2009 team preview: San Diego Chargers

Inside Slant

The Chargers are a savvy team to pick for the Super Bowl.

Just like last year.

And the year before.

None of those seasons ended at the NFL’s biggest game but maybe, just maybe, this year is different.

What is different is that the players, for the most part, are leaving that Super Bowl chatter to others.

Maybe they’ve learned their lesson.

Maybe the vision of being 4-8 last year before a rally to claim their third straight AFC West title is still fresh.

Whatever, the Chargers are doing less yapping in between snaps.

“We’ve always, I think, been very aggressive in what we’ve tried to get done in training camp,” coach Norv Turner said. “But I think our players have a greater understanding of what we want to accomplish and I like the way they’re responding to it.”

After so many near misses and other obstacles on and off the field, Turner thinks that heartache will translate into a heartwarming season.

“They’ve been together, they’ve been through a lot of different things in the last three to four years,” Turner said. “Hopefully you’re stronger because of it and you grow because of it.”

The offense is bulked up again with Philip Rivers flinging passes around to numerous weapons; LaDainian Tomlinson showing he’s healthy and ready for another season on his way to Canton, Ohio; and the defense welcomes the return of three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman to shore up a leaky pass defense.

But the Chargers aren’t interested in wearing that tag of having the most talented roster in the NFL. It’s great to have talent, but the key is what you do with it.

The Chargers are confident they will do what it takes to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history. That doesn’t mean they have to toot their own horn, though, on their way to Miami.

“That’s one thing I think where we have matured is we’ve kind of quit with all that talk,” Rivers said. “Honestly, that’s everybody’s goal. It’s a little more businesslike.”

A skill-set the Chargers have to show is they can keep their intensity from the beginning of the season until the end. The last two seasons have seen the Chargers stumble from the gate which has resulted in a stress-high second-half.

Focus is the focus when the Chargers start their season Sept. 14 in Oakland.

“That’s the plan,” Rivers said. “We’ve been through a lot together and should be able to weather anything that comes along.”

What has already arrived is a dose of good fortune. By playing in the AFC West – where every other team is in some stage of rebuilding – the Chargers should waltz to another divisional crown.

With that comes an automatic invitation to the playoffs, and this year the Chargers hope to do more than RSVP and stick around for a game or two.

COACHING: Norv Turner, 25th year, 4th with Chargers (19-13).

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 8-8 (1st in AFC West); lost in divisional game to Steelers, 35-24.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record 11-5 (1st in AFC West); lose in AFC Championship Game.

Notes and Quotes

–The Chargers long to win their first NFL championship. This week they got to see up close a pint-sized team that did just that: the Park View Little League team from nearby Chula Vista. The Little League World Series champions showed up at Chargers practice and were honored with a facility tour, an autograph session and a chance to run through a tunnel by Chargers, who shook player’s hands as they passed.

“It was exciting for our guys and I’m sure it was exciting for them,” Chargers coach Norv Turner said. “What they did will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It’s quite an accomplishment. It was nice to be able to honor them.”

–DL Travis Johnson started his week as a Texan preparing for an exhibition game against the Vikings. But after being traded to the Chargers for a 2010 conditional draft pick, he’s now learning a new system and getting acclimated to his new teammates.

“I was very surprised,” said Johnson, taken No. 16 overall in 2005 by Houston. “Coach (Gary Kubiak) called me in (Monday) and told me about the trade at 1:30 p.m., and I’ve been going ever since.”

Johnson is practicing but will be given time to get used to his surroundings. Turner said he won’t play in Friday’s exhibition against San Francisco despite being healthy.

“I wouldn’t do that to him,” Turner said. “He has to learn a lot of things, from getting lined up to knowing exactly where to go. The goal is to have him ready for the (regular-season opener).”

Johnson expects to be comfortable in about a week, a relatively quick transition for someone joining a new team.

“It’ll take some time,” he said, “but once I get the playbook down and stop thinking as much, things will speed up and I’ll start making some plays.”

–Friday’s exhibition finale at Qualcomm Stadium – just like the first exhibition game and likely all eight home regular-season games – will not be shown on local television. “Nothing is sold out,” Executive Vice President Jim Steeg said. “There’s a lot left for all.”

–Rookie CB Brandon Hughes was placed on injured reserve after wrenching his knee in a preseason game. That was one of three moves that got the Chargers down to the 75-player limit. WR Demetrius Byrd was placed on the reserve-non-football injury list and LB Anthony Felder was released.

–Byrd, who sustained serious injuries in an April car accident, has joined the team but he won’t practice this year. “This isn’t about football right now,” Turner said. “It’s about him getting back to being himself. He’s made great strides since the spring, and he’s got a long way to go.”

