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The Chargers Today

In their fifth decade, the Chargers have been a consistent presence in the NFL playoff picture. The bolt is still supercharged.

Photo by Mike Nowak, Eddie Perlas

BENT ON SHOWING that 50 is indeed the new 30, the Chargers are still chasing the Holy Grail of football—the Lombardi Trophy awarded to Super Bowl winners. It might take a miracle for them to win it in this, their 50th season.

As the early season unfolded, the Chargers looked the part of the middle-age guy who dutifully eats his broccoli and jogs but doesn’t bounce back the way he used to. The Bolts needed extra ice packs and pain­killers just one week into the 16-game season. Lost to a season-ending elbow injury was the anchor of the defensive line, Jamal Williams. And the offensive line’s hub, center Nick Hardwick, required ankle surgery that would side­line him beyond this season’s midpoint.

Several weeks later, the division-rival Denver Broncos came into San Diego with a 5-0 record, then won 34-23 on Monday Night Football, dropping the Chargers to 2-3 and grabbing control of the AFC West. The Chargers, who were heavy favorites to win the West, rebounded with back-to-back wins against cellar-dwellers Kansas City and Oakland but were still faced with the prospect of staging a comeback comparable to their turnaround a year ago, when they went from 4-8 to 8-8 to capture the division.

“We’ve been in a lot of situations where we had to respond to adversity,” says tight end Antonio Gates, a veteran of seven NFL seasons. “This is just another test for us. It is common in this league. There are some ups and downs that happen every single year. It’s just about how well you respond to them. Everything else is irrelevant.

“We never said it had to be pretty. It  wasn’t pretty last year.”

Expecting the Broncos to collapse for a second consecutive year, though, probably is too much to ask. Chargers fans may have to be content with enjoying offensive highlights, courtesy of quarterback Philip Rivers and pass-catchers such as Gates and Vincent Jackson—if they can stay healthy.

Rivers’ passer rating led the NFL last year, and in September, he led the league in passing yards. His pinpoint, rainbow passes for long gainers recall Air Coryell a quarter-century ago. Son of a football coach, 6-foot-5 gunslinger Rivers can offset a leaky defense and a suspect running game that in September was weakened by injuries to running back LaDainian Tomlinson and three blockers.

“The deep-ball accuracy of Rivers is astounding,” says Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, whose Steelers are defending Super Bowl champions. “He’s dropping those balls in there perfectly, and he’s got big receivers who are playing perfectly down the field.”

Under coach Norv Turner, the Chargers have won all nine of their games in the past two Decembers, plus three of five contests in the playoffs. And Rivers isn’t ruling out another late rush, which might be needed to save Turner’s job.

“There’s no reason why this can’t be our best year yet,” Rivers says. “Hopefully, we can get in a rhythm and get on a little roll. We’ve been able to do that every year.”
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith’s job appears safe, because only a year ago his contract was extended through 2014 by club CEO Dean Spanos. Smith hired Turner, but in mid-October he voiced displeasure with this team, saying after the fourth game that the Chargers were “floundering” and the defense at times appears “soft and bewildered.”

The Chargers also were exposed as being less talented than many pundits had said. Smith rates the Steelers, not the Chargers, as the most talented team in the NFL—but notes that fringe teams have gone on runs to a Super Bowl title. The sports term for it is “catching lightning in the bottle.”

“Remarkable, strange things happen in the playoffs,” Smith says. “I think this is a playoff-caliber team.”

It’s a sign of how far the Chargers have come that merely reaching the playoffs isn’t a big deal anymore. Since club CEO Dean Spanos promoted him into the general manager’s job in 2003, Smith has built on the sturdy work of his mentor, former GM John Butler, who died of cancer. A playoff berth this season would be the Chargers’ fifth in six years—yet if the quest doesn’t bring the Lombardi Trophy to San Diego, Smith will not be satisfied.

“Until you win it,” he says, “you’re nothing.”

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