Behind Enemy Lines: AFC West rival San Diego

They say there is no off-season in the NFL, so we turned to San Diego Chargers team expert Michael Lombardo to find out what is going on behind enemy lines in San Diego as training camp draws near. Kansas City Chiefs expert Nick Athan asks the questions to understand the full effects of the coaching turnover, the departure of Donnie Edwards, and the tarnished reputation of Shawne Merriman.

In league circles, many experts were shocked that the San Diego Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer so late in the offseason. Then, after an attempt to lure Pete Carroll from USC failed, the Spanos family decided to go with Norv Turner. There was quite a bit of rumbling amongst the players about the firing and the hiring. How have the players reacted to Turner thus far in his Chargers coaching tenure?

Lombardo: The players were obviously shocked and upset when Schottenheimer was let go, but the team was unanimously thrilled with the addition of Turner. With Turner comes continuity, which means the world to the players who had adopted a mindset of: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Turner installed the offensive system back in 2001 when serving as the team's offensive coordinator. Additionally, he is a player's coach who won't try to reinvent the wheel. He realizes how much talent he is working with and will scheme to put his players in the best possible position to make plays.

With offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and defensive mastermind Wade Phillips departing for head coaching jobs in Miami and Dallas, what impact will that have on the returning players on both sides of the ball?

Lombardo: Losing Cameron and Phillips is a huge blow for the Chargers, as both had complete autonomy on their respective sides of the ball a season ago. The loss will be less notable on offense, where Turner will call the plays and is more than capable of keeping the train on the tracks.

The defense could be vulnerable to regression. New coordinator Ted Cottrell runs the same scheme as Phillips, but has a reputation for being less aggressive. That could be troublesome, as Phillips' aggressive play calling resulted in a league-best 61 sacks last year. Cottrell is more likely to drop an extra man in coverage than to send him on a blitz, especially in third-and-long situations.

Most experts believe the San Diego Chargers are the team to beat in the AFC West. With a first-place schedule in hand this year, the Chargers won't be playing some of the NFL's worst teams this season like they did a year ago. What do they have to do to win the West and how many games do you think they'll need to win to be tops in the division again in 2007?

Lombardo: First of all, every team in the AFC West shares 14 common opponents; only two opponents are based on the prior year's standings. The Chargers' two unique opponents are the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens; the Chiefs' are the New York Jets and the Cincinnati Bengals. I would argue this is not much of a difference.

To win the division, the Chargers must do the following: 1) win at home against the Chiefs and Denver Broncos; 2) sweep the Oakland Raiders; and 3) sweep the NFC North. I expect the Chargers will do all of the above and win the division for the third time in four years. San Diego will rack up 12 wins and will need every one of them to hold off the Broncos.

Since Donnie Edwards departed the Chargers for the Chiefs, who will become the leader of the defense?

Lombardo: This question is a bit misleading, as Edwards was not the leader on defense last season. I have talked to several defensive players about this, and they are all in agreement that Shaun Phillips is the leader on that side of the ball and will maintain that role going forward. After Phillips, Marlon McCree and Randall Godfrey were second and third in command.

In reality, Edwards was not much of a leader during his time in San Diego . His constant complaints about his contract became a distraction and he was reluctant to take young players under his wing. His impact as the premier coverage linebacker in the league will be missed; his leadership skills, not so much.

Widely thought of as the best pass rusher in the NFL, Shawne Merriman had a stellar year but was suspended midseason for testing positive to steroids. Has he changed at all and will he be able to shed the label that he was the first NFL player to be banned for using a pure steroid substance to enhance his abilities?

Lombardo: I do not think that Merriman will change, although his sacks per game may decrease as offenses continue to give him increased attention. As for shedding the label of a cheater, that will be a tall task. Merriman is doing his part, ordering the league release his prior drug testing results to show that he passed 19 of his first 20 tests.

However, his reputation will come back to haunt him when the season winds down and the talking heads start chatting about the new rule excluding players who tested positive for banned substances from any postseason honors. Formally or informally, this will be known as the "Merriman Rule" for the foreseeable future, guaranteeing no one forgets his positive test anytime soon.

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