A productive and once wildly promising 2018 season died a dramatic death for the Chargers when they lost badly in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs in New England.
That was nearly eight months ago, but the stench of that defeat lingered as the team’s front office retooled to take another Super Bowl shot before Philip Rivers’ career is over.
The blueprint was dealt a blow in training camp when All-Pro safety Derwin James was lost to a foot injury.
Still, there are postseason aspirations — and expectations — for a team that went 12-4 a year ago.
Here are a few questions facing the Chargers:
How will the left tackle situation hold up without Russell Okung?
A two-time Pro Bowl player, Okung suffered a pulmonary embolism in June and is sidelined indefinitely. Because he is on blood thinners, the Chargers must wait for medical clearance before he can return. That clearance could come soon or well into the season.
The Chargers can’t be sure that they’ve found a solution in young tackle Trent Scott. But, until further notice, he’s the answer they’re going with.
Scott has one career NFL start and, just a year ago, was an undrafted rookie out of Grambing State trying to find a spot on the practice squad.
Now, he’s being entrusted to protect the blind side of the franchise’s 37-year-old icon of a quarterback.
Will Forrest Lamp fulfill his potential and establish himself on the offensive line?
Even Lamp has joked about his almost cult-like popularity among Chargers fans. Taken in the second round in 2017, he was considered by some observers to be the best offensive lineman available in the draft.
But a knee injury that required two surgeries has prevented Lamp’s career from launching. He spent training camp battling for playing time at guard and appeared to make significant progress.
The Chargers’ offensive line spent much of 2018 being told it was the team’s weak spot. Those doubts have only intensified in the absence of Okung. A healthy and productive Lamp would be a much-needed plus.
How much will the loss of James affect the defense?
The good news is the Chargers have depth and versatility to attempt to make up for missing their most dynamic defender. Veteran and All-Pro special teamer Adrian Phillips will take over at strong safety.
Because he was so versatile in 2018, James allowed defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to use a variety of packages, depending on what the Chargers were attempting to take away from the opposition.
They still have plenty of playmakers and interchangeable pieces, and it will require a village to fill the enormous void. If the defensive backs can stay healthy — given the group’s potential — they could hold things together until James returns.
Can the Chargers continue to be dominant on the road?
They opened last season by winning their first nine games played outside Southern California. They were perfect, in fact, until losing that January game to the Patriots.
“You can’t take that for granted,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “Just because we had it last year doesn’t mean we’ll have it this year. We need to start with the first game and try to build something special again.”
Along with their four AFC West trips, the Chargers also travel to Mexico City to play Kansas City. They visit Florida twice, to face Miami and Jacksonville. In October, they have back-to-back games at Tennessee and Chicago.
Will the difficult playoff loss in New England propel the Chargers forward?
Everyone knows about the concept of the Super Bowl hangover in this sport. On the opposite end, there’s the suggestion that a particularly stinging loss can lead a team to greater heights the next season.
The Chargers were embarrassed by the Patriots in January, the deficit at one point reaching 38-7. If a team ever was going to be a candidate to benefit from a painful loss, it’s the 2019 Chargers.
Early in the offseason, several players talked about that defeat driving them in workouts and film study.
Who knows? If this season blossoms into something special, those same players might be revisiting their comments with even more certainty.
How much will the return of Hunter Henry help Rivers?
Throughout his career, Rivers has relied heavily on his tight ends, in part because one of those tight ends was franchise legend Antonio Gates. But Henry figures to be popular again after missing most of last season.
“We’ve built a good relationship and good chemistry on the field,” Henry said of working with his quarterback during training camp. “It’s always fun to get back out here and continue to build on that.”
Henry was targeted 115 times over the two seasons before he was injured. He caught 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns. He and Rivers should continue to build on that in 2019 as well.