Drew Brees's surgically repaired right shoulder made him too great a risk, andit was time for Philip Rivers, acquired in the big quarterback trade for EliManning on draft day in 2004, to run the show. All the weapons are in place forRivers, from running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a touchdown machine, to tightend Antonio Gates, who's leading a renaissance at his position.
Rivers isn't as raw as his record-30 NFL pass attempts-indicates. What he lacksin game experience he makes up for with intense preparation, sharp instinctsand an innate sense for taking care of the little details that make teammateslook to him as a leader. The Chargers liked the way Rivers handled himselfwhile sitting behind Brees, who led them to 21 wins over the last two seasonsbut signed with the Saints in the off-season. Instead of sulking orcomplaining, Rivers worked the locker room and developed a rapport with histeammates. On the sideline he talked about the game with veteran quarterbackDoug Flutie, and in the video room he joined Brees and the rest of thefirst-string offense for extra sessions to study tape of upcomingopponents.
Such maturityand sense of purpose is one reason for San Diego's optimism. Coach MartySchottenheimer is confident his young quarterback has absorbed the offense overthe last two seasons and will be smart enough to handle whatever adjustmentsoffensive coordinator Cam Cameron will make as the season progresses.Schottenheimer says the high-scoring offense (26.1 points per game) doesn'thave to go conservative for Rivers's benefit. "He's already a very gooddecision maker," says the coach. "I compare him to [former Brownsquarterback] Bernie Kosar. Like Bernie he's bright, highly competitive and veryinstinctive."
If Riversdoesn't become overwhelmed by the speed of the action, his teammates believe hewill be an instant success. Wide receiver Keenan McCardell admires thecompetitiveness and perfectionist nature of the new passer. "He wants a100% completion rate in practice," McCardell says. "He never likes itwhen a pass hits the ground." Guard Mike Goff, who played in Cincinnatiwhen Carson Palmer took over the Bengals, sees a similar confidence in Rivers."When some new guys get into the huddle, you can see that they're not sureof themselves," Goff says. "Philip wasn't that way."
How well Riversand Gates work together may ultimately determine the success of the offense. Inthe off-season the quarterback spent more time getting to know his tight endthan any other receiver on the team. They live in the same neighborhood, soGates often stopped by Rivers's house to work on routes and hang out. "Icompare it to breaking in a new point guard," says Gates, who played powerforward at Kent State. "I want him to know that if anything goes wrong, heknows where to find me."
With so manyoptions available to him, including the dynamic Tomlinson, Rivers realizes hedoesn't have to force his play. "Philip is like everyone else on thisteam," Schottenheimer says. "His success will be a product of what theentire cast does." Rivers is eager to make his mark. "Everybody has astarting point," he says. "It's how you finish that reallymatters."
11 at Oakland(M)
15 at SanFrancisco
22 at KansasCity
29 ST. LOUIS
19 at Denver
3 at Buffalo
NFL rank T20
Opponents' 2005 winning percentage .488
Games against playoff teams 5
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE CHARGERS
> LinebackerShawne Merriman and tackle Jamal Williams get a lot of attention in theirdefensive front seven, but Luis Castillo, on the end, is key to their success.He's a big body who can really run.
> Rookiecornerback Antonio Cromartie has the whole package: size, speed andexplosiveness.
> CornerbackQuentin Jammer has never lived up to the hype and doesn't play to his 4.4speed. I was surprised he got a new contract.
> Despitehis injury, Drew Brees fit their system. I think they'll take a step backwardwith Philip Rivers once the bullets start flying. They just don't know howhe'll respond.
> San Diegosimply can't afford an injury to LaDainian Tomlinson. He's the engine for thatteam. Without him, everything falls apart.
Nice move topick up Marlon McCree from Carolina. They needed help at safety, and he playedwell for the Panthers.
The 2005first-round pick out of Maryland exploded onto the scene last year, earning NFLDefensive Rookie of the Year honors and a trip to the Pro Bowl. Merriman had 10sacks and was a perfect fit on the outside of the Chargers' 3-4 scheme. At6'4", 272 pounds, he's too quick for most offensive tackles and too big fortight ends and backs to stop. He should get even better in one of the league'sbest front sevens. "It's a challenge to block him," says Chiefs backLarry Johnson. "He's bigger than a lot of defensive ends."
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COACH MARTYSCHOTTENHEIMER (186-124-1 in NFL), fifth season with San Diego
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 4 1/2
MARLON MCCREE(New Acquisition)
NFL RANK (RUSH/PASS/TOTAL) OFFENSE 9/12/10 DEFENSE 1/28/13
G. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/WIREIMAGE.COM
PETER READ MILLER
NO BREES, BUT COOL An understudy for two years, Rivers impresses teammates with his poise and preparation.
HELMET PHOTO BY DAVID N. BIRKWITZ