Recharging their batteries

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#GoIrish #Aztecs #SDGulls #Raiders #THFC #RipCity
Staff member
Jun 20, 2005
Chula Vista, CA
From: The Rocky Mountain News

Brees and Tomlinson are among 22 returning starters expecting to keep San Diego energized in 2005

By Lynn DeBruin, Rocky Mountain News
September 16, 2005

SAN DIEGO - Perhaps it was the late-afternoon sun melting his brain.

Or maybe it was the lingering effect of being poked in the eye a few days earlier.

Whatever it was last week, San

Diego Chargers linebacker Steve Foley forgot where he was for a second.

He was talking about the expectations in the city after the Chargers' incredible 12-4 turnaround when the word "Cincinnati" inexplicably came tumbling out of his mouth.

Almost immediately, he caught himself.

"Believe me, I'm not trying to think back to those days," said Foley, who spent the first five years of his career playing for a laughable loser. "I don't want flashbacks of that place."

Foley would prefer flashbacks instead to 2004, when the Chargers, another group of laughable losers after eight consecutive nonwinning seasons, did what no one thought they could do - win the AFC West for the first time in 10 years.

As the 2005 season unfolds, and with the Chargers losing their home opener 28-24 to the Dallas Cowboys, the biggest question is whether lightning can strike twice, or if last year was nothing more than a fluke.

"That's a legitimate question," acknowledged San Diego general manager A.J. Smith, who has seen the Chargers picked to finish anywhere from first to third in the division.

"When you're down for so long, you're a one-year wonder, either as an individual player or a team. I understand it. To get out of that, you have to be in the playoffs repeatedly."

Familiar faces

Unlike a few years ago, Smith isn't lamenting the lack of talent on his roster.

The Chargers return all 22 starters from last season, though their one key free-agent acquisition, Bhawoh Jue, has since beaten out Jerry Wilson for the free safety job. Also back are both kickers and their long snapper. That's a sharp contrast to this week's opponent, Denver, which has eight new starters (nine, if one counts the punter).

"It's unusual in this day and age to have everybody back, but we're happy to be back together," said wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who has been with the team from Day 1 this year after arriving in a trade with Tampa Bay in October 2004.

"You've got to build some kind of chemistry. You've got to jell," McCardell said. "This team has jelled. We went through some things last year, and at the end of the year (with a wild-card loss to the New York Jets), but, hopefully, we learned from it."

Quarterback Drew Brees said the experience factor might be bigger.

"All those guys are one more year experienced, so why shouldn't we be even better?" Brees asked. "Plus, we have that attitude that last year wasn't good enough. We're not satisfied with what we did last year."

Cool Brees

For all he accomplished in '04, few have more to prove this year than Brees, now the Chargers' $8 million man after the team slapped the franchise tag on him.

Training camp arrived in 2004 with Brees supposedly biding his time until being replaced by rookie Philip Rivers, the No. 4 overall pick in that year's draft.

When the season was over, Rivers was still on the bench and Brees was walking off with the Comeback Player of the Year Award.

He threw 20 more touchdowns (27) than interceptions (seven), completed 65.5 percent of his passes and set a team record with his 104.8 passer rating.

There was little resemblance to the guy who struggled so poorly in 2003 (four wins and a 67.5 rating) that the Chargers went out and got Rivers.

Beyond that, Brees had become a leader, making it clear to teammates even before being named the starter that he was the guy to follow.

But the transformation from mediocrity to franchise player started long before camp.

He sought out nutritional guidance to boost his performance, hired a specialist to work on both physical and mental conditioning, and consulted with former major-league pitching coach Tom House to improve his throwing mechanics.

"After I got a taste of that whole training regimen, that whole mentality, I wanted more," Brees said last week. "Now it's like every year, how can I take it to the next level? I'm not satisfied with how I played last year. It was good; it wasn't great. I'm trying to be great here."

Coaches and teammates say one thing is for sure - Brees' arm strength is significantly improved from when he arrived in the NFL as a second-round draft pick from Purdue.

"All you have to do is watch the mechanics and the speed with which he gets the ball where it's going to go," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "Better yet, ask those who are defending against him. I think they see it as well."

McCardell certainly can tell.

"We call it a 'lively' arm," McCardell said. "It just shows you he's working to be better than he was last year. That's what you've got to do to stay on top."

Dark moments

For Brees, the preparation doesn't stop when practice ends.

Consider the Friday before the Chargers' opener.

Groundskeepers already were picking up loose pieces of sod from the Chargers practice field, and teammates could be heard singing in the shower.

Yet Brees was still on the field, having summoned rookie receiver Vincent Jackson back out to help with one last drill.

As Brees dropped back to pass each time - first from the center of the field, then the left hash mark, then the right, from 10 yards away, then 15 yards, then 20 - his eyes were closed, relying on muscle memory to find his target.

Like clockwork, Brees easily found Jackson, a former University of Northern Colorado star, pass after pass.

"It's a fascinating concept," Schottenheimer said of the drill. "When he first started doing it, he couldn't even hit the ground with the thing. Now he's gotten to the point where he's comfortable with it. He could literally throw it with his eyes closed and hit targets 25, 30 yards away."

For a guy who stands just 6-foot, playing behind linemen 4 and 5 inches taller, sometimes throwing blind is the only option.

Gateway to success

Brees isn't the only one who opened eyes last year.

