Bolts try to bounce back from playoff-free season

Maybe this will be the season the San Diego Chargers stop being

such an enigma.

The Chargers got a sobering shot of reality last year when a

mind-numbing number of turnovers and special teams blunders,

coupled with off-field turmoil, contributed to another slow start

under coach Norv Turner. Not even Philip Rivers’ brilliance could

deliver another cheerful December and the Bolts were knocked from

postseason contention with a week to play.

All that talent and they sat at home in January.

”Definitely not going to the playoffs after four straight years

and five of six, all I know is that for that to happen was a shock.

It was humbling,” said free safety Eric Weddle, who signed a $40

million contract this summer. ”We’re not going to let it happen

again.”

The entire season seemed to be summed up when Turner turned to

then-defensive coordinator Ron Rivera on the sideline and said,

”What happened?” after Jerome Simpson blew past unprepared

cornerback Antoine Cason to haul in a 59-yard touchdown pass from

Carson Palmer. The lowly Cincinnati Bengals pulled away en route to

a 34-20 win that finished the Chargers’ playoff chances.

Turner remains a divisive figure among Chargers fans, although a

deep playoff run could cause the bandwagon riders to change their

minds.

Despite management’s support for the coach, the Chargers’

postseason drop-off is startling. They’ve gone from reaching the

AFC championship game after the 2007 season – Turner’s first after

Marty Schottenheimer was sacked – to winning one playoff game in

the 2008 season, none in 2009 and not even getting there last

year.

What happened is that the Chargers started 2-5 under Turner and

never held the lead in the AFC West. They were swept by, of all

teams, the archrival Raiders, who scored nine points off two

blocked punts in a win at Oakland and then manhandled the Chargers

in a December visit to Qualcomm Stadium.

So, even as speculation builds that they’ll eventually move to

Los Angeles, the Chargers are determined not to flounder in

September and October as they’ve done regularly in Turner’s

tenure.

”Just don’t turn the ball over offensively,” said Rivers, who

at one point last year was on pace to surpass Dan Marino’s

single-season record of 5,084 yards passing before finishing at

4,710 yards, 10th in NFL history. ”That’s the bottom line. You

look at last year – I don’t know how many turnovers we had those

first eight weeks, but it was almost more than what we had the

whole previous season when we won 13. Don’t turn the ball over and

we’ll get off to a fast start.”

The Bolts had seven interceptions and lost 12 fumbles in their

first eight games. They finished with 13 pickoffs and 16 lost

fumbles.

Turner agrees with Rivers.

”Certainly it’s a mental thing right now and we’re trying to do

things in practice to start fast in drills, to have energy in terms

of different things we’re doing, so when that first game comes

around, we’re ready for any situation that comes up. We won’t be a

better team if we have the turnovers.

”The experiences our guys had last year will help them handle

those situations a lot better,” Turner said. ”And we handled them

a lot better in the second half of the season, those young guys,

and even in the kicking game we handled those things a lot better

in the second half. So hopefully we take the next step.”

If star tight end Antonio Gates is recovered from painful

plantar fasciitis in his right foot by opening day, then Rivers

will have his full complement of targets from the start. Vincent

Jackson is back after missing the first 10 games last year in a

bitter contract dispute, and fellow 6-foot-5 wideout Malcom Floyd

returned after testing the free-agent market.

San Diego is looking for running back Ryan Mathews to bounce

back from an uneven rookie season and provide a 1-2 punch with Mike

Tolbert. Mathews finished strong in the finale at Denver with 120

yards and breakaway TD runs of 27, 12 and 31 yards.

The Chargers had the NFL’s No. 1 defense, holding teams to 271.6

yards per game. But that was largely an empty stat due to all the

short fields they gave opponents with special-teams blunders and

turnovers. They also led the league in allowing opposing returners

to dance in the end zone, which cost special teams coach Steve

Crosby his job. He was replaced by Rich Bisaccia from Tampa

Bay.

The Chiefs and Raiders finished 1-2 in rushing in the NFL, which

prompted the Chargers to retool on defense. They signed two

veterans, linebacker Takeo Spikes and safety Bob Sanders, who are

considered upgrades both on the field and in the locker room, and

drafted pass-rushing end Corey Liuget in the first round.

San Diego allowed more than 100 yards rushing seven times,

including 251 in the home loss to the Raiders.

Rivera, hired as Carolina Panthers head coach, was replaced by

Greg Manusky.

Weddle said the Chargers have parked their egos and are enjoying

the lack of off-field distractions.

”We’re excited to come to work every day and are trying to get

better to live up to what we think we can be,” he said.

And that is?

”Super Bowl champions,” he said.