Chargers up to the challenge

There is a challenge around every corner. It begins in training camp for the Chargers and continues with the brutal schedule they face. Are they up to it?

Were the Chargers a one-shot wonder last year, or a team which will be among the best the league has to offer?

The Chargers went back to work last week, kicking off their first training camp at their facility not far from Qualcomm Stadium. That's the place the Chargers went 7-1 on their way to their first AFC West title since 1994.

So what's up for an encore? The Chargers, to a man, say they can build on that shocking success of last year. If so, the will have to do it but not sneaking on up on anyone and battling a schedule that is rugged as it is attractive.

"I'm excited about the upcoming season," coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "We have quite a challenge." The schedule is a difficult one."

True. It's clogged by both Super Bowl participants on the road. Plus, away games at Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and with the Jets.

But before taking off on that, the Chargers have work to do in camp. Although unlike previous years, the team doing jumping jacks on the field is pretty well set.

If looking for juicy training camp battles, go elsewhere. That's what happens when all 22 starters return - as soon as unsigned Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates reports - as well as the punter and kicker.

But Schottenheimer warns that each season is an entity in itself. And while accolades received last year are nice, all that and $3.45 will get you a grande soy latte.

"I've learned over these many years that it's really hard to predict where you might go," Schottenheimer said. "The injuries in our league now play such a huge role I what happens to a football team. It doesn't matter who you are as these injuries jump up as they did two years ago for us."

That's among the reasons Schottenheimer will be cautious with his players as they work their way to the season opener with the visiting Cowboys. If the Chargers are to giddy-up again and be a force in the NFL, it can't afford to get bit by the injury bug.

So Schottenheimer won't work his players in pads in consecutive practices. He will back off the pedal as he senses his players getting worn out. True, he's a taskmaster. But he seems to grasp that being a hero in August often doesn't mean squad come January.

"We'll try to stay injury free," he said. "Hopefully we can do that and get ourselves off to a quick start."

They didn't last year, dropping two of their first three games. But then the light went on in quarterback Drew Brees' game, LaDainian Tomlinson started doing his thing, and a run defense led a unit which was vastly improved under new coordinator Wade Phillips.

But as Schottenheimer is quick to note, that was last year. Still, he feels confident the nucleus and few newcomers will bond and bring honor again to San Diego football fans.

"I think we've continued to find the right people for the right players," Schottenheimer said. "We've been able to get terrific leadership out of a number of our veteran players and some of our younger players for that matter. My thoughts are that we're a better football team certainly right now than we were at this time a year ago."

Ah yes, a year ago. The Chargers were a laughingstock, embarrassed by Eli Manning's reluctance to join them. Schottenheimer was on the hot seat, a resident he shared with novice general manager A.J. Smith.

But that was then. Now show reveals a team bent on returning to last year's glory.

"I like the challenge of the schedule that we're playing," Schottenheimer said. "I think it's terrific."

He hopes is team follows suit.

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