<strong>After an offseason of change, a retooled Charger team and fanbase look forward</strong>
On February 22nd, 2010, Dean Spanos met with LaDainian Tomlinson to let him know that the Chargers were releasing him.
It was nearly 9 years after the team selected him in the 2001 NFL draft, beginning what may be the team's greatest decade. LT's domination of the NFL, as well as the hearts of all San Diego fans, served as the face of a resurgent Charger franchise. The nine years of his tenure saw the team achieve 5 playoff appearances and 5 AFC West Championships, one of the best cumulative records in football, national recognition, and a 13-game winning streak against the arch-rival Oakland Raiders that has yet to end.
It was an era that began under player-beloved Mike Riley, and ended under fan-hated Norv Turner. The year 2001 saw Ryan Leaf tear Charger fans' hearts asunder; the year 2009 saw Philip Rivers tear NFL defenses asunder. It began with General Manager John Butler, and ended with Butler's greatest student - and master in his own right - AJ Smith. The LT years witnessed the QB succession saga of Doug Flutie, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers, along with the attendant conflict between team, management, coaching, and fans. We watched as the vaunted David Boston and Marcellus Wiley turned into crushing disappointments. We saw the Eli Manning and Michael Vick draft dramas, the rags-to-riches stories of Kris Dielman and Antonio Gates, the tragic fates of Steve Foley and Terrence Kiel, and the meteoric rise and fall of Toniu Fonoti, Jason Ball, and Shane Olivea. And, of course, we all cheered and suffered through the turbulent tenure of Marty Schottenheimer which, like the career of M. Night Shyamalan, was both awesome and terrible and sudden in its ending.
Man, what a decade it was.
Now, as we enter the 2010 NFL Football season and year 1 A.T. (After Tomlinson), it is fitting that the Chargers face the new year with a roster divorced in many ways from the roster of last season. Gone is mercurial cornerback Antonio Cromartie, whose final legacy to many here in SD will be his non-attempt on Jets RB Shonne Green during New York's Divisional Round victory. Also missing, at least for now, are Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson, whose ill-fated contract squabbles with AJ Smith, remind this writer of a game of chicken with a brick wall. Other familiar players no longer wearing the lightning bolt include tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, now of the Bears; Messiah-coiffed backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, traded to Seattle; super-sub Tim Dobbins, gone in a draft-day trade to Miami; defensive fixture (bad knees included) and all-world nose tackle Jamal Williams, who assumes the same creaky role for the hated Denver Broncos; and special teams demon / aspiring wide receiver Kassim Osgood, who will continue to aspire to wide receiver on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
And then, of course, there's LT himself, whose (mostly indirect) war of words with AJ Smith and the team that cut him made national news this summer. While that particular barrage left many a little peeved - including San Diego Union Tribune sportswriter Nick Canepa, and perhaps an offensive lineman or two, or five - I suspect that his name will always be spoken with a little reverence here in our blessed pocket of blessed Southern California. To those angrier than most, a little forbearance is well-advised; years from now, on a stage in Canton, Ohio, it will be Charger blue, not Jet green, which will color all our memories. For now, this writer will wish him well; except against us, naturally.
Let's review: Tomlinson, Williams, Cromartie, Osgood, and maybe Jackson and McNeill gone. It sounds like the San Diego Pro-Bowl roster from the past few years. What, then, can we look forward to for the foreseeable future? Who shall carry on the legacy of the lightning bolt into the 10s? Who will define this new era and all the possibilities it holds?
I have a few ideas, so I'll start at the running back position and end with the obvious.
<strong>RYAN MATHEWS, RB</strong>
Remember the Mike Vick / LaDainian Tomlinson drama?
I didn't think so.
This reminder, though, may bring back memories of the disappointment of many fans and pundits as a result of John Butler's first and most dramatic move. In the shadow of his Hall-of-Fame career, the notion that LT would have to live up to the Chargers' passing on Vick - then regarded most dynamic athlete ever at his position - seems ridiculous. Still, none can deny that the notion was there, and more prevalent than some now are willing to admit.
His first year, he rushed for 1236 yards and 10 touchdowns, and people started to forget about the draft drama. He proceeded to run for 1683/14 in 2003, then 1645/13 in 2004, and people finished forgetting.
While I would caution people not to expect LT's 2006 numbers (1815/28) out of Ryan Mathews , I would certainly say it's not delusional to expect a similar rookie season out of him. Mathews is two inches taller than LT, but surprisingly gives up a couple of pounds (at least, before an NFL workout regimen). In a comparison of their combine numbers, Mathews is undeniably impressive. He is faster than LT in the 40-yard dash (4.37 seconds vs. 4.46), the 20-yard dash (2.50 vs. 2.59), and the 10-yard dash (1.49 vs. 1.54), as well as edging LT in the bench press (19 reps vs 18). The 20-yard shuttle (4.21 vs. 4.33) and the 3-cone drill (6.84 vs. 7), however, belong to Tomlinson, foreshadowing his legendary change-of-direction ability.
All indications point to Mathews as being a bigger, faster running back with more straight-ahead power and elite balance but less agility than LT. Tomlinson, of course, has Hall-of-Fame field vision, but Mathews showed very good vision himself in college and there's no reason to not expect him to get better as he grows and matures as an NFL running back.
So - will we miss LT? If we're talking about the LT of 2009 (730/12); no, I don't think we will; the younger, faster, more powerful Mathews will fulfill that requirement and more. If we're talking about the LT of 2004-2006; well, yes, I think we will, and I think we always will. Still, I think Mathews will at least be "good enough", and in an offense led by Philip Rivers, it's definitely something to look forward to.
<strong>CAM THOMAS, DT/NT</strong>
Wait, what? A 5th round pick making a difference in the coming years? Are you out of your mind?
Well, if I told you back in 1998, shortly after we took him in the NFL Supplemental Draft, that the then 6'3", 305 pound Williams (Oklahoma State by way of football powerhouse Kemper Military Junior College) was destined to be our nose tackle for the decade to come, I think I may have gotten some looks askance.
The Jamal Williams of 2009 was a monster of a man in size alone: 6'3", 350 pounds. The effects of age and repeat injuries had, however, worn down on him; he hadn't started a full 16-game season since 2006 and finally suffered a season-ending triceps injury against the Raiders last year. The Charger clock was ticking on the veteran, and after the season the team let him move on.
Enter Mr. Thomas, who carries 330 pre-NFL-workout-regimen pounds on a 6'4" frame. (I will remind you again that Jamal came out of the Supplemental Draft at 305). Like Williams a late college bloomer, he started to turn heads at alma mater North Carolina his senior year, when he started all 13 games, and notched 34 tackles, 6 for loss. He was utterly dominating in the college Senior Bowl, a performance which most pundits predicted could shoot him up the draft charts to the third round - or even the second round - of the draft.
On draft day, however, Thomas plummeted. By round 5, with the defensive lineman now far below his expected draft position, AJ Smith felt compelled to trade up to get him, as it was clear he wouldn't last much longer. It was a move that left this writer giving a sigh of relief - for years, the Chargers had passed bona-fide Nose Tackle prospects in favor of other positions, leaving Jamal with no heir apparent. Suddenly, we had one, or at least I hoped we did.
He has, of course, a lot to learn and a lot to prove at the professional level. Still, the intensity of the competition on the Defensive Line this year should do one of two things for him - shut him down, or provide the example of what it takes to succeed in the NFL. I think it will be the latter, and for all the doubts about him, the one thing that is undisputed is that when Cam Thomas wants to be great, he is.
So far this camp and preseason, it appears that he wants to be great. I think he will be.
Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Steve Young, John Elway, Dan Fouts, Warren Moon, and Peyton Manning. What about them, you ask? Well, besides being elite quarterbacks and current (or future) Hall-of-Famers, they all had their best season(s) after the age of 28.
Philip Rivers turns 29 on December 8th.
Charger fans have already seen the statistical greatness from our resident gunslinger; but more important than stats, beyond efficiency ratings and yardage totals, a quarterback represents stability - the solid core of a football team. On Philip Rivers' broad and willing shoulders rests the substantial hopes of a Charger Super Bowl in the 2010s. As long as he is there, the Chargers will have a shot at the title; and he will be here for a while, having signed a 6 year extension in August. Charger fans will get the chance to see Philip Rivers' prime years in lightning bolts, and considering what he's already accomplished, those prime years could be simply monstrous. Barring injury, and based on his coaching staff and supporting cast, there's no reason to think they won't be.
The Philip Rivers era starts now.
I've left off a lot of names that will be key components for the Chargers; Antonio Gates, for instance, who just signed a 5 year extension. Quentin Jammer, the rock of the secondary, is another. Beyond the players themselves there's Norv Turner, who has yet to post a losing record - indeed, not win an AFC West Championship - as our Head Coach; and the sphinx-like presence of General Manager AJ Smith, whose front-office savvy and personnel-scouting wizardry has put together a team always ready and manned for the present and future.
Of course, winning a Championship in the NFL always involves a little bit of luck. It would follow, then, that the best way to finally bring this city a ring is to be successful as often as you can, and get into the playoffs as often as you can. Thanks to Ryan Mathews, Cam Thomas, and Philip Rivers, and the entire group of Bolts top to bottom, we have no reason to expect the Chargers to do any worse over the next ten years than we have over the last ten, if not better.
We've come a long way since 2001, when LaDainian Tomlinson held up a Charger jersey for the first time in New York City. He and his legend we leave behind, at least for now. Some legends, like Philip Rivers', Ryan Mathews', and Cam Thomas', are still being written. The challenge for the San Diego Chargers is to take the last step - to write the greatest legend of all - and, at long last, bring San Diego the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Or three. A decade's a long time, after all.