1 San Diego CHARGERS

Holdouts at critical positions could scuttle Year 1 of the post-Tomlinson era
September 05, 2010

WHAT IN the name of Rex Ryan has gotten into Norv Turner? The Chargers coach is normally bland and monotone when he says anything for public consumption, but last June, Turner stepped before reporters and said, straight out, that this could be the best team he's had since he took over in San Diego in 2007. So out of character was the boast that listeners had to wonder whether Turner had adopted the old motto, If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Five months earlier Turner's Chargers had been bounced from the playoffs by the brash Ryan and his surging Jets. The defeat was particularly painful because it came at home, after San Diego had won 11 straight games to finish the regular season and seemed on a Super Bowl roll.

Maybe Turner believes that if he says it, his players will start to believe it. But consider: His first Chargers team—which had 11 returning Pro Bowlers from a 14--2 squad—advanced to the AFC Championship Game, and his third went more than two months without losing.

Turner's assessment is even more surprising considering what the Chargers have been through this off-season: They released LaDainian Tomlinson, their alltime leading rusher; traded away cornerback Antonio Cromartie, a three-year starter and former Pro Bowl selection; and took such a hold-the-line stance in contract talks with two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Marcus McNeill and top wideout Vincent Jackson that both have said they'll sit out the season unless they receive more money. Best team? Really?

"It's not spin," Turner says. "We're bigger, we're stronger, and we're faster. Some of the guys we've added and are going to ask to play, they're bigger, stronger, faster. So we have a chance to grow as a team."

The Chargers have been trending down the past few years. They won two playoff games in Turner's first season, one in his second and none last year. Something needed to change, and by jettisoning Tomlinson, a former league MVP who was the face of the franchise, the organization believes quarterback Philip Rivers will be able to fully spread his wings.

Rivers was always careful not to step on Tomlinson's toes—particularly when the two-time rushing champ chafed at Turner's decision to run the offense through Rivers's right arm. With that tension gone, everyone can relax and pull in the same direction. Now there's no doubt as to who leads the offense: It's Rivers, who since moving into the starting lineup in 2006 has thrown 105 touchdown passes and is 18--0 in December.

He'll be aided this year by 2010 first-rounder Ryan Mathews, the Fresno State back who was impressive in the preseason. The Chargers think Mathews has more burst and explosiveness than the late-era Tomlinson, whose average plunged under Turner: LT had 5.2 yards per carry in 2006 under Marty Schottenheimer, then 4.7 in Turner's first year, then 3.8 and 3.3.

But the absence of McNeill, Rivers's blind side protector, and Jackson, his favorite wideout target, undoubtedly will hurt. The Chargers have no experienced left tackle to fill in for McNeill. Brandyn Dombrowski, an undrafted free agent in 2008, is the projected starter. He performed well at right tackle in nine starts (including the playoff game) last season but has barely played on the other side of the line.

Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis are expected to pick up the slack for Jackson, but neither has his combination of size (6'5", 230 pounds), speed and athleticism. Jackson is the only player in the league to average more than 17 yards a catch in each of the past two seasons, and he's the target Rivers has looked for, even more than tight end Antonio Gates, when San Diego needs a big play.

To their credit the Chargers are not wringing their hands over their high-profile holdouts. And with a soft schedule that includes a nonconference slate against the lowly NFC West, they're capable of matching or exceeding last season's 13 wins. But to become Turner's best team, they need to reach the Super Bowl—at least.

"It can be done," says cornerback Quentin Jammer. "I just wish we could get those two other guys in here. But we have a great team. We've been together for a while, and we have an opportunity to get what we want accomplished. I've seen teams do it with less."

And as Turner might say, less can be more.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH NORV TURNER

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 10

QB PHILIP RIVERS

G 16

ATT 486

COMP 317

PCT 65.2

YARDS 4,254

TD 28

INT 9

RATING 104.4

RB RYAN MATHEWS (R)

G 12

ATT 276

YARDS 1,808

AVG 6.6

REC 11

YARDS 122

AVG 11.1

TTD 19

FB JACOB HESTER

G 15

ATT 21

YARDS 74

AVG 3.5

REC 9

YARDS 24

AVG 2.7

TTD 0

WR MALCOM FLOYD

G 16

REC 45

YARDS 776

TTD 1

WR LEGEDU NAANEE

G 15

REC 24

YARDS 242

TTD 2

TE ANTONIO GATES

G 16

REC 79

YARDS 1,157

TTD 8

LT BRANDYN DOMBROWSKI

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 323

LG KRIS DIELMAN

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 320

C NICK HARDWICK

G 3

HT 6'4"

