Nick Athan: In talking with Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson on his conference call with Kansas City reporters on Wednesday, I was shocked at how upbeat he was in regards to the Chargers disappointing 2008 season. He's been very critical of the offensive style and Head Coach Norv Turner. He's approaching that 30-something plateau. Have we seen the best of LT or can he come back in 2009 and be the same dominating player he's been in years past?
Michael Lombardo: There's no doubt we've already seen the best of LT -- it will be a long time before anyone matches his 2006 performance in which he piled up 31 total touchdowns and 2,323 yards from scrimmage -- but I expect his 2009 season to look a lot more like 2007 than 2008. A number of things have gone wrong for LT this season, from the toe injury to the loss of Lorenzo Neal to his defense's inability to get off the field, and I expect those problems to be resolved by next season.
Tomlinson has stayed positive throughout this trying season, despite the fact that he's on pace to finishing with career-low numbers across the board. He's been careful not to throw anyone under the bus, be it his offensive line or his head coach, and he should be commended for that. The Chargers will write this season off as an anomaly and hope to see the LT of old again next season. If that doesn't happen, the Chargers as you currently know them will likely be deconstructed.
NA: QB Philip Rivers has some of the best passing statistics in the NFL. Some felt he didn't have the leadership and the play-making ability to be a consistent starter for any NFL team. In the AFC West, I'd say there's little doubt that he's the best quarterback in the division. What do fans think about his future in San Diego and do you think he's the right guy to lead this offense?
QB Philip Rivers
Rivers still has some tendencies that concern fans. He threw late interceptions in back-to-back games against the Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints when the Bolts were driving for the tying points. However, there is a lot more to like about Rivers than to dislike.
It's ironic that, before the season, most analysts said that the only thing preventing the Chargers from being Super Bowl contenders was the play of Rivers. Instead, Rivers emerged as an upper-echelon quarterback and everybody else fell to pieces.
NA: When the Chiefs visited the Chargers back in October, Head Coach Norv Turner promoted linebackers coach Ron Rivera to defensive coordinator after the team fired Ted Cottrell. Has he done enough to change the fortunes of the Chargers defense and will he be retained next season -- provided Turner is around in 2009?
ML: Rivera has done a nice job of turning this unit around in a short amount of time. He has simplified a lot of things and increased the amount of pressure the Chargers are applying on opposing QBs. As a result, the Chargers have forced seven turnovers over the last two games, giving fans flashbacks to the ball-hawking team of 2007.
I believe Rivera will be back next season, although that's not a slam dunk. Rivera is a 4-3 coach at heart and has already started to implement some 4-3 principles into San Diego's defense. However, the Chargers personnel is best suited for a 3-4 scheme, so it's possible the team could bring in a coordinator with more expertise in that alignment. However, the most likely scenario is that Rivera returns.
NA: This has been one of the better series in the AFC West through the last decade or so. Last year the two teams split their games with Kansas City winning at San Diego and the Chargers returning the favor at Arrowhead. At one point, Chiefs players felt this pair of games with the Chargers was the most heated and competitive. How does San Diego feel about its rivalry with Kansas City?
Chargers vs. Broncos
That being said, the Chargers and Chiefs always play each other extremely tough. Even with the Chargers going 25-7 between 2006 and 2007, the Chiefs still managed to beat them once each season. These teams have a history of splitting their season series and it wouldn't surprise me if that trend continues in 2008.
NA: I can't remember any preseason prognosticator who didn't believe the Chargers would win the AFC West. How much of an impact did starting the season 0-2 have on their current record?
ML: The 0-2 start definitely hurt, with the loss against the Broncos proving especially painful. As has been well documented by now, the Chargers had rightfully won that game only to have referee Ed Hochuli discount the game-winning fumble recovery by Tim Dobbins. That mistake accounted for a two-game swing in the division, giving the Broncos an illegitimate win and the Chargers an undeserved loss, and without that miscue the Chargers would still be in the hunt.
That being said, the Chargers are accustomed to overcoming slow starts and typically counter by going on long winning streaks. San Diego served up a winning streak of at least five games every year between 2004 and 2007; this year, the Chargers have not won more than two games in a row, which they've done only once. That more than anything else is why they will not win the division.
NA: As promised, my return-serve on the coaching question. What do you think of the job Norv Turner has done this season? If Turner was coaching the Chiefs and Herm Edwards was coaching the Chargers, what do you think their respective records of each team would be entering this contest on Sunday?
ML: It's pretty clear Norv Turner has done a poor job this season. Turner is an excellent coach when it comes to X's and O's, but the Chargers needed a motivator to keep the team focused this season and Turner is not effective in that capacity. He is an excellent game-planner but a poor leader, which is why he is viewed by many as a glorified offensive coordinator.
It's hard for me to imagine the Chiefs would be worse than 2-11 with Turner at the helm. When Turner was the coach of the Raiders in 2004 and 2005, he pulled out four and five wins, respectively, despite those teams being largely fractured and untalented, so I think he would produce similar results in Kansas City.
On the other hand, if Edwards was in charge of the Chargers, I think this team is sitting at 10-3 right now. As bad as the Chargers have been, they've been in every contest and are still the most talented group in a very bad division. If you add Edwards' leadership and attention to detail to the mix, I think San Diego has at least 10 wins right now and is battling for playoff seeding instead of draft positioning.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.