Offseason Loaded with Questions

With the Chargers heading into an offseason of uncertainty on numerous fronts, something has been determined: The coaching staff will be shaken up.

Coach Norv Turner's job is safe, which is saying something in light of a .500 record. While the Chargers defeated but one playoff team in the 2008 season, it came in the wild-card playoff game. That win over the Colts solidified what was already going to happen -- there will be no change at the top of the coaching ladder.

But the Chargers could soon be in the market for their third defensive coordinator in two years. Ron Rivera, who took over for Ted Cottrell at midseason, is interviewing for the Lions' head-coaching vacancy. If he is hired there -- or elsewhere -- the Chargers will again have a new defensive man at the helm.

Some assistants have already been shown the door.

Secondary coaches Bill Bradley and Kevin Ross were kicked to the curb after the Chargers had trouble defending the pass all season -- they ended with the NFL's No. 31 rating.

Also, tight ends coach Clancy Barone and offensive line coach Jack Henry were canned.

Might one of the greatest Chargers ever follow them out the door?

There is increasingly chatter that the Chargers are considering not bringing back LaDainian Tomlinson. The 2006 MVP has not been able to finish the last two seasons because of injuries. When the Chargers have needed him most, Tomlinson has been idle.

The Chargers, certainly, aren't tipping their hand -- or maybe they are. General manager A.J. Smith won't return calls when seeking his feelings about Tomlinson's future in San Diego.

By not saying anything, it's obvious the Chargers are at least considering cutting, or trading, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Jeff Gross/Getty

It's also obvious the Chargers have ditched their run-first, physical approach that was a staple under old coach Marty Schottenheimer when Tomlinson was in his prime. Instead the Chargers can be categorized as a finesse team, wanting to beat teams with the arm of Philip Rivers instead of a ground attack led by the likes of Tomlinson.

Tomlinson will soon be 30, which is entering old man territory in the world of NFL backs. But in the regular-season finale against the Broncos, Tomlinson was running with ease. He had finally shook the toe injury that derailed the first half of his season and looked as if he could carry the Chargers deep into the playoffs.

But he suffered a torn groin muscle against the Broncos, ran but five times in the win over the Colts, then didn't go in the season-ending loss to the Steelers.

That loss illustrated the Chargers' weakness -- can't run the ball, can't stop the run or the pass.

Do the Chargers get better without Tomlinson, putting that $8 million or so in cap room elsewhere? Do they bring back Darren Sproles, and if so, can he fill the role as an every-down back?

That's among the glaring questions facing the Chargers as they head into the offseason. It's one in which the organization can be proud it rallied from a 4-8 deficit to win its third straight AFC West title.

But really, this Chargers' season fell flat on its face. Instead of building on reaching the AFC title game last season, the Chargers had the fortune to play in the dreadful AFC West and be the benefactor of a historic collapse by the Broncos.

The Chargers were sold as an elite team, not one which would have to win its final four games to reach .500. Since the season started until it ended, the Chargers were over .500 but once on the heels of the overtime win against the Colts.

While this season is history, it's also worth nothing this age of successful Chargers football will be remembered more for what it didn't produce -- a Super Bowl appearance -- than what it did: three straight postseasons of reaching at least the second round.

Sure, there were mitigating circumstances with Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman missing all but one game, Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates' injuries, and so on. But those are just excuses, and any NFL team can trot out a long list of them.

Simply, the Chargers were either oversold or underachieved -- a 9-9 overall record is hardly cause for a celebration. Now it opens the door on an offseason in which its most celebrated player, Tomlinson, may be told he's no longer welcome.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson has three years remaining on his contract. But where he'll play next season isn't a sure thing. What is is that he won't ask for a trade. "To me that wouldn't be ideal," he said. "I'm not going to play many more years so I would love to finish my career here the short time that I have. I wouldn't envision going anywhere else, but again I don't think a person can really ask to be traded or to be put in another situation when you feel like you don't have much time yet. It wouldn't make sense to get acclimated to another team when you have been on this team for eight years now."

--In a vote among Chargers, QB Philip Rivers and DT Jamal Williams were named the team's co-Most Valuable Players. Rivers was also the Offensive Player of the Year; Williams the top defender and lineman. RB/KR Darren Sproles took the special teams honor and CB Quentin Jammer was named the most inspirational.

--The Chargers' soon-to-be unrestricted free agents are RG Mike Goff, DE Igor Olshansky, OLs Jeremy Newberry and Kynan Forney, OLB Marques Harris and RB Darren Sproles. Olshansky was grumbling after the season that he wasn't used properly. Olshansky, a former second-round pick, isn't expected back. Same goes for Goff.

The Chargers look to 2009 and hope to figure out why they consistently get off to slow starts, requiring a big push at the end to make the playoffs. "The last two years, September didn't go the way we'd hoped," s Eric Weddle said. "Doing it this way is tiring. We've got to be a complete team from day one next year."

--ILB Stephen Cooper would have mixed emotions if the Chargers lost defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to one of the head-coaching vacancies around the league. "Guys would be sad but it's part of the business," he said. "Guys come and go, whether it's players or coaches. If it does happen, more power to him. He deserves a head-coaching job. He's a great coach and a great person."

--The Chargers have the 16th overall selection in next spring's draft.

--QB Philip Rivers' offseason plans? "A whole lot of nothing," he said. "The first couple days are tough because you've been in such a routine and such a focus for ... 20 weeks now. All of the sudden it's over. It'll settle in and you kind of get away from it a little bit and then you gear up and go at it again."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You are never surprised about anything. That is just something that goes along with the territory and the business we're in and something everyone must deal with." -- LB LaDainian Tomlinson, on if he would be surprised if the Chargers don't bring him back.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

In addition to the mystery of LaDainian Tomlinson's return, the Chargers must decide what to do with Darren Sproles.

For the second straight offseason, a Charger fresh on the market appears to be one of the real key players of free agency. This year, it's Sproles, whose value skyrocketed when he filled in for Tomlinson this season. Last year, Michael Turner was the one seeking an opportunity and he paid off in a big way for his new team, the Falcons.

Sproles is undersized, but you can't argue with his production as a back and returner. But do the Chargers want to entrust their running game to a 5-foot-6, 181-pound back? That's among the big personnel questions looking to be addressed.


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