One of the big reasons for his success was the emergence of All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who helped lead the Kent State University basketball team to the Elite Eight in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

In 2004, Gates led the Chargers with 81 catches for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns - the latter a single-season record for NFL tight ends.

Yet in battling the team regarding a new contract, Gates was suspended for the final two preseason games, plus Sunday's opener.

There's little question the Chargers could have used him Sunday when, trailing Dallas 28-24, they faced first-and-goal from the Cowboys' 7-yard line with 47 seconds left.

Instead, they came up empty.

While the season-opening loss brought out even more skeptics, players still believe.

"I really don't think that was a fair representation of what we can do," said Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson, whose personal goal beyond making the playoffs is to join the 2,000-yard club.

"We didn't have Antonio Gates, who is a great part of this offense, so Dallas played us however they wanted to."

This week, Gates will be back in the lineup when the Chargers come to Denver, and he'll be part of their organization for the next six years.

"I would have liked to have had a victory (Sunday) and six years, but you can't have it all," said GM Smith, whose hard-line stance in the Gates negotiations has put him on the hot seat with fans.

Like everyone else, he knows that with such a brutal road schedule, those home wins are key.

Road to ruin?

That's the biggest reason some don't see the Chargers holding the AFC West trophy again this year.

Their schedule is enough to make a grown man cry.

Only four teams have tougher schedules based on last year's records.

Seven of their opponents made the playoffs a year ago, and eight of them had winning records.

Also, in a five-week period, they face four teams coming off byes.

Finally, in addition to venues that are always tough - Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium and Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, the Chargers have to go to New England, Philadelphia and Indianapolis to face teams that went a combined 26-2 at home last year.

"I know the schedule is hard, but you have to prove that when you get out there," Smith said. "The San

Diego Chargers a year ago were on somebody's schedule and it didn't turn out quite like people thought."

One look at Week 1 is proof of that: Teams that failed to make the playoffs last year won seven of 10 games last week when facing those who qualified for postseason.

Still, Brees acknowledged there's a chance San Diego could be a better team this year but have a worse record.

"You never like to think that, but we know it's a tremendous challenge," he said.

Still, he said, "The playoffs are an absolute expectation. I don't care what our record is, as long as we're in the playoffs."

Sunny disposition

After the Chargers went 12-4 in 2004, expectations are much higher in San Diego. That might explain why season-ticket sales are up 16,000 and five home games already are sold out.

• The Chargers, who have not had more than one prime-time game since 1997, have three nationally televised night games this year in addition to the nationally televised season finale - a 2:30 MST p.m. game Dec. 31 vs. Denver at Qualcomm Stadium.

• The last-to-first turnaround netted coach Marty Schottenheimer a two-year contract extension that runs through the 2007 season.

• General manager A.J. Smith, voted NFL Executive of the Year, received a three-year contract extension that runs through the 2009 season.

• Success also brought an average price hike of $8 per ticket and a $7 jump in the price of parking at Qualcomm.

Battling the odds

• The Chargers will be trying to earn consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 1994-95. But with Schottenheimer as their coach, history isn't on their side. In the seasons after his two best years in Kansas City - the Chiefs went 13-3 in 1995 and 1997 - his teams missed the playoffs.

Who will be this year's Chargers?

Each year, a team or two surprises the critics and bucks the odds to make the playoffs.

The Carolina Panthers came out of nowhere in 2003 to make it all the way to Super Bowl XXXVIII. St. Louis won it all four years earlier despite starting a quarterback, Kurt Warner, few had heard of going into the season. Three years before that, the unheralded Jacksonville Jaguars went all the way to the AFC title game despite losing three of their first four games in 1996. Last year, the Chargers went from scrap heap to AFC West champs quicker than fantasy-leaguers could scramble to add Drew Brees and Antonio Gates to their lineups.

Who will be this year's Chargers? Here is a look at five possibilities.

• Dallas: The Cowboys have a new quarterback (DrewBledsoe,) a new defensive scheme (the 3-4) and an upset road victory against San Diego in Week 1. But even before the Cowboys took the field Sunday, some experts were raving about the possibilities. "When I saw them in preseason, I liked what I saw-theenergy, the scheme," CBS analyst Phil Simms said. Dallas is coming off a 6-10 record.

The big question: Will Bledsoe, not known for his mobility (he was sacked 86 times in his last two years in Buffalo), hold up for an entire season?

•New York Giants: Like Dallas, the Giants were 6-10 a year ago, but there was hope toward the end of last season when things started clicking for rookie QB Eli Manning. Now Manning is a year older, and he has another big target to throw to in Plaxico Burress.

And getting kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns in the openeragainst Arizona certainly won't hurt the Giants' confidence.

• Detroit: The Lions, too, won only six times last season but they're 1-for-1 in '05, having knocked off the three-timedefending division champion Green Bay Packers. With QB Joey Harrington, now in his fourth year, the hope is he finally has all the weapons around him for the Lions to make a wild-card run.

•Miami: The Dolphins certainly made believers out ofthe Broncos, who were humiliated in every phase of the game Sunday.

Their new coach, Nick Saban, might be overly demanding and difficult, but who's to argue with the results so far.

The question is whether they can keep it up, playing the NFL's toughest schedule based on 2004 results.

•Buffalo: Unlike last year's Chargers, who took everyone by surprise, Buffalo is a team many think might be one of the most improved.

The Bills have the league's second-ranked defense, and a strong running game, and second-year QB J.P. Losman, has shown more poise and confidence.