIEGO—On a 75-degree morning, under a cloudless sky, amid the sprawling backyard of an office park complex just north of downtown, Chargers QBs zip red-zone passes to receivers cutting hither and thither. Two trucks selling tortas and lemonade idle off to the side. Potential customers linger all around under white VIP canopies and in the bleachers. They get a rise out of every completion, their joyful noises nearly drowning out the hobby fliers and fighter pilots soaring overhead. When their chorus falls, waves of pop music boom into the void. Diana Ross’s voice carries across the canyon.
"I’m coming out
I want the world to know
Got to let it show"
It’s an odd scene. NFL training camps are supposed to be farther flung and conducted under far worse conditions. This office park headquarters should have a for-sale sign out front. These football fans should’ve parked their optimism elsewhere by now—by the SDSU campus, for starters. Instead, they’re here because, well, this soap opera of a team still is.
Previously on “As the Bolts Turn,” there was a great betrayal. Essentially, the team served its fan base with divorce papers, announced it was moving in with that most jezebel franchise of NFL franchises, the Raiders. They had dreams of making it in Hollywood (fitting for these drama majors), were going to get a brand new place together in Carson, off the 405, on top of a toxic old garbage dump, with a retractable roof, oodles of “executive space” and a torch lit in eternal memory of Al Davis.
That fantasy might’ve become reality if the Texas plutocrat who really runs the NFL hadn’t persuaded his fellow owners into voting overwhelmingly in favor of handing the entire L.A. market to the Rams on a platter. Since then, the Raiders decided to go at it alone and possibly start a new life in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the Chargers flap in the breeze. They could move in with the Rams, or they could try to make it work at home—ideally in a billion-dollar downtown venue bereft of all the bad ol’ memories.
This is why it won’t so much matter how the Chargers are doing on Dec. 18, when they’ll host the Raiders, their would-be roommates, for a game that could have great playoff implications. No, the date to circle is Nov. 6, when the Chargers host the Titans—a reunion game of sorts for Ken Whisenhunt, who slinks back into his old job as offensive coordinator after being fired less than two years into his tenure as Tennessee’s coach. The game comes two days before the team’s downtown stadium proposal—which, among other things, recommends pushing part of the ginormous financial burden for this project on this town’s many visitors—is put to a public vote. If the Chargers keep their losses to two or fewer games at that point (not impossible in an AFC West division that features a still-iffy Raiders squad and, possibly, Mark Sanchez under center for the Broncos), the vote probably keeps the team at home. But if the Chargers stumble out of the gate at Kansas City, against Jacksonville and at Indianapolis, they may as well start preparing for a long life with Stan Kroenke. And any Arsenal fan can tell you how that ends. Any St. Louis Rams fan can, too.
More training camp observations
• Most conspicuous at Chargers camp was the absence of Ohio State rush end Joey Bosa. SI.com’s visit marked the fourth camp day of a most unlikely holdout—seemingly, a dispute over the timing of future compensation, and not the amount. With this staredown, Bosa, this year’s third overall pick, joins the likes of the Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill, the Titans’ Kendall Wright and former Jaguar Justin Blackmon in the tiny club of first-round rookies who have missed camp dates since the last collective bargaining agreement was renegotiated five years ago. Bosa also joins an august company of Chargers rookie holdouts that include franchise QB Philip Rivers, all-time rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson and cornerback Quentin Jammer. In a recent Facebook post, Bosa’s mother, Cheryl, expressed regret for not having followed the even more extreme example of another would-be Charger. “Wish we had pulled an Eli,” she wrote.
All the while, Bosa keeps fans frothing over what he might look like lined up next to Brandon Mebane, one of the league’s premier pocket pushers. The veteran tackle, who emigrated from the Seahawks during the offseason, is not only imbuing his fellow line mates with a feistiness not typically seen around these parts, but he’s also brought “the championship mentality,” to the rest of the team, according to third-year corner Jason Verrett.
• Rookies out of armed forces schools always come with strings attached (for good reason), and Navy fullback Chris Swain is no different. Though a Reserve commission allows him to pursue an NFL career, Swain is still on the hook for part-time duty. So he’ll work as an officer in the public affairs department, from a station on Coronado Island. The twice-monthly commitment harks to the days when pros held down regular jobs to make ends meet. Swain had been tapped for a command on a ship out of Norfolk, Va., before the Chargers signed him as a free agent. Of course the key to surviving in both environments, he says, will be “staying on top of things.”
