Perennial winner

The San Diego Chargers have been stuck in a football quagmire for so long that the prospects of escaping looked dim. But low and behold, the Bolts gave a rude salute to their critics on the way to a 12-4 season. Now, they believe they can continue that ride for years to come.

Fifty-one players on the team were in their fourth year or less for the Chargers in 2004. That translates to a significant youth movement that is hitting its prime.

While the days of unrestricted free agency can turn around a franchise quickly, the Chargers are returning a majority of their starters and some of the younger and hungrier players will have a year under the proverbial belt to draw from.

That experience will be tested with another tough schedule looming in 2005. School is out for the year, but the learning will continue through the off-season.

And many of the players are already eager to get back at it and perhaps more importantly they want the core of the team to remain intact. Whether that was a sly way of telling management they want Drew Brees to return under center or not, it is hard to deny what the team has been able to accomplish this season.

"We have a lot of talent coming back," veteran Lorenzo Neal said. :"You got guys now – like any job – your first year on the job you are nervous and then you start having success – to see the Dratyton's and Igor all these guys stepping up and making plays. I think you are going to see a lot more guys making plays."

The season ended on a sour note for San Diego. They felt like they had a chance to go deep into the playoffs and the first round knockout left a bruise they are anxious to repay.

Between now and next season, the team will find it has new players that dot the roster and the current batch will be turned over, at least partially. But the big moves, turning over entire units of the team are a thing of the past.

"I am excited about the prospects for the future," head coach Marty Schottenheimer said of his football team. "This has been a great year for our football team. We have a lot of things we are looking forward to building on."

From training camp, when it was clear the team had exorcised the demons (see Marcellus Wiley), the Chargers have stressed unity in everything they did. That cohesiveness turned into a camaraderie and belief in one another.

"We came a long way and have some room for improvement," tight end Antonio Gates said. "We just trusted one another and things just snowballed. Performance came along with trust and confidence."

It emanated throughout the locker room. Where fingers were pointed last year, the only pointing after a loss was within. Not one player targeted another, all the way to the end.

Neal went so far as to take all the blame for not generating six points in the overtime loss against the Jets on Saturday. He said the onus should be on the veterans of the team. They were the ones to let everyone down. He wanted it to be known that the team stands up for one another and won't be bullied around.

It is a message to take into the offseason. The work has just begun.

"The guys in the locker room are great guys," linebacker Donnie Edwards said. "They work hard. They want to win. The linebacking group has been the tightest group I have been a part of in nine years."

While time off is a luxury they are not likely to pass up on, the players have an appetite for more after the sweet taste of the playoffs. Working together they have attained a goal that many thought was impossible. The hope is to continue that trend and make it a tradition.

Now that we have tasted a little bit o success, it is something we would like to make the norm.

Lightning Quicks:

Terrence Kiel had a ligament sprain in his knee and was expected to have it looked at on Monday. Schottenheimer did not have an update on the extent of the injury. Ditto Nick Hardwick.

Schottenheimer went through his customary tactic of meeting with each player on the team individually, a meeting to open the air and discuss the season that past and a look ahead to the future.

Schottenheimer also thanked the media for their professionalism and said he enjoyed working with the group. He also said he tries to be as straightforward as possible, while keeping the best interests of the San Diego Chargers organization in mind.

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