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Window of opportunity?

Discussion in 'American Football' started by Johnny Lightning, Sep 4, 2008.

  1. Johnny Lightning

    Johnny Lightning Go Bolts

    Feb 7, 2006
    By Kevin Acee

    From the meeting rooms on the south end to the equipment room on the north, around the locker and training and weight rooms downstairs, up to the offices and conference rooms, and in the airy two-story foyer edged by the swooping staircase, there is a feeling permeating Chargers Park.

    It is a sense of great anticipation.
    And with it, an explicit sense of urgency, a basic belief that the time to win the franchise's first Super Bowl is now.
    “You don't want to discredit who we're going to have down the road,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “But we don't have forever.”
    Rivers and others do their best to downplay the broad picture and shift the focus to Sunday's season opener against the Carolina Panthers.
    But really, now.
    “No one in here could deny that,” Rivers ultimately permitted.
    It isn't necessarily Now or never, but it is definitely If not now, when? No matter how many games they win between now and the end of, say, 2011, if the Chargers haven't completed the journey, if the case in the center of that spacious lobby still lacks a Lombardi Trophy, all this building of a team, all the contract extensions and celebrated draft choices and everything else is simply trimmings without a main course. “You're in this league to win a championship,” General Manager A.J. Smith has said 100 times if he's said it once.

    So as unfair as it might seem, it is not unjust at all to wonder if the Chargers don't win a Super Bowl in the next two or three years, what was all this for?
    The goal is to get a ring, players and coaches and management throughout the league say over and over. So if you don't, you've failed.
    “It's not complete until you win a world championship,” team President Dean Spanos acknowledged after some wrangling over the definition of failure and the validity of another phrase, that being “window of opportunity.”
    Every team has a window of opportunity. But the Chargers' current level of success, experience and talent, plus the contract situations of many of their top players, makes their window extremely relevant.
    The Chargers are set up so well, but they know, despite some protestations, it is only for so long.
    “You do realize you're not going to be able to keep this together forever,” said defensive end Luis Castillo, contractually tied to the Chargers through 2014, longer than any of his teammates. “Whether it's guys getting hurt, too many high-profile players on one team, guys going away for new contracts – whatever the situation, you know it's not going to last forever.”
    The Chargers are the NFL's third-winningest team over the past four seasons, with 46 regular-season victories.
    They have a young yet experienced roster. While just four of their 22 starters are in their 30s, 16 have been here since 2005 and 13 have been here since 2004.
    By most measures, they're as talented as any team in the league. No team has nearly as many players that have been voted to the Pro Bowl over the past three years – 12 current Chargers, plus Chris Chambers, who went as a Dolphin after the 2005 season.
    Their résumé finally includes not just playoff experience, but playoff success. After only losing in the '04 and '06 postseasons, the Chargers won two playoff games to advance to the AFC Championship Game this past January.
    It has been an exceptional turnaround of a franchise that five years ago was at the bottom of the NFL. Really, it is unprecedented in the modern era of the NFL.
    From 1996 to 2003, a span of eight seasons, the Chargers did not have a winning season and, in fact, had the league's lowest winning percentage over that span. They earned the No. 2 pick in the draft in 1998, the No. 1 pick in 2001 and the top pick again for the 2004 draft.
    Only New England and Indianapolis have won more games since then.
    “Watching all the parts we've put together the last five, six, seven years – A.J., our coaching staff, our players – all of it coming together, we're starting to see the success of that,” said Spanos, whose family has owned the Chargers for a quarter-century.
    “But,” he added, “we haven't done anything yet. The final factor is winning a championship.”
    Yes, it is. And without it, success is a misnomer.
    The Chargers fancy themselves the next Indianapolis Colts, the next Pittsburgh Steelers. From Spanos to Smith to Rivers, those two franchises and their journeys to championships are invoked frequently.
    Pittsburgh was in the playoffs three of four years before winning Super Bowl XL following the 2005 season. The Steelers lost to New England in the AFC Championship Game the year before getting their rings.
    Indianapolis made the postseason four straight years before winning Super Bowl XLI. Included in that run of playoff disappointments was an AFC Championship Game loss to New England.
    “You keep going,” Spanos said. “How long did it take Indianapolis? The thing you've got to do is get in the postseason every year and give yourself a chance to get to the Super Bowl.”
    That's the way the Chargers spin this – that all they can do right now is keep doing what they've been doing. And it is true.
    Plus, the team's bosses argue, who is to say the window will close?
    “I understand the (theory) of the window,” Smith said. “But who's to say we don't keep building?”
    Fair enough. Smith and his staff have given little reason to doubt they will continue to draft well and retain their young stars.
    Even the ultra-confident Smith and the man who believes in him fully, Spanos, acknowledge that injuries happen, contracts expire, players get older. But, said Spanos, “That doesn't mean the team is going to fall off the cliff.”
    However, the contracts of starting defensive end Igor Olshansky and right guard Mike Goff expire after this season. Neither is likely to be back. Receivers Chambers and Vincent Jackson, left tackle Marcus McNeill, linebacker Shawne Merriman and Rivers are up after 2009. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie and tight end Antonio Gates are up after 2010.
    Spanos believes the Chargers are set up well and will be so beyond what others are calling the team's window. But since his plan is to have turned over operation of the franchise to his sons in less than a decade, about the same time Smith's contract runs out in 2014 and both men are of retirement age, he can see things more personally. He can empathize with his players, in fact.
    “I don't think a team has a window of opportunity as much as players might,” Spanos said.
    Indeed they do.
    Nose tackle Jamal Williams, the cornerstone of the defense, is 32 and playing on creaky knees. Chambers is 30. LaDainian Tomlinson has shown no signs of slowing down, but he is 29 and won't always be the league's best running back.
    “It doesn't last forever,” Chambers said. “ There is more a sense of urgency. Guys with a lot of experience know what it takes to get there. That's the thing I took from last year – when you get there, when you're on the porch you've got to bang that door down. You never know when it is going to come again.” Maybe never. Randall Godfrey used to practically beg his young Chargers teammates to not take their spot on a good team for granted. Godfrey didn't need money; he hung on in San Diego an extra year and then went to Washington last season to try to win a Super Bowl. The lesson was not lost on those he mentored.

    “Being in this situation like this, with this team, you know you have a chance to go win a Super Bowl,” linebacker Stephen Cooper said. “But you know time is running out soon.”
    Besides, stuff happens.
    Injuries occur. Look no further than Merriman's current situation with his knee. And there is center Nick Hardwick, whose injured foot won't allow him to start the season. “That's why you make the most of what you have right now,” Hardwick said. “That's the whole league. You never know who is going to be there next year. What we have now, we have to use.”

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