<strong>July 24, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.pe.com/sports/breakout/stories/PE_Sports_Local_D_chargers_24.3cc251e.html">Press-Enterprise</a>
What will the Chargers do for an encore?
Last season San Diego was the NFL's breakout team, going from 4-12 to 12-4 and an unexpected AFC West championship while boasting the league's coach of the year and comeback player of the year.
They open training camp this week, at their regular-season practice facility in San Diego, wearing a bull's-eye.
"Last year we were overlooked," Coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "This year everybody's staring at us. That's part of the challenge.
"We did some outstanding things a year ago. The challenge this year is far greater, and I think there's a clear understanding we're going to have to take it to another level."
Said quarterback Drew Brees: "I'm sure there are people out there who think we're a one-year wonder."
A Lot to Prove
The Chargers' challenge is a schedule much tougher than it was last season, when they reached the playoffs while going 2-4 against teams, with winning records. This year the Chargers play at defending Super Bowl champion New England, defending NFC champion Philadelphia and division champion Indianapolis, and play another division champion, Pittsburgh, at home.
The challenge of becoming a proven winner is key in determining whether or not the Chargers can tap into the community's renewed interest enough to get a new stadium.
That's the backdrop as rookies report Monday and begin two-a-day practices Tuesday. Veterans start practice Friday.
"We have a lot to prove," said Brees, whose Pro Bowl season (3,159 yards, 27 TDs) made him last year's comeback player of the year.
He added: "I would certainly say we're not satisfied losing in the first round of the playoffs" as the Chargers did last season, missing a field goal in overtime and losing the New York Jets, 20-17.
"We've got a lot more to accomplish, and it's going to be harder."
On the bright side, the Chargers head to training camp with all their starters from last season. Brees, 26, got a one-year deal as the team's franchise player, putting its quarterback controversy on the back burner. Philip Rivers, who enters the second season of a six-year, $40.5 million deal he signed as a rookie, continues to wait in the wings.
"We've established offensively that we can ... put points on the board," Schottenheimer said by phone. "We've certainly developed the quarterback position to the point that we're very, very confident with it."
The Chargers have taken care of most of their key players, signing star running back LaDainian Tomlinson to an extension last summer and locking up linebacker Steve Foley and nose tackle Jamaal Williams. The next priority appears to be tight end Antonio Gates, who is up for an extension after setting an NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end (13) in his first year as a starter and just his second in the league.
"I do like the makeup of this football team," General Manager A. J. Smith said. "It took a few years to turn the corner in that regard, to look at the team, assess it and weed out a few folks."
It's doubtful that linebacker Shawne Merriman, the Chargers' first-round draft choice out of Maryland, will report to camp on time. Merriman skipped the minicamps on the advice of his agent, who felt San Diego's injury clause didn't protect his client sufficiently.
One young player who stood out during the minicamps was Darren Sproles, a 5-foot-5 running back/kick returner from Kansas State.
"Darren Sproles is an exciting player," Brees said. "He is really, really, quick. Obviously, we've got the best running back in the league back there (in Tomlinson), but what happens when you put them both in the backfield?"
More excitement, the Chargers hope.
'People are Excited'
Last season's success revived what had been a dormant fan base: The Chargers said they have sold 15,000 new full or partial season-ticket packages this off-season and have topped the 50,000 mark.
With increased demand comes leverage. When single-game tickets went on sale this month, fans were advised that to purchase tickets to the four marquee home games -- Sept. 11 against Dallas, Sept. 25 against the New York Giants, Oct. 10 against Pittsburgh and Dec. 4 against the Raiders -- they would have to buy either full season-ticket packages or mini-plans that would include two other games, including one of two home exhibitions.
A more fan-friendly move has been the return of training camp to San Diego after two summers at Home Depot Center in Carson. All workouts will be open to the public beginning Friday, and the Chargers will hold a Fan Fest at Qualcomm Stadium on Aug. 6.
"People are excited, and it seems to be carrying over to this year," Smith said by phone.
The Chargers continue to push for a stadium to replace 39-year-old Qualcomm. The team hopes to get enough signatures to put an initiative on next year's ballot that would ask voters to approve a stadium and surrounding development in Mission Valley.
Smith figures the key to voters' hearts is simple: win.
He said former Buffalo coach "Marv Levy used to tell us a long time ago: 'If you want people to say nice things, go win. If you lose, then expect people to say not-so-nice things about you.'"