Chargers Shoulder Weight of High Expectations

A.J. Smith has often fretted over Chargers players "reading their own press clippings." Now, with the team coming off a season in which it won four straight games to reach the playoffs -- leading to a big upset over the red-hot Indianapolis Colts -- Smith has to hope history won't repeat itself.

Since Smith took over as GM in 2003, the Chargers have developed a nasty habit of taking two steps forward and one step back. It started in 2004, when the team won nine of its final 10 games to finish with a 12-4 record, win the AFC West and snap a 10-year playoff drought. However, the Chargers followed up that season with a 9-7 clunker in 2005 that included a devastating Week 14 loss to the 5-7 Miami Dolphins.

RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Doug Benc/Getty

The Chargers rebounded in 2006, winning their final 10 contests to finish with a league-best 14-2 record. But one season later, yet another backslide occurred. The team stumbled out of the gates, losing three of its first four games, before recovering to finish with an 11-5 mark and win a second straight division title.

And even though last year's Chargers finished with the franchise's worst regular-season mark since 2003, the team still enters 2009 with sky-high expectations. Part of that is due to the team's strong finish in '08, part of it is due to the return of Shawne Merriman and part of it is because the perceived lack of competition in the AFC West.

Regardless of the reasons behind the optimism, this year's Chargers squad must find a way not to crumble under the weight of its own expectations.

Coach Norv Turner has already taken steps to prevent the ugly monster known as complacency from rearing its head again. This is reflected in the team's mission statement for the 2009 season: "To get something you've never had, you must do something you've never done."

For the Chargers, that means taking things one game at a time, respecting every opponent and avoiding positive press clippings at all costs.

Lightning Quicks

--With training camp approximately four weeks away, there are four starting positions still up for grabs. In two of those positional battles, rookies are pushing to run with the first-string. Third-round pick Louis Vasquez is pushing Kynan Forney at right guard, while sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison is challenging Clinton Hart at safety.

SS Kevin Ellison
Kevin Terrell/Getty

"I think people were concerned about Kevin because he had some injuries but he is 100 percent healthy," Turner said. "He's moving around awfully well."

The other jobs up for grabs are at defensive end -- where Ryon Bingham and Jacques Cesaire will compete while rookie Vaughn Martin acclimates -- and inside linebacker, where Kevin Burnett, Matt Wilhelm and Tim Dobbins will jockey for playing time.

--San Diego hopes to have first-rounder Larry English signed before rookies report to training camp next month. Rookies typically report three days before the full team is due to take the field. The Chargers have only had their top draft pick signed in advance of this deadline twice in the last eight years.

Corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the cousin of Chargers CB Antonio Cromartie, was the No. 16 pick in last year's draft. Rodgers-Cromartie missed the start of training camp with the Arizona Cardinals during a brief contract impasse, but he signed shortly thereafter and emerged as one of the most impactful defensive rookies in the NFL.

--The Chargers recently announced that training camp will be closed to the public to allow the completion of drainage system repairs. This is the first time local fans will not have easy, regular access to the team during training camp since 2004, when the team practiced at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

To help offset the inconvenience, the Chargers will hold three practices at Qualcomm Stadium that will be open to the public. This is a change from the team's normal routine of holding one "Fan Fest" at Qualcomm Stadium during training camp.

Is this the year the Bolts exceed expectations? Talk it out in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the 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.

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