Thursday, September 6, 2012


Will the 2012 San Diego Chargers energize this city the way they did a few years ago and again reign supreme in the AFC West? 

Without consulting a meteorologist, I'd say the chances of lightning striking this season in Mission Valley are about 50-50.

As we approach the Bolts’ regular season opener Monday night against the Oakland Raiders up in that giant armpit known as Oakland Coliseum, there is renewed hope among Charger fans. 

But right now this team conjures up more questions than answers. As usual, the Chargers' front office is serving up a big bowl of hype.

“We acknowledge the fact that the last couple of years have been disappointing to everybody, but we’ve never given up and we’re trying to do the best that we can,” team president Dean Spanos told “I think we’ve added some key players who are going to have an impact on our team this year. So we’re optimistic, but we’ll still have to go out there and do it. But this team’s ready for the challenge.”

But are they really ready? Some see this team making the playoffs for the first time since 2009. ESPN magazine has them winning the division and going 13-3. Seriously, ESPN?

That record seems somewhat unlikely given the fact that the AFC West has rather suddenly re-emerged as one of the tougher divisions in the NFL. The Chargers could be very good, but if several pieces don't fall into place, they could have a major power outage, win as few as five games, and miss the playoffs, again.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The Chargers were unusually active in free agency this off-season, and had a good draft. Top pick Melvin Ingram, despite suffering a deep thigh bruise a couple weeks ago, looks like the real deal. He could be an impact player on the defensive line and wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks.

The Chargers also have a deep and talented group of linebackers, and appear faster overall then a year ago. 

But no one new player jumps out at me as having the potential to have an instant impact like quarterback Peyton Manning probably will in Denver. 

Some might say otherwise, but the truth is San Diego lost more than it gained this off-season. The team's vaunted free agents are veterans and good football players, but many are past their prime. They may provide leadership in the locker room, but can they still play at a high level?

The team's best receiver Vincent Jackson is gone. The team's most inspirational and underrated player Mike Tolbert is gone. Two Pro-Bowl offensive linemen – Kris Dielman and Marcus McNeill, both of whom protected quarterback Phillip Rivers' blind side - are gone. And none of these great players has been replaced with a player of equal skill. 

Offensive left tackle Jared Gaither, who played well last year but whose work ethic has been questioned during his NFL stint, is a very important piece of the puzzle. With the retirement of the Chargers' most intimidating lineman, left guard Dielman, and the loss of imposing left tackle McNeill, the left side of the offensive line is ripe for pass rushers to exploit.

But Gaither is already injured after signing a huge contract. He missed the entire training camp with back spasms and there is still no timeline for his return. Some football insiders say he worked just hard enough last year to get that big contract and now he's going to coast. I hope that isn't true.

Charger fans should give him the benefit of the doubt. But he is the team's biggest mystery. For now, the crucial left tackle duties will be left to undrafted rookie Michael Harris from UCLA. It could be a very long year for this team if Harris doesn’t mature fast and overachieve. Protecting a Pro Bowl quarterback's blind side is a lot to ask of a rookie.

Then there's running back Ryan Matthews, who ran well last year and who many expected to have a breakout season this year if he stayed healthy. But he, too, is already hurt - a broken clavicle - and will be rusty at best for several weeks even after he returns. Matthews has unbelievable skills, when healthy, but I'm still not completely sold on him.

He's reportedly worked hard this off-season – in years past he's showed up at camp out of shape – and is from all accounts working fiercely to bounce back from the injury. But no truly great running back in the NFL is this fragile. I hope he proves me wrong.

In the absence of Matthews, who'll probably miss at least a couple games, it appears that several other running backs will get a chance to carry the ball. Free agent acquisition Ronnie Brown is the team's starter for now, but that doesn't excite me. Brown is coming off his worst year as a pro.
Another tough blow for the Chargers was the loss of Vincent Brown, the second-year receiver out of my alma mater San Diego State University who was having probably the best camp of anyone on the team. Brown is out for at least eight regular season games with a broken ankle. Huge loss.

Speaking of receivers, the fragile health of sometimes-dazzling Malcolm Floyd is really key. And gifted but aging free agent Eddie Royal is a quality player and person, but he couldn't stay healthy last year with Denver and apparently cant stay healthy this year either.

Royal had a groin injury and missed most of camp. Hopefully he’ll be able to contribute, but, not to sound cynical or anything, I won't be shocked if he gets injured by halftime Monday.

As for some of our returning veteran starters, defensive back Quentin Jammer is the biggest worry. He's been a solid player for a long time but he had a bad season last year, some say because of his messy divorce. It's questionable if he'll be able to outrun father time and regain his old form or speed. He, too, has been banged up this summer.

Of course, the heart and soul of this football team remains Rivers. He’s still an elite quarterback and fierce competitor who despite having a really weak preseason appears eager to prove that last year's 20 interceptions was a fluke. Remember, he also had 27 touchdown passes. 

Unfortunately, he can't do it alone, and he again has a lot of unfamiliar receivers to throw to this year and a highly suspect group of blockers. With the loss of Dielman and McNeill and now the injury to Gaither, Rivers, whose talent and heart no one questions, could be running for his life and pulling chunks of turf out of his helmet all season.

The other factor worth noting is that every team in the AFC West has improved this off-season, especially Denver, with its scary acquisition of future hall-of-fame quarterback Manning. The former Colt appears healed and ready to show that he can still play. A possible nightmare scenario for Charger DBs - although this team has handled Manning well in the past.

I think Manning's winning ways will make everyone on the Denver team better. I also think the underrated Kansas City Chiefs could steal the division. And it pains me to say this, but I think the Raiders will also contend. Some say the Raiders have taken a step backward. But this is the first full training camp as a Raider for quarterback Carson Palmer, who no one is talking about but who can still play. 

San Diego finished 3-3 in the division last year and will have to work even harder this year just to match that. The Chargers have much to prove, from the offensive line to the defensive line to the secondary to the running game. Well, pretty much everything. 

I'm not sure about this team. But I want to love this group. Their practices have been exciting to watch. The energy in training camp has been demonstrably higher than in the last couple of years.

So here's the deal: 

If the offensive line can give Rivers time to work his magic, Matthews gets and stays healthy, Gates the Great stays healthy, the defense (namely rookie Ingram and veteran Shaun Phillips) puts more pressure on opposing QBs, Jammer rediscovers his old form, the linebackers step up as expected, safety Eric Weddle earns his huge salary, and kicker Nate Kaeding rebounds from his year-long injury and doesn't choke on the crucial field goals and gets a few more touchbacks, this team could win the division and even go deep into the playoffs. 
But if any one of these things doesn't happen, this team could really suck.

There's one other nagging question on seemingly everyone's mind: Was keeping coach Norv Turner a good idea? I’ve defended Norv in the past, and the players really seem to like him for some reason, but he's had so much talent for so long and just seems incapable of bringing this team, or any team for that matter, to the Promised Land. 

The 2012 Chargers are not like the Turner-led teams with Ladainian Tomlinson in his prime, Shawn Merriman in his prime, etc. This aint that team. Some decent free agent pickups and draft picks, as I said, and a few great veterans, but no one thinks this is the most talented group in the NFL like they did a few short years ago.

The absence of just a couple key players - namely Gaither, Matthews and/or Gates - could quickly turn the Bolts from a contender to a punchline. The Chargers could easily find themselves sitting at home, again, while other teams in the division make the playoffs. 

Can this team re-electrify this city? Uh... maybe. My Chargers forecast for this season is partly optimistic, with a slight chance of reign.


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