Chargers Camp: Will They Stay or Will They Go?

The relocation issue hangs heavy over San Diego this preseason, and the veterans know that their best hope of influencing the November vote is to return to winning football
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SAN DIEGO — On a perfect summer Friday, football returned to this city. But there was no escaping the question hanging over Qualcomm Stadium: For how long?

It didn’t take long for the home crowd to be reminded. Early in the second quarter of the Chargers’ preseason game against the Cardinals, Dan Fouts began speaking to the San Diegans in the stands. The Hall of Famer’s voice narrated an advertisement playing in the stadium during a break between drives. Over artists’ renderings of a proposed new downtown stadium, he implored San Diegans to vote yes for a plan to fund the project through increased city hotel taxes.

Now it’s time to build something special as we look to the future … A new home that would be the first of its kind in the country … What could be sweeter than Raiders, Broncos and Patriots fans all helping pay for the project when they pay their hotel bill? … This downtown project could become the heart of the next generation.”

As the video finished, it was met with light applause. Two hours north, the Rams are celebrating a return to Los Angeles after their flashy Inglewood stadium bid won the race to relocate to the nation’s second-largest market. But here in San Diego, as the Chargers prepare for a new season, uncertainty about the team’s future is on everyone’s mind.

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“That can be a distraction for some guys, especially the young guys,” says tight end Antonio Gates, who has played his entire 14-year career in San Diego. “Myself and Philip [Rivers], guys who have been around, say, look, I know you hear a lot of stuff about whether we might be here or not. Screw all of that. Let’s go out and play football and win some games, and I am quite sure it will take care of itself.”

That’s the message, Gates says, that’s been passed down by coach Mike McCoy. NFL players are routinely asked to block out distractions and keep a narrow focus on their specific responsibilities on the football field. But the Chargers’ situation is especially unusual, and McCoy has made sure to acknowledge head on with his team the challenges this year’s uncertainty poses.

Last year they waited to learn the team’s fate as the Chargers’ and Raiders’ Carson stadium bid for L.A. went head-to-head with the Rams, and they played their final home game of the season not knowing if it would be their last game ever in San Diego. But this season is more unique: For what may be the first time in NFL history, there will be a vote in the middle of a football season that could determine whether the team stays or goes.

Gates and Rivers have spent a combined 25 years seasons in San Diego. Could this be their last?

Gates and Rivers have spent a combined 25 years seasons in San Diego. Could this be their last?

“That’s an interesting side note,” says quarterback Kellen Clemens, Rivers’ backup. “That will—let me see how I want to say this. We will have to maintain our focus through the entire season, no matter which way it goes. Obviously it would be a big sigh of relief if on Nov. 8 we get the necessary votes to do it. But it was emotional last year thinking we might be leaving. If it’s a sure thing … you hate to even think about that possibility at the end of the year.”

On Nov. 8, local voters will be asked to vote yes or no on Ballot Measure C, which proposes a four percent increase in local hotel and motel taxes to fund a new home for the Chargers. As it stands now, two-thirds of voters need to approve the measure for it to pass, which appears unlikely considering that two-thirds of all voters can rarely agree on any one thing. The video advertisement played at Friday’s game is part of the team-funded “Vote Yes on C” campaign, but for the players, other than those who are registered to vote in California, they can only wait and see.

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“Winning football games, we like to think it helps,” Gates says. “We are not sure. But we like to think that. That’s kind of our [mindset]. Obviously we don’t want to focus too much on the stadium situation, because we want to win football games. But at the same time we feel like we can kind of play a part in it. That’s where we are at with it. We are not really sure if it makes a big difference, but we do understand that winning does solve a lot of problems and a lot of issues. We want to win regardless, but more so now because of the situation whether we are going to be here or not. It gives something concrete going forward for us as a team.”

If the ballot measure is not approved, the Chargers would have to decide whether to try a different strategy to find a new stadium or take the option of joining the Rams in Los Angeles. It’s possible the NFL could swoop in and offer more funding to ensure the league keeps a team (and the possibility of future Super Bowls) in San Diego, but that seems unlikely, as the league has already committed $300 million to the proposal. Gates understands L.A.’s potential as a landing spot, but with the Rams and Raiders already having established fan bases there, “I don’t know how that would pan out for us,” he says. Friday night he made a plea to the city.

“I stand as the longest-tenured player here, and I just urge everybody that’s voting, let’s try our best to keep our team here,” Gates says. “Not because I don’t want to go to L.A., or I have something against L.A. But I remember the times when we were rolling and doing well, and that feeling of the fans rallying behind us and that electrifying energy we had. It was a beautiful sight. I just think it’s a beautiful place to have a football team. That’s my message from a guy who has been here the longest.”

The Chargers’ secondary, absent Eric Weddle, has something to prove.

The Chargers’ secondary, absent Eric Weddle, has something to prove.

Five Things I Think About The Chargers

1. The secondary, without Eric Weddle in the lineup for the first time in nine years, is determined to make a statement. The Cardinals’ first drive on Friday night ended with cornerback Casey Hayward running step for step with wide receiver Michael Floyd and breaking up the third-down pass. On the Cardinals’ next drive, cornerback Brandon Flowers snatched a screen pass from Carson Palmer and returned it 25 yards for a TD. Two possessions later, safety Jahleel Addae picked off Cardinals backup Drew Stanton. “The chemistry is growing,” says cornerback Jason Verrett. “That is the start of what we are capable of doing. We are going to try to feed off that and carry that on the rest of the year.”

2. Rivers didn’t play in Friday’s preseason game. He did the same thing last year, only playing in the first and third exhibition games. But it feels like leaguewide, marquee starters are playing fewer preseason snaps than in years past.

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3. Second-year RB Melvin Gordon, who is coming off a difficult rookie season that ended with offseason knee surgery, took the opening handoff and zoomed around the edge for a 12-yard gain. San Diego traded up to draft the Badgers running back last year, and Gordon’s ability to be a bigger piece of the offense this season will be a key factor in the Chargers’ success.

4. Two preseason games down, and Joey Bosa still isn’t on the field. The team and its No. 3 overall pick are on opposite sides of the table in the ongoing contract negotiations, but the more time Bosa misses, the more of a lose-lose it is all around. It’s hard enough for rookies to get acclimated, both mentally and physically, without missing the entire offseason and training camp. And the Chargers, with the cloud of potential relocation and coming off a 4-12 season in McCoy’s third year, need all the help they can get. San Diego picked him to be an immediate boost to their pass rush, and as negotiations drag on, the more unlikely it is that he will be.

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5. Strange sight seeing James Jones, 32-year-old vet, catching passes from a third-string quarterback in the second half of an exhibition game. But after catching 50 passes for 890 yards for the Packers last year, he remained unsigned until early August. He’s earning a roster spot all over again.

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