•When people talk up Philip Rivers, they don’t really mention his durability. But since he took over as the Chargers’ unquestioned QB1 in 2006, he hasn’t missed a start—a staggering stat, especially when you consider the line he stood behind last year. Management’s confidence in Rivers’s sturdiness is evident in the decision to re-sign Kellen Clemens and claim Zach Mettenberger off waivers from the Titans. The logic here seems to be that as long as Antonio Gates and Keenan Allen are healthy and Whisenhunt is calling the plays, the Chargers offense can stay on schedule in Rivers’s absence.
• And finally, in a first for this observer, four nuns visited a morning session of camp. One, after drills had concluded for the day, showed off her arm on a few short and intermediate throws. All who congregated around her agreed: She’s blessed.
Five questions with rookie fullback Derek Watt
Q1: For many players, it’s an honor just to get drafted. But when your older brother is one of the best defensive players in football, does your mind skip right to how do I catch up?
DW: J.J.’s obviously done some special things, made a name for himself and our family. He was very proud of the fact that I was drafted. But, yeah, now it’s all about making a team. He’s given me some advice on how to have that mindset coming in: You keep your eyes and ears open, your mouth closed, do your work on the field and in the meeting rooms and just show the coaches that you know what you’re doing, you care, and you can get the job done.
Q2: Was there specific training camp tips you tried to get out of J.J.—like how to pace out a day, maintain focus, or keep your energy up?
DW: Not necessarily. At the same time, he wants me to experience it for myself. He didn’t want to give me too much information. Most guys are going through it themselves, and he wants me to have my own experiences. His big thing was you just gotta do what you gotta do to keep yourself healthy and on the field because you can’t make the club in the tub.
Q3: The modern NFL seems to have bypassed the fullback. Ever have doubts about your chosen position?
DW: Some teams have done away with the fullback. But on others, there’s definitely a spot for ‘em. We’re definitely incorporating one here. I’m just trying to do whatever the coaches ask—whether it be as a running back in certain situations or pass protection, stuff like that. I try to show them that I can go in there and make the big block as well as get out in the passing game and make some catches. Special teams is another big factor. If you’re a fullback in the NFL, you’ve gotta be able to play special teams because you won’t necessarily get enough snaps to make a team just on offense. Special teams has been one of my big focus points so far in camp.
Q4: Who are the fullbacks that you study the closest?
DW: Kyle Juszczyk from the Ravens is one. He’s a great player. My old college coach is there coaching him as well, Tom Hammock. Anthony Sherman is another one, right in our division with the Chiefs. He’s an excellent special teams player. Our coach [special teams coordinator Craig Aukerman] has kinda helped me out and shown me clips of those guys.
Q5: At Wisconsin, you helped clear many paths for Melvin Gordon. Now you two are back together again in the backfield. How’s the reunion going?
DW: It’s good to be reunited with him. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s come back strong. We were just talking the other day on the field during one of the practices about how we’re almost there already. We’re already getting back in our groove and our footwork—our steps are back on the same page. He’s reading what he needs to read well. It’s been going really well so far.
Biggest Turnaround: A Whis sequel.
For coach Mike McCoy, there was a rare upshot in having to pink slip offensive coordinator Frank Reich and three other offensive assistants—and that’s bringing back the fertile coaching mind of Ken Whisenhunt, who was with this offense at its creation. It means that, philosophically, the Chargers will remain the same high-passing, high-scoring unit they aspire to be (and succeeded in being, historically), but with a few tweaks.
What did this offense miss most without Whisenhunt? “Just how efficient we were when we had him,” says Gates. “Not to take anything away from Frank. We’ve always been pretty standard in what we do offensively. We stay in the top 15, 10, whatever you wanna call it, however you wanna put it. We had success last year.
“But I think what Whis brings to the table is the leadership and the experience. With those tough games and those games that we lost down the stretch, hopefully he can use his experiences to get us through those same trials and tribulations.”
Drawing Some Buzz: Dexter McCoil
There are big DBs and then there’s McCoil, a condor of a man trying to hack it at safety. At 6’ 4”, McCoil initially seems too tall for centerfield. (He played linebacker at Tulsa.) But last year, his first out of college, he acquitted himself well while playing in space with the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, leading the team in tackles (76) while collecting four turnovers and two sacks in a Gray Cup-winning season.
In Chargers camp, he showed great balance, lateral movement and anticipation. He also showed, in a couple of brief but memorable clashes with offensive teammates, that he is every bit as imposing as he looks. A guy like that has the potential to make the loss of the great Eric Weddle feel small. That won’t happen right now (veteran Dwight Lowery fills that void for now). But down the road? Perhaps.