WT 305

RG LOUIS VASQUEZ

G 14

HT 6'5"

WT 335

RT JEROMEY CLARY

G 10

HT 6'6"

WT 320

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 16

DE JACQUES CESAIRE

G 13

TACKLES 26

SACKS 1

INT 0

NT OGEMDI NWAGBUO

G 12

TACKLES 19

SACKS 1

INT 0

DE LUIS CASTILLO

G 14

TACKLES 25

SACKS 2

INT 0

LB SHAUN PHILLIPS

G 16

TACKLES 59

SACKS 7

INT 0

LB STEPHEN COOPER

G 16

TACKLES 102

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB BRANDON SILER

G 16

TACKLES 67

SACKS 2

INT 1

LB SHAWNE MERRIMAN

G 14

TACKLES 36

SACKS 4

INT 0

CB QUENTIN JAMMER

G 16

TACKLES 58

SACKS 0

INT 3

FS ERIC WEDDLE

G 13

TACKLES 82

SACKS 1½

INT 2

SS DARRELL STUCKEY (R)

G 12

TACKLES 93

SACKS 1

INT 1

CB ANTOINE CASON

G 16

TACKLES 41

SACKS 0

INT 2

SPECIAL TEAMS

P MIKE SCIFRES

PUNTS 52

AVG 45.0

NET 39.2

K NATE KAEDING

FG 32--35

XP 50--51

POINTS 146

PR DARREN SPROLES

RET 26

AVG 7.0

TD 1

KR DARREN SPROLES

RET 54

AVG 24.1

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 13--3

September

13 at Kansas City (M)

19 Jacksonville

26 at Seattle

October

3 Arizona

10 at Oakland

17 at St. Louis

24 New England

31 Tennessee

November

7 at Houston

14 BYE

22 Denver (M)

28 at Indianapolis

December

5 Oakland

12 Kansas City

16 San Francisco (T)

26 at Cincinnati

January

2 at Denver

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: T29

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .453

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 4

ANALYSIS

Slow starters the last few seasons, the Chargers should get out of the gate quickly, thanks to a soft first six weeks. In all, San Diego faces just four playoff teams, including the Kurt Warner--less Cardinals in Week 4 and a Patriots team that struggled on the road in '09. Late trips to Indianapolis and Cincinnati could be dicey, but the road back to the playoffs seems smooth.

SPOTLIGHT

Ryan Mathews, Running back

LOOKING FOR a rookie to break out the big numbers this year? Mathews might be the man. So smitten were the Chargers with Mathews's big-play potential that they traded their first-, second- and fourth-round draft picks, plus linebacker Tim Dobbins, to Miami to move up 16 spots and select Mathews 12th overall. As a junior at Fresno State last year he ran for 1,808 yards, averaged 6.6 yards a carry and scored 19 touchdowns. He has the size (6 feet, 218 pounds) to run through tacklers and the burst to slip through holes before they close. But physical skills aren't the only reason Mathews could put up eye-popping stats.

Chargers coach Norv Turner was irked in recent years by LaDainian Tomlinson's claim that his drop in production was a result of a change in Turner's strategy, away from the run and toward the passing game. In 2006, under former coach Marty Schottenheimer, Tomlinson ran for a league-high 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns. But his numbers bottomed out at a career-low 730 yards in 2009, and the Chargers let him go after nine seasons.

Turner envisions Mathews carrying at least 300 times in his first year—a figure Tomlinson didn't reach in either of the last two seasons. The former Bulldog had 17 runs of 20 or more yards last season, and Turner, who is sensitive to criticism he believes is unwarranted, may try to make the point that the running game's struggles were about Tomlinson's declining skills more than they were about his play-calling, the offensive line or some other factor. "Maybe subconsciously there is a desire to do that," Turner says. "[But] I hate to get to where you personalize something."

Translation: It's personal.

PHOTOROBERT BECKGETTING THEIR PHIL With LT now gone, Rivers is the offense's undisputed top man. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)