Inside slant: Chargers rumblings

It is comical to think back before the 2004 season began and review the comments regarding the San Diego Chargers.

The inviting doormat was in place, situated outside the Chargers' facility. It was placed there for opposing teams to wipe their feet and secure another win each Sunday against Southern California's woeful NFL squad.

But instead of being an embarrassment in 2004, the red faces belonged to prognosticators predicting another Chargers pitfall. The Chargers flipped their record -- and reputation -- as they turned a 4-12 showing into a 12-4 record, on their way to their first AFC West title since 1994.

What happened? And how did so many people miss it?

The holes on the team were nearly too numerous to mention: five new offensive line starters, an unsettled situation at quarterback, no proven go-to wide out, a fresh defensive coordinator installing a new scheme, a passive pass rush, a secondary which was torched for a league-high 36 touchdowns.

And that was just on the field. Off it, many thought general manager A.J. Smith wasn't up to the job, and coach Marty Schottenheimer was a dinosaur from another era, nearly distinction -- or at the least, being fired early.

But quarterback Drew Brees stood up at training camp, without the coaches and media within earshot. He told teammates the answer was inside the locker room, and it was up to the players -- not the doubting media and skeptical fans -- to determine where the season would go.

Brees wasn't buying the notion he was washed up in his fourth year, and should give way to rookie Philip Rivers. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson was so intent to stay, he signed a long-term contract. Tight end Antonio Gates would burst on the scene and finish with an NFL record 13 touchdown receptions for his position. The five linemen played as if they had been together for years, not weeks.

On defense, Donnie Edwards went past 100 tackles for the third straight year. Linebacker Steve Foley gave the team the burst off the edge with a career-high 10 sacks. The run defense, with tackle Jamal Williams as its anchor, was as nasty as the San Diego beaches are pleasant.

The defensive backfield? Still needs work.

It was a remarkable year, one in which Brees, Tomlinson and Gates earned Pro Bowl spots. And Schottenheimer added another page to his legacy by being selected the NFL coach of the year.

The season ended on a down note, when the team fell in overtime to the Jets in the wild card playoff game. But that heartbreaking loss can't overshadow the strides this organization made.

Some eight months after the Manning family ran from San Diego, pleading with the Chargers not to subject Eli to a career in purgatory, the team rallied to its first playoff berth since 1995.

What's on the horizon?

Plenty. The Chargers are faced with a big decision at quarterback, where many feel Brees will be retained as a franchise player, which means Rivers will red-shirt another year.

But there's those two No. 1 draft picks the Chargers have secured, which might help fix a leaky secondary and add depth to wide receiver.

That's looking ahead. Looking back shows a Chargers team whose season was like a bolt from the blue, not only to the organization, but a city which had been starved for a winner.

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