One day into full training camp practices for the San Diego Chargers and the rumors — along with some negative comments — are already flying through the air like a Philip Rivers pass.
Instead of a lightening bolt logo as the team logo, it might be more appropriate if they changed it to a question mark.
Head to the internet or listen to radio and TV, and you’re certain to hear how Norv Turner will be the first coach fired if the Chargers get off to a slow start. Aren’t Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden just waiting for the opportunity to coach football in America’s Most Liveable city? Or you might read how Rivers will be traded for sure if the Bolts miss the playoffs for a third straight season. You might even get a comment or two about General Manager A.J. Smith and his (lack of) job security if San Diego doesn’t finally make it to the Super bowl under his regime.
NFL football is underway and no group is under more scrutiny than the Chargers.
“That’s just the way it is and you can’t pay attention or let it bother you,” Rivers says whenever he’s asked about the pressure inherent on a perennially underachieving team. “We’re excited about training camp getting started and proving how good of a team we are.”
Last year they were undoubtedly mediocre, finishing 8-8 with a six-game losing streak tossed right in the middle of the schedule after busting out to a 4-1 start. They finished up by going 4-1, but failed to reach the postseason again. It looked like Turner was out the door and would be followed closely by Smith and maybe even Rivers. Team president Dean Spanos, however, decided that everyone would get one more shot at the diamond ring. If they don’t have a great 2012, it’s unlikely there will be any more reprieves for the men at the top of the organization.
The roster is loaded with new players on both sides of the ball, such as receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal; running backs Ronnie Brown and Le’Ron McClain: and backup QB Charlie Whitehurst.
On defense, there’s rookie defensive end Melvin Ingram — already referred to as “the Beast” by his new teammates; linebacker Jarret Johnson and safety Atari Bigby are a couple of guys expected to join returning defensive backs Quentin Jammer, Eric Weddle , Antoine Cason, linebacker Takeo Spikes and defensive lineman Antonio Garay to give the Chargers a formidable unit.
Rivers feels like the players have noticed the turnover, gotten the message and are ready to prove their worth.
“It’s always been a competitive camp and the guys have enjoyed going against each other,” Rivers said after Thursday’s initial practice session. “But I think this is going to be the most competitive camp since I’ve been here. There’s a lot of good football players competing for jobs and that’s what’s going to make us the best team.
“Because of the great players and the great competition, the guys who end up forming the roster at the end of camp will make one heck of a team.”
Rivers won’t be throwing the ball to star wideout Vincent Jackson, who bolted the Bolts for a $55 million contract with Tampa Bay. But the team signed former New Orleans free agent Meachem and Royal from Denver to replace VJax. So far, Rivers is pleased with his targets—new and old.
“Even going back to OTAs, I got a chance to get comfortable throwing to them and all the guys,” he said. “They’re a good group, and whoever’s in there, I have a great deal of confidence in, and we won’t have to scale back (the offense) when a different player comes into the game. We’ll just go.
“The depth we have is a huge positive.”
As is the return to full health of All Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who has battled foot injuries for the last couple of seasons. He played in 13 game sand caught 64 passes for 778 yards and just seven touchdowns — his fewest since grabbing two during his rookie season of 2003.
“It feels good to just go out and run the first day of training camp,” Gates said. “Words can’t really describe how it feels because I’ve just been battling injuries for the past two or three years. Not being able to have true conditioning in the offseason sometimes hinders you because it takes longer for you to get going and it takes longer for you to get in shape because you don’t have the amount of reps that the rest of the guys have.
“When I go back and look at (video), and how I’ve been able to run and jump in the past, I want to get back to that. Getting healthy was my number one concern, but I felt that it was imperative that I lose weight for me to accomplish the goals that I have in mind this year.”
Gates went on to say that there’s a sense of urgency around the Chargers as training camp begins.
“There’s definitely been a change. You definitely see it.
“When you look at each position, you have a handful of guys that can make plays, and I think that’s also different from the past. It makes the guy who’s considered the number one guy stay on top of his game, stay committed, and that holds everybody accountable. There are times when guys get complacent because they’re in a situation where they have a big contract, or they have a big signing bonus, and this team has definitely gotten rid of all the prima donnas.
“You’ve got to go out and work hard every day and prove that you deserve to be a San Diego Charger.”
Weddle agrees that the new players on the roster and the competition that will build each day throughout the camp and in the exhibition games will help the Chargers avoid collapses like the six-game losing streak last season.
“You bring in guys who have played and there is maturity and a sense of pride. They all come from different teams and now that they are here all they want to do is win and prove that they are great players in this league. Each guy can help mold this team into what we want to become.”
Turner is the man who has to turn a roster full of many new players into a unit that wins — and wins big. Failing to do that will, in all likelihood, cost Norv and his staff their jobs and possibly end his career as an NFL head coach. The always affable Turner said he was looking forward to seeing how good this team can become in 2012.
“I have a better feeling of continuity with this group than I have felt over the last three years,” Turner said. “We had a lot of distractions a couple years ago — key players were holding out, there was the lockout, and players were leaving whether it be in retirement or moving onto another team.
“These guys they have a real strong presence. The veteran guys such as McClain, Brown, Bigby know what it is about to prepare and get ready.
“This is an exciting group of men who have a chance to become an outstanding football team.”