If I were a carpenter...

In the NFL, every general manager has his own schemes, policies and philosophies. The one common thread that ties them all together is that they all have one penultimate goal: to win the Super Bowl. All of them, that is, except A.J. Smith. His ultimate goal, as he has described it many times, is to build a team that is a perennial playoff team, with the hope that one year the cards will fall the right way and his team can win a championship.

The problem with this philosophy is that in the NFL there is no reason to wait for the cards to fall your way, not when as general manager you are allowed to stack your own deck. While many Chargers fans are simply elated just to see their team make the playoffs after years of early offseasons, this team should not settle for being among the best. The Chargers have the ability to be the single best team in the entire league.

If the Chargers place too heavy a premium on keeping in place the factors that helped them win last year, then their conservatism may be the source of their demise this season. This is a team with many talented young players ready to take over and assume bigger roles. What the Chargers must avoid is sacrificing productivity for continuity.

Bhawoh Jue appears set to supplant Jerry Wilson at free safety. Stephen Cooper may be ready to challenge or even replace Randall Godfrey at inside linebacker. Courtney Van Buren seems primed to wrestle the starting right tackle job from Shane Olivea. And these are just the more obvious situations.

Even though no one believes it, there is supposed to be an open competition for the starting quarterback job. Although it is unlikely that Drew Brees will be replaced after last season's stellar performance, it would not be overwhelmingly surprising if Philip Rivers outperformed him in the preseason. If Rivers shows he is ready, the team will have to swallow hard before sending him back to the bench.

"I feel pretty comfortable in what we are doing," said Rivers. "My expectations are high. I am focused on this day and then the next day and look at it one day at a time. When that gets here and the challenge is asked of me, I will be ready."

The team is in a bind here. Players like Wilson, Godfrey, Olivea and Brees carried this team to their first playoff appearance in a decade. The problem is that for each of these players last season appears to have been their best case scenario. At the same time, the team can't exactly bench all of these players and hope that each and every replacement plays up to his maximum potential.

The Chargers as a team have accepted mediocrity from some of their core players for far too long. If Quentin Jammer cannot play like an elite corner, then don't treat him like one. If it's third and long, pull him from the game and let Drayton Florence, Sammy Davis and Jamar Fletcher man the nickel defense. They may not be models of consistency, but at least they can make a play on the ball.

I am not suggesting an in-house overhaul of a division championship team, but the Chargers must continue to progress or regression will become inevitable. They need to give Jue, Cooper and Van Buren legitimate chances to win starting positions. They should put both starting cornerback jobs up for grabs so that at least two of the team's four highly drafted cover men will have earned their playing time.

Finally, they need to let Philip Rivers get significant preseason exposure, if for no other reason than so that he can push Brees as he did last year. Shake it up or be shaken down. Basically, dare to be great.

"I am not going to back down," said Rivers. "I am going to strive to do all that I can do."

Michael Lombardo can be reached at Lombardo@SanDiegoSports.net

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