Progressing Towards the Playoffs

When A.J. Smith decided to give Marty Schottenheimer a free pass back to the sidelines after last season's utter debacle, it was clear that the coach would be on a short leash. There was even speculation that one of the reasons Eli Manning dreaded becoming a San Diego Charger so much was because he feared a massive turnover in the front office was set to incur.

After all, following back to back years of winning at least three games more than the season prior, the San Diego Chargers re-building process came to a screeching halt last season. And when it was all said and done, they ended up right back where they started, as the worst team in the National Football League.

So with A.J. Smith and Marty Schottenheimer both recognizing that the continuation of their respective careers was dependant upon the results of this upcoming season, they did the only thing they could to give themselves a fighting chance. They lowered everyone's expectations.

Ever since John Butler moved West and brought with him energizing players such as Doug Flutie and Marcellus Wiley, this team has been considered a playoff contender. Because of that, this off-season began with fans and media personnel alike believing that if AJ and Marty could not finally get this Chargers squad to realize its playoff potential, they would be fired immediately after the season, no questions asked. But throughout the course of this off-season Smith has changed the direction in which this team is heading. This upcoming season is no longer about the playoffs, it is about progress.

As Smith examined his team's payroll he realized that not only was his team not a contender, but that the proverbial ship he is paid to steer was quickly heading in the wrong direction. The names of the players who brought the Chargers credibility as a playoff contender were they same names who were cashing big paychecks while producing minimal results. So the team rid itself of big dollar players such as Marcellus Wiley and David Boston. Now the only marquee name left on the roster is LaDainian Tomlinson, and that one will remain there for the foreseeable future.

So after stripping the team of its overpaid and unproductive veterans, Smith went about putting franchise players in the right positions:

On offense the Chargers now have a bright future at the games two most pivotal positions, quarterback (Phillip Rivers) and running back (LaDainian Tomlinson).

On defense, the Chargers have not one but two shutdown cornerbacks in Quentin Jammer and Sammy Davis. So while the team still has many questions left to answer, at least they have gotten the most difficult ones out of the way.

And because Smith has built through his team through the draft (as he and his predecessor John Butler have preached since day one) and filled out the rest of his roster with players who are experienced leaders and whose salaries don't break the bank (Randall Godfrey, Roman Oben, Mike Goff, Kevin Dyson) this upcoming season is more about progress than production.

For example, how much progress will Rivers make throughout the course of his inaugural campaign, and which one of the young receivers (Reche Caldwell, Eric Parker, Kassim Osgood) will step up and become his go to guy?

The progress of the team's defense will also be closely monitored as they switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment. How well will the secondary continue to grow together? Will the rookie ends (Igor Olshansky and Dave Ball) be able to show they can step up and cure the Chargers perennial ills on the defensive line? The progress this team shows on these fronts will now be the determining factor as to whether or not this is a productive season for the Chargers.

Despite this being a year focused on growth and progress, this squad is still capable of putting together a winning season. The Chargers have the single best running back in the league carrying their offense. And their defense not only has more talent than last season, but will now be a more aggressive unit as well. Replacing the vanilla schemes of Dale Lindsey with the attacking philosophies of established signal caller Wade Phillips should yield the biggest improvement between this year's squad and that of last season.

But while making the playoffs would be nice, this season is all about progress. Because if the team shows enough progress this season, AJ and Marty will be back to try and show Chargers fans the playoffs next year.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at

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