After a disappointing and disheartening 2003 season, the Chargers had become an embarrassment, and the perception around the NFL heading into 2004 was that things weren't going to be any different.
The organization didn't make any major changes to compete, much less improve. But after San Diego's unpredictable run last season, we know why the games are played.
In a dramatic turnaround, the Chargers won their first divisional title since 1994 with a 12-4 record. Not bad for an organization which teetered with the notion of firing head coach Marty Schottenheimer during and after the 2003 season.
Prior to training camp, Drew Brees, the much-maligned starting quarterback, challenged himself and his teammates to give all they had to give. With the Chargers branded as losers, the environment was unsettling for a competitor such as Brees, who was under pressure to perform due to the draft-day acquisition of quarterback Philip Rivers.
Neither Brees nor the Chargers felt he played to the level of his ability in his first three seasons. In response to the questions about his skills and leadership qualities, Brees enjoyed a magnificent 2004 season, throwing 27 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions to lead the Chargers to the playoffs.
The outstanding productivity and reliable presence of All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson aided the evolution of the Chargers. Even Schottenheimer had the ability to accept change, listening to his veteran players and coaching staff regarding the team's feelings and habits throughout the season. Tight end Antonio Gates' emergence as a significant threat in the passing game and the exceptional play of the offensive line, despite five new starters, also helped the Chargers' cause.
The Chargers' greatest feat, however, may have taken place on the defensive side of the ball.
San Diego's defense got a new direction and leadership from Wade Phillips, who had been a successful defensive coordinator before in the league. Led by veteran linebacker Donnie Edwards, the Chargers played sound, fundamental football and were especially tough against the run. Despite an inexperienced secondary, Phillips overhauled the defense to help turn of the NFL's laughingstocks into a playoff team.
The Chargers head into 2005 with increased expectations. After getting to the playoffs for the first time in ten years, ownership is pushing to stay competitive as they parlay their winning into a new stadium deal in the near future.
Quarterback Drew Brees and his $8.078 million one-year franchise contract returns to the helm and the offensive nucleus that was the driving force behind the number three scoring team in the league remains intact, including the entire five-man offensive line. Certainly having a healthy Keenan McCardell and Reche Caldwell should make this already exciting offensive team a force in 2005.
A first place team, however, gets a first place schedule and the early prognosis says it won't be forgiving.
The release of kick return specialist/wide receiver Tim Dwight has the team scrambling for an experienced kick return specialist. The Chargers signed two safeties during the opening week of the free agent player signing period to help shore up the middle of the secondary. Safety Jerry Wilson will return in 2005 and the Chargers signed defensive back Bhawoh Jue (Packers) push the veteran for the starting job, while providing depth and athleticism to this questionable area of the San Diego roster.
Between now and then, the Chargers have several holes they would like to fill, primarily with the draft. They are looking for a true number one receiver and help along the defensive line, particularly at left defensive end. With two number one picks, they will have plenty of options.
It will be hard to duplicate the success of 2004 when they went 12-4. The AFC West is working hard to retool after a down year and the addition of Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan to the Raiders makes their offense scary. The Chiefs have brought in a number of big-name defenders for visits as they look to compliment their offense. And Denver was a playoff team a year ago that is looking to push the right button that puts them over the top.
SALARY CAP STATUS
The Chargers have approximately $11 million under the league-mandated 2005 salary cap.
Defensive end – The Chargers are in dire need of a pass rusher. With the defensive ends on the roster totaling four sacks between them, there is plenty of room for improvement. A consistent pass rush would also provide the Chargers some relief to a relatively overexposed defensive backfield, as the San Diego coaching staff can only hide the deficiencies so long with its scheme.
Safety – The speed, quickness and overall athletic ability in the defensive backfield must be improved. With a group of young, inexperienced set of starting cornerbacks, a free safety with range and athleticism would be ideal. The team has signed safety Bhawoh Jue from Green Bay and looks to add depth this offseason.
Linebacker – The Chargers would like to improve the athletic ability at outside linebacker. Steve Foley has been a pleasant surprise. He and Donnie Edwards gave the team a solid defense against the run, but the Chargers are looking to gain quickness, range and agility with the addition of quality and depth.
Wide receiver – Despite the emergence of Eric Parker to team with Reche Caldwell and Keenan McCardell, the Chargers are relatively thin at receiver and lack a consistent vertical threat. Additionally, with McCardell being 35 years old, the time should be now for the team to explore the option of securing a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
FREE AGENCY AND OFFSEASON
KEY ACQUISITIONS: DB Bhawoh Jue (Green Bay).
KEY DEPARTURES: WR/KR Tim Dwight.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: QB Drew Brees.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DT Eric Downing, C/G Bob Hallen, RB Leon Johnson, LB Zeke Moreno, LB Carlos Polk, WR Bobby Shaw, FS Jerry Wilson.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: C David Brandt, RB Jesse Chatman, TE Justin Peelle, DT DeQuincy Scott.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: DT Jacques Cesaire, LB Stephen Cooper, OG Kris Dielman, TE Antonio Gates, WR Kassim Osgood.
Team Needs: San Diego Chargers
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