Climate appears right for Chargers
After years of dashed hopes and scuttled plans, the San Diego Chargers finally look ready to move north.
Not north to the Los Angeles area -- at least not yet -- but north as in upward, to the rarefied air of the NFL’s elite teams, where playoff victories are expected.
That’s not to say it will be easy. The 2007 Chargers were ravaged by injuries. Quarterback Philip Rivers is coming off a knee injury and so is running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Tight end Antonio Gates and center Nick Hardwick are both recuperating from foot surgery.
San Diego’s schedule is no breeze, either. The Chargers play host to Indianapolis and New England, and face Pittsburgh on the road. And who knows how good the New York Jets will be with Brett Favre running the offense? The Jets play at San Diego in Week 3.
Then, there are the business issues surrounding the franchise, questions about how long the Chargers will stay in San Diego before exploring relocation options. Those issues have been around for the past five years, but the drumbeat will get louder as the city approaches a looming year-end deadline.
Starting Jan. 1, the Chargers are free to leave without the threat of a lawsuit, as long as they pay off roughly $50 million in stadium bonds. A move to L.A. is hardly a sure thing -- if it were easy, a team would be here by now -- but the Chargers seem to have exhausted all of their options for a new stadium in San Diego.
Even as the club’s future in San Diego grows less certain, the team’s on-field reliability is on the rise. The big question this season surrounds the health of those four offensive players -- Rivers, Tomlinson, Gates and Hardwick -- although that apparently doesn’t keep General Manager A.J. Smith up nights.
“The only one I’m curious about for Game 1 is our center Hardwick,” Smith said in a recent interview. “We’ll know 10 days to seven days before our opener against Carolina. . . But otherwise, I am extremely thrilled about the medical report on our players.”
The Chargers took a huge step forward last season in winning two postseason games -- their first such victories since January 1995 -- and casting aside their reputation as one-and-done playoff pushovers.
In light of those victories, Smith doesn’t look like quite the rube he did a year ago when he fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season and replaced him with the hapless Norv Turner.
The move didn’t look so shrewd a month into last season, when Turner’s team lost three of its first four games and the home crowd chanted “Mar-ty! Mar-ty!” in frustration. The Chargers would regroup, though, and wound up winning their last six games of the regular season. That led to playoff victories over Tennessee and Indianapolis, setting up the conference title game at Foxborough, Mass. There, the Chargers were within two points of the then-perfect New England Patriots until the fourth quarter.
“Norv Turner was the right coach at the right time,” Smith said. “I’m even more convinced of that this year after last year. I know people looked at me like I was crazy. I know people looked at [the Schottenheimer firing] like it was a personality conflict and it didn’t go any deeper. That wasn’t the case.”
Publicly, Smith said he and Schottenheimer were “galaxies apart” in their philosophies about how to win a championship. But privately, Smith told people that he knew the coach didn’t have what it takes to win the games that really count.
“I cannot stand the cautious, conservative, win-enough-games, I’ll-keep-my-job, I’ll-be-OK thinking,” Smith said. “I’d love to keep my job. But if there’s a championship out there, I’m going to try to go get it.”
On Smith’s desk is a big red button with “Easy” written on it, a gag item he picked up at an office-supply store. Push it, and a cartoonish voice blurts, “That was easy!” It’s an ironic knick-knack for an executive who is largely defined by his controversial decisions.
He still gets his share of angry mail and nasty phone messages from fans who talk their way through to his phone extension. He shrugs it off as part of the job.
At a cocktail party several years ago, Smith was chatting with former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who talked about his philosophy on running a team.
“You can be safe and good,” Johnson told him. “Or you can take some chances to be great.”
Smith says he thinks of those words often, leans on that advice when he needs to make the harder choices. The way he sees it, it’s all part of the move north.
The San Diego Chargers’ 2008 schedule and 2007 records of opponents, who were a combined 93-115 (.447 win percentage); *at London:
*--* Date Time Opponent W-L Sept. 7 1:15 p.m. CAROLINA 7-9 Sept. 14 1:15 p.m. at Denver 7-9 Sept. 22 5:30 p.m. NY JETS 4-12 Sept. 28 1:05 p.m. at Oakland 4-12 Oct. 5 10 a.m. at Miami 1-15 Oct. 12 5:15 p.m. NEW ENGLAND 16-0 Oct. 19 10 a.m. at Buffalo 7-9 Oct. 26 10 a.m. New Orleans* 7-9 Nov. 2 BYE Nov. 9 1:15 p.m. KANSAS CITY 4-12 Nov. 16 1:15 p.m. at Pittsburgh 10-6 Nov. 23 5:15 p.m. INDIANAPOLIS 13-3 Nov. 30 1:05 p.m. ATLANTA 4-12 Dec. 4 5:15 p.m. OAKLAND 4-12 Dec. 14 10 a.m. at Kansas City 4-12 Dec. 21 5:15 p.m. at Tampa Bay 9-7 Dec. 28 1:15 p.m. DENVER 7-9 *--*