THE MOST talentedteam in football. For a couple of years pundits have been calling the Chargersthat, and the mantle has not worn well. San Diego has lost 13 games over thelast two seasons. The "most talented" team has been among the mostdisappointing.
"It's not acompliment anymore," defensive lineman Luis Castillo says.
"I like ourteam a lot," says coach Norv Turner, "but that's the kind of myth thatcan only hurt you."
It certainly was amyth in 2008. The Chargers finished 8--8, making the playoffs only because of amonumental collapse by the Broncos. When linebacker Shawne Merriman was shelvedby a left-knee injury after just one game, the pass rush vanished and the SanDiego defense struggled to a stunningly bad year: 25th overall, and 31stagainst the pass. The Chargers had just 28 sacks, and opponents completed 67.9%of their passes—the second most in the club's 49-year history.
Some of theplayers blame the schemes of coordinator Ted Cottrell, finding them toopassive; Cottrell was fired after Week 8, and his replacement, Ron Rivera,produced a more aggressive unit that surrendered nearly a touchdown less pergame.
But even withRivera's leadership the Chargers missed Merriman's pressure—and his presence.Which is why the linebacker's return this season will be the biggest factor indetermining whether San Diego can finally live up to the hype. "Last yearwas so tough to watch," says Merriman, who had reconstructive knee surgeryin September. "Little things happened, and I'd be, 'Damn, if I was inthere, they wouldn't have done that to us. I know they wouldn't.' I've heardfrom several offensive coordinators who've told me, 'We can't run counter andleave that backside open, because you'll run it down.' Or, 'We can't run powerat you, because we know you'll blow it up.' So I'm looking forward to gettingback and, hopefully, limiting what some of those offenses can do."
Merriman averaged15 sacks and 21 tackles for loss over his previous two seasons. Hisreplacement, Jyles Tucker, had 5½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year, andhe wasn't the fire-and-brimstone tone-setter that Merriman had been during hisfirst three seasons.
Looking to comeback strong, Merriman has worked on his balance because he felt he was pushedover too easily at the point of attack. He also worked on sprinting off theline at the snap. "I've needed a faster takeoff, and even after the surgeryI think I have it," he says. "I feel faster than I've everbeen."
Merriman has anadded incentive: He is one of the five-year veterans who could be caught in themiddle of the NFL's labor trouble after the season. If the league doesn't reacha new contract with the players by March, four- and five-year unsigned vets,who are unrestricted free agents under the current system, will be restrictedfree agents. That means if San Diego doesn't sign him next off-season, the teamthat does will have to give the Chargers compensation—at least a high draftchoice. That puts heat on Merriman to show potential bidders he's worth theadded expense.
There also stillseems to be a residue of resentment in the San Diego front office over the factthat Merriman didn't have the left knee surgery recommended last off-season byteam doctors. If he had had the operation when the Chargers wanted him to, helikely would have been ready to play much, if not all, of 2008. So it wouldn'tbe surprising if they let him walk and take a pick or picks in return.
But that will allplay out in due time. For now, Merriman, sporting a blue Mohawk, looks to be incombat mode.
"Test me,"he says. "I want to be tested. What wakes me up in the morning and drivesme to come to practice is being physical and helping us be great again." Ifthat happens, the Chargers might feel a lot better about that title theyhate.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
77-95-1 in NFL, third season with Chargers
RB Darren Sproles(61 att., 330 yards; 29 rec., 342 yards; 7 TTDs) backs up Tomlinson and handlesreturn duties.
Jyles Tucker, whotook over for the injured Merriman last season, leads a deep set of linebackerreserves.
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2008 RECORD 8--8
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 20 > 7 > 11
DEFENSE 11 > 31 > 25
14 at Oakland (M)
4 at Pittsburgh
19 DENVER (M)
25 at Kansas City
8 at N.Y. Giants
22 at Denver
29 KANSAS CITY
6 at Cleveland
13 at Dallas
25 at Tennessee (f)
NFL Rank: 17T
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .484
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Chargers were 5--1 against the AFC West and 3--7 against the rest of theNFL in '08. The nondivisional slate is again intimidating, with visits toPittsburgh (where they lost twice last year), the Giants, Dallas and Tennessee.Even if the Chargers outplay Kansas City, Denver and Oakland as expected, thatgrueling road schedule could cost them home field in the playoffs.
Vincent Jackson, Wide receiver
WATCHING THE San Diego wideouts take the field is likewatching the Lakers walk on the court for warmups. With the exception of5'11" Chris Chambers, these guys are huge. If the Chargers go four-wide,they can line up Jackson and Malcom Floyd, both 6'5" and near 230 pounds;Legedu Naanee, at 6'2", 220; and Chambers, who has plenty of muscle at 210.Even the backups, Buster Davis and Kassim Osgood, are 6'1" and 6'5",respectively. Finally, there's the former Kent State power forward, AntonioGates, who plays tight end like a wideout, at 6'4", 260.
"It's something that still amazes mesometimes," says coach Norv Turner. "I've had coaches come up to meafter games and say to me, 'That's the biggest group of receivers I've everseen in the NFL.'" Indeed, it's rare that an NFL team has this kind ofcollective height among the receivers on its active roster, or two 6'5"guys as broad as Jackson and Floyd.
Fifth-year vet Jackson, who played basketball atNorthern Colorado, looks like an aspiring bodybuilder, wide and solid in theshoulders. His size and athleticism allow quarterback Philip Rivers to slightlyoverthrow him—the way Arizona's Kurt Warner puts it up for LarryFitzgerald—because he can outjump the coverage. It's one reason Jackson wasable to average 18.6 yards per reception last year, more than any otherreceiver with at least 50 catches.
PETER READ MILLER
BLUE STREAK Merriman says a faster takeoff will make his pass rush even more ferocious.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH