New-look Chargers set for season opener vs. Houston

SAN DIEGO — When the Chargers take the field tonight for their 2013 season-opener against the Houston Texans, there will be a lot of new players wearing the bright white uniforms on the Qualcomm Stadium field.
 
Mike McCoy is the new head coach replacing the lightly-lamented Norv Turner, and Ken Whisenhunt — after six years as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals — is the new offensive coordinator. Manti Te’o — who will miss the opener nursing a sprained right foot — would have started at linebacker, while Danny Woodhead joins the Bolts as a third-down specialist who might be the answer to the departure of the dynamic Darren Sproles three years ago. And huge right tackle D.J. Fluker — the team’s number one pick in the 2013 NFL Draft — should open some holes for Ryan Matthews to run through and protect QB Philip Rivers from spending too much time laying on his back admiring the stars.
 
Those are just a couple of changes made by new GM Tom Telesco for a 7-9 team, which has avoided the post-season for the last three years despite a very talented roster. However, the key players on offense haven’t changed, and that should have Charger fans very worried.
 
Rivers, Matthews and TE Antonio Gates will all be back in their customary roles and will be counted on to carry the offensive load. Rivers and Gates are just about locks for the Hall of Fame, while Matthews has shown flashes of excellence, but hasn’t made anyone forget LaDainian Tomlinson. In fact, the Chargers’ new front office has such good memories of the All-Pro running back that — according to Tomlinson — they approached him about coming back for another season, but he declined.

But it provides a very clear focus on how the team feels about the short-term growth in Matthews’ ability to be an effective every-down back.
 
Rivers throwing the ball to Gates has accounted for 56 TD receptions — most of any QB-TE tandem in NFL history. If Gates is healthy — which is always a huge question mark — and if Rivers gets some protection from the revamped offensive line, the four-time Pro Bowler could return to the form that saw him compile four straight 4,000 yard passing seasons from 2008-2011.

Last year, though, Rivers game took a nosedive.
 
His production dropped by over one thousand passing yards and he committed 22 turnovers — fifteen of them interceptions. He insisted all year long that he wasn’t injured, but he rarely looked like the gunslinger who threw for nearly ten thousand yards and 53 TDs the previous two seasons.
 
“I was fine last season,” Rivers said, “and I’m fine going into the game (with Houston) Monday night. For this team to get back to the playoffs, we all have to find a way to cut down on our mistakes. This is a team that should definitely should have been in the playoffs and should be in them this year.”
 
Rivers maintains that as beloved as Turner was by the Charger players, the transition to McCoy and his staff is complete.
 
“It has to be,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “We can’t sit around and be upset that Norv’s gone, that there’s a whole new regime and that we’ve had a ton of injuries that have knocked key guys like (WR) Denario Alexander out for the season. That’s the nature of this business.
 
“If we want to be great we have to overcome that stuff. Can we win a championship? I certainly believe we can. But talk means nothing.
 
“We have to go out and prove it.”
 
NOTES — The defending AFC champion Texans could have defensive back Ed Reed in the lineup Monday night. A member of the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl winner last season, free agent signee Reed had knee surgery on August 13. Houston’s DE JJ Watt led the NFL in sacks with 20.5.