Chargers mix new solution

The San Diego Chargers kicking game suffered last year in many different areas. It led to the departure of punter Darren Bennett and placekicker Steve Christie. Mike Scifres was brought on last year and learned from the veterans, while Bill Lafleur is a former Charger who was let go by San Francisco. At placekicker, the Bolts brought in rookie Nate Kaeding with undrafted free agent Mackenzie Hoambrecker sitting on the practice squad for much of 2003.

For a decade, one thing the San Diego Chargers had for sure was a punting game. They knew that Darren Bennett could knock the ball dead inside the twenty whenever commanded. His release was inevitable as the team looked for the new blood to carry over into 2004 and beyond.

What they don't want is a recreation of the placekicking problems after letting John Carney go. To make the transition smooth, the team brought in Bill LaFleur to compete with Mike Scifres. But is it much of a competition or just a way to make sure the second year man is as good as advertised?

"Mainly it was a learning experience for me to sit behind a guy like Darren and a guy like Steve," Scifres explains of his rookie season. "How many rookies coming into the league get a chance to sit behind guys like that? That have been in the league this long. Just sitting back and watching."

Now it is his time to shine. The team spent a fifth round pick on Scifres last year and has an investment in him. He holds for the placekicker and will be focused on punting this year, as opposed to 2003 when he kicked off.

Lafleur is the insurance policy. He is someone they liked in the past but may end up as nothing more than camp fodder. His contract was a simple one year deal while Scifres has four to go on his.

As for the placekicking situation, Nate Kaeding is it. The Chargers cited the Vikings as the reason they grabbed a kicker on the third round – convinced if they had let him slip, the Vikings would have taken him.

While Hoambrecker earned accolades from the coaching staff for his recent minicamp, it would be hard to justify not going to Kaeding from the get-go.

Last year, the Chargers tried just 20 field goals and only ten from outside 40 yards where Steve Christie connected on five. Twenty one kickers in the league hit over 20 field goals on the year. Kansas City was the only other team to try 20 field goals, but they were putting the ball in the end zone more often than not. San Diego tied with Buffalo for the fewest field goals made, three, between 40-49 yards.

The team will hand the reigns to Kaeding early and often. No longer will the team go for it on fourth down and two from the 32. Nineteen times they went for it on fourth down a year ago. Cut that number in half now. Three points is what they will take from those situations.

This year is a rededication to the kicking game. Bennett was great, but Scifres can be just as good. Christie was solid inside 40 and Kaeding will provide that and so much more.

In a game of inches, the kicking game is vital to a team's success. Often taken for granted, it is a valuable tool that teams use to win games.

"When you see the margin of victories diminish from college football to professional football throughout the last five or ten years," Kaeding began, "You truly understand that every point is important, every yard of field position on a punt or kickoff is important."

For a Chargers team that may not score as often as they would like on offense, Kaeding's point hits home. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer calls it, "a game of inches." And the Chargers have a lot more inches with their renewed kicking game than in the recent past. That alone can equate to extra wins, something they have plenty of need for.

Denis Savage can be reached at denis@sandiegosports.net

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