Not the same old Chargers

The overwhelming feeling of disappointment felt by millions of Chargers fans after the team's home loss to the Jets was nothing new to those who had been riding the Bolt's bandwagon all along. The offense lost the turnover battle, the defense surrendering the winning points late, and the special teams choked when they were needed the most. But make no mistake, these are not the same old Chargers.

For the first time in a decade, this team established an identity. On offense, this team was as balanced as any in the league. Drew Brees led the passing attack by throwing for over 3,000 yards, while registering nearly four touchdown passes for every one interception. On the ground, LaDainian Tomlinson recorded his fourth straight 1,000 yard season, while leading the league in rushing touchdowns. Antonio Gates' 13 touchdown receptions helped the Chargers become the league's most proficient gold zone offense, and Keenan McCardell's veteran presence provided a reliable target for Brees, as well as a leader for a young receiving corps.

"Keep everybody's spirits up," McCardell said of his contributions this season. "With a young team you get bad breaks here or there – you might start slow. When things are not going our way, you can't put your head down. You have to dig in deeper and fight. That is one thing I wanted to show these guys."

On defense, the new 3-4 alignment began to gel as the season wore on. Steve Foley became a dominant force as a pass rusher, and blossomed into an all-star-caliber player as the season progressed. Jamal Williams, Igor Olshansky and Randall Godfrey helped the defense become the league's third best run stopping unit, and forced opponents to become one-dimensional. In the secondary, Quentin Jammer, Terrance Kiel and Drayton Florence showed they are building blocks for the future, and other youngsters such as Sammy Davis and Hanik Milligan progressed as well. If any undead body can be signed to play free safety, this defense will continue to make strides next season.

"We know what kind of team we have, we just need to keep making progress," linebacker Randall Godfrey said looking forward to 2005.

The special teams showed immense ability as well. Punter Mike Scifres led the AFC in net punting yardage, and was voted a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. Nate Kaeding excelled as well, nailing over 80 percent of his filed goal attempts en route to setting a Chargers rookie scoring record. Unfortunately, he will be remembered for the one he didn't make, which is a shame because he is an excellent young kicker with a bright future. The team is sure to invest in someone to return kicks, as Tim Dwight will likely be cut and Eric Parker is a great receiver but a very average return man whose health is of the utmost importance. But that is a small hole to fill, and the Chargers certainly have the means to do so.

While these numerous aforementioned players stepped up on the field, the Chargers improbable division championship is due in large part to the work of the men behind the scenes. Marty Schottenheimer, the AP Coach of the Year, finally accomplished the one thing he has been trying to do since his arrival in San Diego; he got his team to believe they could win.

This was made possible by many brilliant moves by A.J. Smith. Without the help of blue collar veterans such as Roman Oben, Mike Goff, and numerous others, this turnaround would not have been possible. Many people are worried about how Smith will handle Brees' contract situation this off-season, but after seeing him handle the Eli Manning disaster last off-season, he has officially earned the benefit of the doubt.

"The leadership of Mike Goff and Roman Oben and the leadership they have provided and setting the example they have set was invaluable to our success this year," Schottenheimer said.

So while the feeling at the end of the ride was all too familiar, the route there was brand-spanking new. The best part is, other than Brees possibly exiting, the core of this team will return next season. Also, Reche Caldwell will be back to give the receiving corps a huge boost, and Courtney Van Buren and Ryon Bingham will be back to provide even better depth on the lines. Now this team knows how to win, and they know they have the horses to do it. They have an identity. And so now we as fans need to recognize that these are no longer just the same old Chargers.

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net

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