As the player moved closer and the No. 54 on the front of his jersey came into focus, the crowd erupted in cheers.
Glancing over at the hundreds of fans pressed against the metal railings bordering the Chargers’ practice fields, defensive end Melvin Ingram smiled.
This was home now. The previous season had familiarized the fans with the team, enough to where an entire sideline of spectators was now capable of identifying players other than quarterback Philip Rivers and star pass rusher Joey Bosa.
The scene at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa on Saturday was strikingly similar to what it was when the Chargers opened training camp last year, but the key was in the details. Taken individually, they didn’t tell much. Viewed collectively, they were evidence the Chargers made inroads in this market since their widely questioned relocation from San Diego last year, however modest the gains.
Active players received louder ovations than LaDainian Tomlinson, who returned as a special assistant to the owner.
There was an extra layer of humanity at the railings, courtesy of how the space between the barricades and bleachers was expanded by 10 feet.
An estimated crowd of almost 7,000 fans watched the workout, up from the 5,000 or so last year.
“I always thought that it comes with winning games, especially when you’re in a new community,” Rivers said. “I think we felt that at the stadium last year as the year went on and as we were hot in the second half of the year. The energy in the stadium and the feeling in the stadium were different as the year went on.”
The upcoming season will offer a more precise measurement, the real test being whether the Chargers can actually have home-field advantage when playing at StubHub Center.
The Chargers were the football equivalent of a boxer euphemistically called an opponent.
Opponents don’t have followings of their own. Their value is in their ability to provide respectable competition for brand-name fighters. When an opponent fights, the fans aren’t there to watch him. They are there to watch the fighter opposite him.
And this is essentially what happened last year at StubHub Center, where the converted soccer stadium was invaded by the fans of the visiting team.
The Chargers were visitors in their own home when they hosted the Miami Dolphins in Week 2. They were subjected to the same indignity when they were visited by the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. The disparity in fan support was especially pronounced when the Philadelphia Eagles came to town in Week 4.
There will always be an element of this until the Chargers move into their long-term home in Inglewood in 2020. So long as the Chargers are in the 27,000-seat StubHub Center, opposing fans will be willing to pay premium prices for the rare opportunity to watch their teams in an intimate environment. And Chargers season-ticket holders will be equally open to selling them individual tickets to recover a part of their investment.
The players wouldn’t say it, but the dynamic surely contributed to the team’s 0-4 start. The Chargers won nine of their last 12 games but couldn’t overcome the disastrous start and missed the postseason.
They never gave themselves a chance to gain traction in this market outside of their small but loyal band of followers. If the Rams were afterthoughts in Los Angeles, the Chargers were afterthoughts to afterthoughts.
The Rams, who won the NFC West last season, made themselves more relevant over the offseason by making a series of high-profile moves, including the acquisition of Ndamukong Suh. The Chargers opted for stability instead of change, an unsexy decision for which they think they will be rewarded in the long run.
The defense, headlined by Pro Bowl edge rushers Bosa and Ingram, has a chance to be special. Anthony Lynn was a capable leader as a rookie head coach and returns with a season of experience. And the outside elements have ceased to be foreign.
Similar to how the fans are more familiar with the players, the players are also more comfortable with their surroundings.
“There’s not as much wondering about schedules and what the practice field was going to be like,” Rivers said. “There’s not as much of that uncertainty. It’s all about football now.”
Take care of football and everything else will take care of itself. Or so the Chargers hope.