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Fire Me Boy!
07-11-2005, 06:35 AM
GRETZ: Off-Season Look AFC West: San Diego
http://kcchiefs.com/news/2005/07/11/gretz_offseason_look_afc_west_san_diego/

Last year, the San Diego Chargers caught lightning in a bottle and rode it to a division championship and a 12-4 record.

The Chargers then hurriedly capped the bottle and they are hoping to do the same thing again in 2005, with what essentially will be the same cast of characters they went to war with last season.

Thereís an adage in the NFL that you are either getting better or getting worse, that you canít sit still because somebody will pass by. Anybody that knows Marty Schottenheimer understands that he will never sit still when it comes to planning for victory. But other than a few draft choices that may or may not contribute, the Chargers stood still. Actually, thatís not true, as they suffered a big loss on their coaching staff.

Last year, it was good enough. Drew Brees had a wonderful season by limiting his mistakes. TE Antonio Gates established himself as the Chargersí No. 1 receiving threat. RB LaDanian Tomlinson was his usual self, the heart of the offense. A non-descript offensive line came together.

Defensively, with a new 3-4 scheme under coordinator Wade Phillips, the Chargers made big improvements, finishing third against the run in the league, allowing an average of just 81.7 yards per game.

Whether thatís good enough, the Chargers will get to prove this season. Unfortunately for them, they must do it with what might be the most brutal schedule the league handed out this season. They have five trips to the Eastern Time zone, and games at New England, at Philadelphia, at the New York Jets and at Indianapolis. The only opponents they get at home who made the playoffs last year are Denver and Pittsburgh. How about the late season road doubleheader where they play Indianapolis and the Chiefs in a six-day span?

Hereís a look at the 2005 Chargers as they get ready to start the season:

OFFENSE: Brees performance was a revelation for everyone around the Chargers. In three seasons, he had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, completed 59.4 percent of his passes and had a career passer rating of 73.7. Then Brees comes out last year and turns his profile upside down, throwing 27 TDs to just seven INTs, completing 65.5 percent of his throws and finishing the season with a 104.8 passer rating.

OK, so can he do it again? Certainly, thatís the question the Chargers are asking, given their decision to hang the franchise player tag on him, rather than sign him to a long-term contract that would be more salary cap friendly. Keep an eye on his passer rating, since that will tell the story. He improved by 29.1 points compared to his previous career average. If he gives back more than half of that improvement, something at 90 or under, San Diego has a problem.

But the Chargers have shown enough confidence in Brees that they released veteran Doug Flutie and the backups for Brees are Philip Rivers and Cleo Lemon, neither of whom has started a pro game.

Tomlinson remains one of the NFLís best offensive forces, producing 1,776 yards on 392 touches and 18 touchdowns. Heís averaged 347 carries over his four-year career and has missed just one game. At 26, he should have at least four more strong seasons. Jesse Chatman averaged six yards a carry as Tomlinsonís backup with Lorenzo Neal at fullback.

Gatesí rise out of nowhere sent him to the Pro Bowl with 81 catches for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns. He presented the same problems that defenses have with Tony Gonzalez: a big, athlete who works well in finding open spaces in the defense. At wide receiver is a good, but not great group with Reche Caldwell, Eric Parker, Keenan McCardell and now second-round pick Vincent Jackson. McCardell is 35 and heís been battling hamstring problems in the off-season. Caldwell is returning from injury, missing the last 10 games of the 2004 season.

Last year, the big surprise was how well the Chargers offensive line played. San Diego allowed just 21 sacks over the season and was sixth in the running game. But the biggest off-season loss for San Diego was when offensive line coach Hudson Houck headed off to Miami to work for new Dolphins coach Nick Saban. He was replaced by veteran line coach Carl Mauck. Thatís a downgrade for Schottenheimer and his offense.

Houck was able to make it work last year with a pair of rookies in the starting lineup: Nick Hardwick at center and Shane Olivea at right tackle. Veterans Roman Oben and Toniu Fonoti and Mike Goff made it all work. Four of the five started all 16 games, while Hardwick missed just two.

If Brees, Gates and the offensive line come back and play at their 2004 level, then the Chargers will be a division and conference factor.

DEFENSE: Phillips was San Diegoís best addition last season and he paid immediate dividends. In half of their games, the Chargers allowed 17 points or fewer, and it was no coincidence that they were 8-0 in those games. There eight game winning streak during the season was built on defense, as only the Chiefs were able to dent the defense, scoring 31 at Arrowhead. San Diego still won 34-31.

The biggest change came against the run. The Chargers had the 25th -ranked defense against the run in 2003, allowing an average of 138.6 yards per game. They improved to No. 3 last season, giving up 57 yards per game less. That was a major key in winning the division. They allowed no run longer than 26 yards; only Washingtonís defense was able to match.

The front seven really stepped up its performance. NT Jamal Williams became a force on the inside, enough so that he earned a big contract extension and the team came out and said publicly he was the cornerstone of their defense. Igor Olshansky got his feet wet at defensive end. The linebackers were led by veterans Donnie Edwards, Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley, who topped the team with 10 sacks. Edwards had 151 tackles and five interceptions.

In the draft, first round picks went to LB in Shawne Merriman and DT in Luis Castillo. Both figure to become part of the rotation, although Merriman has hindered his development by refusing to take part in the teamís off-season program without a contract.

The Chargers had problems against the pass, finishing 31st in the league, allowing an average of 253 yards per game. Some of that came because the Chargers picked up leads and opponents had to throw to get back in the game; San Diego saw 607 attempts against them, 48 more than any other team in the league. They did grab 23 interceptions and had 29 sacks.

Former Green Bay defensive back Bhawoh Jue was the Chargers only free agent signing. He should move into one of the safety spots. Quentin Jammer and Drayton Florence are on the corners, with Sammy Davis as the nickel. The other safety spot will either be Terrence Kiel or Jerry Wilson.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Chargers have used high draft choices in recent years on their kicking game and they have a young, solid duo in Nate Kaeding and Mike Scifres. Last year they got a kickoff return for a touchdown from Tim Dwight, but heís gone to New England. They got nothing out of their punt return game. But K-State draft choice Darren Sproles is set to step into some of the return role and heís impressed Schottenheimer in the off-season with his explosiveness; you can read between the lines of Martyís comments that he sees him as his version of Dante Hall. Sproles could also be a factor in the offense on third down.

CONCLUSION: San Diego has one of the leagueís youngest teams and they used a lot of their available cap space in the last six months to sign some of their better players to extensions.