Byrd’s neck problems have gone, but certain symptoms remain.

“My balance and coordination has been slow to come back,” Byrd said. “That’s the reason why I’m not running or working out. It’s an equilibrium issue right now.”

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 – Number of consecutive AFC West titles the Chargers are aiming for, something they have never done in franchise history.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “My explosion is there. Turning the corner is there. The timing and knowing where I am in relation to the quarterback? That’s still off.” – OLB Shawne Merriman on where he still needs to make progress after his knee surgery.

Strategy and Personnel

With Brandon Hughes going down with a season-ending knee injury in the latest preseason game and the Chargers cutting Cletis Gordon the previous week, the team is in the market for a fourth cornerback.

It appears the Chargers will look outside the team to find a player to play behind Antonio Cromartie, Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason. It’s expected the Chargers will keep a close eye on other teams’ cuts as they try to fill that role.


–RG Kynan Forney continues to miss practice on a sporadic basis as the team tries to keep his ailing neck from being aggravated.

–RB Michael Bennett was originally thought to be on the roster bubble with the Chargers hoping to carry two fullbacks in Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert; Hester is also used as a running back. But Bennett has been so impressive in the preseason games, coach Norv Turner said he has earned a roster spot.

–TE Antonio Gates is getting more days of rest as the time draws closer to the season opener. The coaches have been pleased in the work he has received and don’t want to tax him before the season.

–QB Billy Volek continues to draw rave reviews from Turner, a noted quarterback guru. Volek gives the Chargers a reliable backup with starting experience. Turner said he has never seen him throw the ball better.

–LB Tim Dobbins looks to be the odd man out at the inside spot. Newcomer Kevin Burnett has been solid and is expected to start opposite Stephen Cooper. Although Turner said he likes the play off all three of them and envisions using the trio in a rotation.

–DE Jacques Cesaire is back practicing after missing the better part of three weeks with a persistent calf injury. Cesaire is entering the season as a starter for the first time in his seven-year career.

–OL Brandyn Dombrowski continues to show his growth after spending last year on the practice squad. He’s on the right team as the depth behind the starting tackles isn’t deep.

–LG Kris Dielman is nursing a sore shoulder but it isn’t considered serious. It would take a lot to keep the nasty Dielman down for long.

–DL Ryon Bingham is a candidate for IR as the team tries to gauge how long he will miss with a triceps injury.

PLAYER TO WATCH: DE Vaughn Martin – The Chargers reached for Martin in the fourth round after he played his collegiate ball in Canada. The team knew he was a project, but injuries along the line have accelerated his number of snaps. Maybe sooner than the Chargers would have preferred, but Martin could be on the field quite a bit.


Rd. 1/16, OLB Larry English, Northern Illinois – A hamstring injury compromised his training camp but he will be part of the regular rotation on passing downs.

Rd. 3/78, RG Louis Vasquez, Texas Tech – Pushing veteran Kynan Forney for a starting spot after showing promise before and after a foot injury cost him two weeks of camp. Still needs work on pass blocking, but he is a keeper.

Rd. 4/113, DE Vaughn Martin, Western Ontario, Canada – This is a work-in-progress as Martin makes likely the biggest jump from college to the NFL after playing in Canada. But his size and motor are worth watching.

Rd. 4/133, G Tyronne Green, Auburn – Got some work with the injuries to the interior of the line and did OK. Might end up on the practice squad.

Rd. 4/134, RB Gartrell Johnson, Colorado State – Johnson impressed with his hard-running and ability to break tackles. He might get pushed to the practice squad but the Chargers are intrigued with his physical play.

Rd. 5/148, CB Brandon Hughes, Oregon State – Was in the running to be the fourth cornerback then blew out his knee in the third preseason game. He will spend the season on IR.

Rd. 6/189, S Kevin Ellison, Southern Cal – It’s been a bit of a transition from USC’s defense where the safety almost takes on a role as a linebacker. But Ellison has some thump in his hits and could find more playing time as the season wears on.

Rd. 7/224, WR Demetrius Byrd, LSU – Byrd suffered serious injuries prior to the draft but the team took a flier on him and his potential once he gets healthy. He has been placed on the reserve-non-football injury list for the season.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Philip Rivers. Backups – Billy Volek, Charlie Whitehurst.

Rivers is coming off a career year in which he established himself among the NFL’s top players at his position. Not only is he a solid player but his leadership qualities are unmatched on the Chargers and he is primed for another big year in Turner’s pass-happy offense. Volek is the perfect backup – calm in game situations and has the starting experience any team would cherish. The team remains high on Whitehurst, although he had a shaky showing in the preseason games.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – RB LaDainian Tomlinson. Backups – RB Darren Sproles, RB/FB Jacob Hester, FB Mike Tolbert, RB Gartrell Johnson.

Tomlinson is fit and running well after he suffered toe and groin injuries in 2008. Now the big question is if Tomlinson can hold up late in the season; he has virtually had to sit out the final games in the Chargers‘ last two playoff appearances. Sproles has the potential to hit a home run every time he touches the ball – he is that shifty. He won’t be sticking his nose in the holes between the tackles too often as the Chargers aim to get him out on the edges. He is also deadly on screen passes, a staple of the Chargers‘ offense. Hester is coming off a mediocre rookie year and should be improved.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters – Antonio Gates, Brandon Manumaleuna. Backup – Kris Wilson.

Gates continues to be the gold standard at his position and he could be in for a big year after being slowed by toe and ankle injuries last year. Manumaleuna is beefy and not afraid to block but what is surprising is his soft hands. Wilson will be used as an H-back often and has earned his roster spot through his blocking.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson. Backups – Buster Davis, Malcom Floyd, Kassim Osgood.

Rivers has so many targets that it is tough to keep all the receivers fed with passes. Chambers is solid, but he was eclipsed by Jackson last year as Rivers’ go-to man out wide. Jackson’s size and speed make him a matchup problem for all but the stoutest cornerbacks. Davis needs to prove he can avoid nagging and serious injuries in what could his last year to show the Chargers he deserves to stick. Floyd remains one of Rivers’ favorite red-zone targets. This is among the deepest units on the team.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Kynan Forney, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups – T L.J. Shelton, T Corey Clark, T Brandyn Dombrowski, G Louis Vasquez, G/C Scott Mruczkowski.

There is some concern when looking at the right side. Forney was supposed to take over for the departed Mike Goff, but his camp was derailed by a neck injury. That gave a chance for Vasquez to impress and he did, then he hurt his foot and missed a couple of weeks. Forney likely will start, but having a neck injury is a tough way to enter an NFL season. The Chargers are also hopeful Clary shows more than he did last year. Depth at tackle as well could be an obstacle here. McNeill is back after an offseason neck surgery. Dielman and Hardwick should play at Pro Bowl levels.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LE Jacques Cesaire, NT Jamal Williams, RE Luis Castillo. Backups – DE Vaughn Martin, DE Ryon Bingham, DE Travis Johnson, DT Ian Scott, DE Keith Grennan, DE Ogemdi Nwagbuo.

The line is thin and young, which could mean trouble if the Chargers get hit by the injury bug here. Williams is a stud, but he is entering his 12th year in the trenches. The Chargers have to be careful he doesn’t wear down as the season progresses. Castillo has to deliver more production for the rich contract he is playing under. Cesaire is clinging to the starting role despite a chronic calf injury. The addition of Johnson, a first-round bust in Houston, is a welcomed move. Martin is long on potential but still has to prove he can pick up the nuances of the pro game after playing college ball in Canada. Bingham could be headed for IR with an arm injury, something the Chargers are trying to avoid.

LINEBACKER: Starters – OLB Shawne Merriman, ILB Larry Burnett, ILB Stephen Cooper, OLB Shaun Phillips. Backups – OLB Jyles Tucker, OLB Larry English, OLB Antwan Applewhite, ILB Tim Dobbins, ILB Brandon Siler.

Merriman is among the team’s most crucial components as the Chargers are counting on his return up front to harass quarterbacks and help his teammates on the back end. Phillips should also benefit from Merriman’s return as coordinators will have to focus on Merriman at all times. Burnett has been a great addition as his quickness and speed are hard to miss. Cooper is back after leading the team in tackles last year despite missing four games. The depth, especially at the outside, is top-notch with top pick English, Applewhite and Tucker. This is the strength of the Chargers‘ defense.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antonio Cromartie, SS Clinton Hart, FS Eric Weddle. Backups – CB Antoine Cason, CB Simeon Castille, S Kevin Ellison, S Steve Gregory.

It’ll be interesting to see how the secondary fares as the team tries to rebound from having the No. 31 pass defense last year. Jammer is solid and seldom gets beat deep; also good on run support. Cromartie has to back up his brashness; he needs to be more disciplined as he gets beat often when going for the pick. Hart will share duties with Gregory, and Weddle has to be in the right place more times this year than he was last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PR/KR Darren Sproles, K Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, LS Davin Binn.

In Sproles the Chargers have one of the most dangerous return men in the league; he often supplies great field position, riches of sorts to such a high-octane offense. Kaeding remains reliable, although his percentage drops dramatically on kicks from the 40- to 49-yard range. Scifres is another weapon as it’s rare one of his punts is returned or bounces into the end zone. Binn is among the best at what he is asked to do.