Schedule Problems? Players Confident

When Marty Schottenheimer took over as Chargers Head Coach in 2002, the team viewed their early schedule as the starting point for a playoff berth. As it turned out they were right and got out of the gate with a 6-1 record heading into their bye week. They just failed to take into account the rest of the schedule en route to a 2-7 finish.

The Chargers were very upbeat and confident heading into last season. With a bye scheduled for Week 8, San Diego opened its season with Cincinnati and followed that game with two more of the worst teams in the league – Houston and Arizona.

At the time, many thought San Diego could easily be 2-1 or even 3-0 after the first three games. They did not disappoint going 3-0. Then they faced defending Super Bowl Champions New England before heading through their division games with games at Denver, home against KC and at Oakland. A 1-3 record may have been impressive as the Bolts would have headed into their bye week with a 4-3 record.

Instead they astonished everyone with a 3-1 record over that four game span with the only loss coming in Denver. Rolling as they were, the bye week could not have come at a worse time. They came out of the bye week and got crushed by the NY Jets and never recovered even losing their last four of the season to go from certain playoffs to bystanders. This year, there is much the same enthusiasm surrounding the new-look Chargers and the schedule once again gives the team a chance to make a statement -- for better or worse -- early on.

The Chargers will play three of their first four games vs. division opponents, with a Baltimore home game sandwiched in, letting the world know quickly if the Chargers will be division contenders. The Chargers follow that up with a game against Jacksonville and a quick bye week in week six.

What follows the bye will be a very difficult stretch that will include playoff team Cleveland, followed by a Junior Seau led Miami team that comes to the Q. The Miami game could be the key to the season. Certain to be an emotionally charged up crowd that will cheer the return of Seau, the Bolts must keep their heads and gain a win to make a playoff push as the season gets tougher from there.

A potential break in the schedule comes after the Miami game that could prove to be a nightmare as each team is improved from a year ago. Chicago, Minnesota, Denver and Cincinnati are on tap with a combined 2002 record of 21-43. All are setup to be potential letdown games after the Miami game.

Another tough division game brings KC into San Diego and the Chargers get their last breath when they face Detroit in December.

After the Lions game Dec. 7th, the Chargers final three games will be vs. teams that made the playoffs last year, including a season-ender against Oakland.

It seems clear the key to the Chargers success will be a fast start vs. the division, coming on strong during the middle portion of the schedule and surviving the tough December schedule. The Chargers are going to be better than last year, but the schedule isn't going to do them any favors.

The Chargers have improved their offense dramatically. The only player left in the starting unit since the late John Butler and current GM AJ Smith took over is Vaughn Parker.

"I think we are going to have an explosive offense," said Parker. "We have a young, fast defense, so the two together, quality special teams – I look forward to great things."

The additions of David Boston and Lorenzo Neal have made a difference on the field and in the locker room. The defense must follow suit.

"Now, I've got to step up and be a leader," defensive end Marcellus Wiley said. "Being a leader is not a job to volunteer for. You have to earn the respect of your teammates. With Rodney and Junior here, you don't want to step on any toes. Obviously, they were great players, so I took a step back."

Forget the schedule; the defense is the real key to the season this year.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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