Chargers still have "ifs"

The Chargers entered training camp with the confidence they could go deep into the playoffs.

The team had possibly the best running back in LaDainian Tomlinson, the top tight end in Antonio Gates and a run defense which dominated last year, finishing the season as the NFL's toughest.

And the Chargers head into the season with that confidence relatively intact. But a closer look reveals a lot of things have to fall right for the Chargers to be standing tall come January.

The biggest question mark, of course, is quarterback Philip Rivers. With Pro Bowler Drew Brees leaving for New Orleans, the offense had to learn to march behind a new leader for the first time since 2002.

Rivers' exhibition season was mixed; the team went 2-1 and he was expected to be held out of the final game. He threw one touchdown pass and completed 65 percent of his passes, but also turned the ball over four times -- three lost fumbles and an interception.

By all accounts, Rivers felt he absorbed what he needed. And he's looking ahead with vigor to getting his first NFL start on Sept. 11 when the Chargers open the season in Oakland.

"I feel ready, I do," Rivers said. "With the preseason games and the whole offseason and the last two years, I think I'm where I need to be. I don't feel an apprehension."

In a way, according to Rivers, the bad stuff that landed at his feet -- the turnovers -- might be a blessing.

"Better some of the things happened then than later," he said. "It wasn't just like playing in a practice with a script. There were things we had to react to, some situations, and that was good."

While Rivers is set, the same can't be said about the offensive line's most critical spot: left tackle.

Any good quarterback has a dynamite left tackle to protect his blind side. The Chargers just might have one in Marcus McNeill. But it would be a stretch to say they wanted to find out this early.

The club was hopeful veteran Roman Oben could rebound from two foot surgeries. That didn't happen and he was placed on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he can't return until after the sixth week, at the earliest.

Leander Jordan was next in line, but he wasn't impressive. Then he suffered a stinger and his availability is uncertain at this point.

Enter McNeill. While he has the size at 6-feet-7, 338 pounds and played in a lot of big games at Auburn, he is still a rookie. And having a rookie play left tackle for a first-year starting quarterback is hardly how these things are drawn up.

Plus, if Rivers was to go down, his replacement would be another rookie in Charlie Whitehurst.

Defensively, the team must find some balance to become close to an elite team. Time and again the secondary lets the defense down, which is surprising considering the stout pass rush the Chargers employ.

So if the learning curve for Rivers is short, if McNeill can handle the edge and keep Rivers standing upright, if the secondary can force some turnovers, if the team can replace defensive leader Steve Foley, if No. 1 Keenan McCardell doesn't play to his birth certificate and a returner can be found after Darren Sproles broke his leg, the Chargers could be playoff-bound.

That's a lot of ifs.


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