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Column: No fans? No Philip Rivers? Social distancing? Chargers open camp to weird vibe

Chargers players stretch during training camp in Costa Mesa on Monday.
Chargers players stretch during the first day of on-field activities at training camp in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In more carefree times, the Chargers’ high-profile players would be introduced when they showed up for training camp.

Not by a public-address system, but by a crowd.

Whether it was Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram or the since-departed Philip Rivers, their names would be called out by the fans along the metal railings around the practice fields at the Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex.

Hard as it might be to believe, the fans numbered in the thousands, the majority of them marching down the Fairview Road from the parking lot of the nearby Orange County Fairgrounds. They raised homemade signs over their heads and reached over the barricades with items they asked to have autographed. Many wore Chargers jerseys.

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The typical sounds of training camp were replaced on Monday by the humming of a commercial lawn mower on an adjacent field.

Visiting the Chargers on their first day of training camp was like walking through Disneyland after park hours. With fans prohibited on the grounds because of coronavirus-related safety measures, the place was silent, almost eerily so.

Baseball without fans?

Three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Melvin Ingram appears to be in a contract dispute with the Chargers as he sits out practice again.

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That’s like half of the league under normal circumstances.

Basketball without fans?

Its atmosphere is driven by artificial noise, which is being used abundantly in the NBA bubble.

But football without fans?

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That’s …

“Kind of weird,” coach Anthony Lynn said.

Well, it’s barely football.

It’s football exclusively as a made-for-television product, which doesn’t include elements of the culture that made the sport America’s game.

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“The fanbase is a big part of football, it’s a big part of momentum in our game,” Lynn said. “You won’t have that this year.”

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn points to a player during practice in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers defensive players gather on the field at the Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Lynn stood in front of a Chargers-themed backdrop as he said this, but the reporters asking him questions were about 100 yards away, speaking to him over a Zoom webinar.

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The media was seated under tents that replaced the temporary grandstands that were often packed. The area where there were interactive displays was now vacant.

Reminders of what caused this were everywhere, signs with COVID-19 safety protocols posted around the practice field.

The threat of the invisible enemy was in the background of everything the Chargers did. After several pretraining-camp workouts, they were in pads for the first time, which meant the players would place their hands on each other.

Lynn downplayed any concerns of possible COVID-19 transmissions, saying, “Our focus is on football.”

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Nearly two years ago, Tyrod Taylor lost his starting quarterback job following a disastrous game. He’s ready to prove himself again with the Chargers.

The Chargers have major changes on the field as well.

As the team’s starting quarterback in the previous 14 years, Rivers was the one constant for this franchise.

Now 38, he is in camp with the Indianapolis Colts.

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The change at quarterback is the most important football story of camp, but football feels secondary to the coronavirus outbreak, especially with Lynn revealing in the first episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” program that he tested positive for COVID-19.

For now, the mobility of projected starter Tyrod Taylor and arm strength of first-round pick Justin Herbert remain afterthoughts.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws a pass during practice in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

So was the excitement shared by newcomer Chris Harris Jr., a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback with the Denver Broncos. A part of the Super Bowl-winning secondary on the Broncos, Harris said new teammate Derwin James is the best safety with whom he has ever played. He spoke about how thrilled he was to be matched up in practice against Keenan Allen, the team’s 1,000-yard receiver.

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A more important development involved Ingram, who didn’t practice because of a contract dispute. Ingram was the only player not in pads, as he watched his team work out from the sidelines.

When practice ended, the players almost instantaneously vanished from the field.

Which, in retrospect, made sense. They didn’t have to stop to sign autographs on their way out.


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