Is this the Chargers' streak-breaking year? Hard to say, but general manager AJ Smith recognizes how important this season is.
"This is our push year," Smith said.
Will that mean the Chargers will visit the playoffs for the first time since 1995, which is also the last time they had a winning season? The Chargers get no breaks by playing in the rugged AFC West, especially considering they are breaking in a new secondary the pass-happy division.
But the team does have two stars on offense, and will offer a balanced attack that could give rival defensive coordinators fits.
Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, coming off a franchise-best 1,683 rushing yards, continues to prove he's among the NFL's elite backs. Tomlinson should only get better, especially after the free-agent signing of Pro Bowl fullback Lorenzo Neal.
But that's not the extent of Marty Ball. Coach Marty Schottenheimer also has a topflight receiver in David Boston, another key free-agency acquisition. Boston is coming off a year in which a torn patella tendon in his knee restricted him to eight games. He's made no secret he wants to rebound with vengeance, and return to his Pro Bowl status.
The Chargers are also expecting better production out of quarterback Drew Brees, who had 17 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions in his first year as a starter. Brees should be aided as well by having the dynamic Boston on board.
But across the board, the Chargers have to do better on defense. It ended with the 30th overall ranking last year, and will have to improve if hoping to play in January.
That's easier said than done, as the team searches for replacement for two Pro Bowlers: linebacker Junior Seau and strong safety Rodney Harrison.
Up front, too, a pass rush has to be discovered. End Marcellus Wiley was dogged by nagging injuries last year, and an abdominal surgery this offseason has him proclaiming his fitness. With Wiley's production down last year -- he went from 13 sacks to 6 -- it also lessen the impact of Raylee Johnson, who plays opposite him.
Finding a way to pester the quarterback is of extreme importance as Schottenheimer could start two rookies and one second-year player in the secondary. The growing pains which come with rebuilding a secondary with mostly youth can be lessened if the pass rush does its parts.
Seau will be replaced on the outside by Donnie Edwards, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection with his play middle last year. Ben Leber, a rookie starter in '02, will be on the strong side, with Zeke Moreno, Carlos Polk and rookie Matt Wilhelm battling for Edwards' old spot.
Despite having Tomlinson and Boston, this team has a ton of questions which must be answered by Sept. 7, when it opens the season in Kansas City. Chief among them is settling on a secondary. If the revamping of that unit doesn't go well, the playoff-free streak will reach eight seasons.
July 24: First practice for rookies and selected veterans.
July 26: First full squad practice.
Aug. 3: FanFest.
Aug. 21: Break camp.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--The team is holding training camp at Cal State Dominguez Hills after being at the University of California, San Diego, since 1976. Its new facility is part of the Home Depot Center.
--GM A.J. Smith said he expects everyone to be in the fold by the first camp practice.
--Former defensive tackle Louie Kelcher, a standout on three straight AFC West winning teams in the late '70s and early '80s, was selected to the team's Hall of Fame. He will be inducted as the 31st member at halftime of the Chargers-Vikings game on Nov. 9.
--The Chargers will wear their popular throwback jerseys at a home game this year, although the date hasn't been released.
--Every Chargers jersey will be graced with the initials "JB" to honor former GM John Butler, who died from cancer in the offseason.
--Ex-NFL coach Dennis Green will again be part of the team's preview show on television.
--The City of San Diego has stressed that the team should reveal its concrete plans for a new stadium to the public, something the Chargers have avoided in its negotiations with the city.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'll make this short because I hear we get a free lunch." -- A stout Louie Kelcher, at the press conference announcing his selection into the team's Hall of Fame.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The unsettled secondary took another hit when tests showed rookie SS Terrence Kiel suffered a fractured fibula while being shot three times in an attempted carjacking on July 4.
Since Kiel has to rest an estimated four weeks to let the bone heal, the team went ahead and removed a bullet still remaining in his abdomen, and bullet fragments from behind his left knee.
Kiel, though, was going to be given every shot at winning the starting position. Now, he won't be ready until the third preseason game -- at the earliest. And few Chargers insiders think he'll be able to see the field at all during the preseason.
That means second-year pro Vernon Fox and rookie Hanik Milligan have to shine; cornerback Jerry Wilson could also get some reps there. But the rebuilt secondary was one of the few areas the Chargers could ill afford more bad news. And Kiel's absence does little to help along a secondary which was of little last year, when ranked dead last in defending the pass.
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