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Friday, July 11, 2008

Tomlinson preparing for dream season

Source: Yahoo Sports

LaDainian Tomlinson is ready for a dream season. That would be in stark contrast to how his last one ended on a cold day in New England.
“It was a nightmare,” Tomlinson said. “You just want it over as quick as possible.”
The Chargers would love a quick return trip to the AFC Championship Game after falling short against the Patriots last January. To do so, they need a healthy Tomlinson. It looks like they have it.
Tomlinson’s day was cut short when he aggravated a sprained knee against the Patriots. He caught some flak for sitting on the bench for the game, huddled against the elements and trying to stiff-arm disappointment instead of rival tacklers.
When the games start this season, the memory of a battered and bummed Tomlinson on the sidelines will fade.
But Tomlinson’s memory is long and he won’t forget the verbal abuse sent his direction for not trying to re-enter the game—although he was hurt.
Coach Norv Turner knows how Tomlinson feels. Turner was blasted when taking over for the Chargers as their head coach before last year. That criticism gathered momentum when the team started 1-3.
“When someone says something and it is fair, it doesn’t bother you,” said Turner, of Tomlinson’s detractors. “But when someone says something that you don’t think it is fair, you would probably consider the source and he probably has a different opinion of some of the people that questioned him than he did before.”
Turner speculated Tomlinson’s psyche was hurt that day as well.
“Hey, I don’t care what the injury is, it’s mental, too,” Turner said. “You’re fighting to go to the Super Bowl and he had been playing for that game for seven years and all of sudden you are knocked out of the game. He is human.”
Quarterback Philip Rivers gets grief for showing his human side when he jaws with opponents and fans. Rivers said much was made about nothing when Tomlinson was sitting on the bench on a day when the temperature was in the single digit.
“Any time they catch something they will run with it and something gets all blown out and I thought that was the case there,” Rivers said. “They panned over to him when he was sitting on the sidelines—it was zero degrees and we were on defense—and we were all sitting there for the most part.
“He was up, encouraging the guys when we were out there on offense. It wasn’t like it was a bright, sunny day and he was sitting there with his helmet on.”
It’s “game on” for Tomlinson and the Chargers—neither can wait to start a journey they hope takes them back to a place where they were just four quarters shy of a Super Bowl.
Camp Calendar: Rookies and selected veterans report July 20 and have a practice the next day. The full squad reports July 24 and practices on July 25. The Chargers break training camp Aug. 23.
Notes, Quotes
• Former Chargers S Terrence Kiel, 27, was killed in a one-car accident on July 4. Kiel was a former second-round pick of the team before being released before last season because of numerous incidents with police.
• WR Legedu Naanee is looking to expand on his rookie learning experience. “This time around I know not just the route, but also the adjustment to it and what the guy next to me is doing. Knowing all that helps.”
• Kudos to the Spanos family—which owns the Chargers—for footing the bill once again for the San Diego High School all-star football game.
• CB Antoine Cason was among the rookies taking part in the NFL’s symposium recently at La Costa Resort and Spa—the league’s version of scaring the rookies straight. “It’s just an eye-opener and it makes you start thinking about different situations more and more,” said the Chargers’ top pick. “Sometimes, it gets you speechless.”
Quote To Note: “They let us know what can happen if you’re in bad situation and that is the biggest key.”—CB Antoine Cason on the lessons he learned at the NFL Rookie Symposium.
Strategy And Personnel
The Chargers’ roster is set and they don’t anticipate making any significant changes this close to camp.
Instead, they are more worried about the injured players on their roster and how quickly they can bounce back from some pretty serious injuries,
If there are setbacks, the club could look to bring in more insurance at tight end, fullback and along the offensive line. But for now, the team is hopeful it has built a roster which will lead it to its second Super Bowl in franchise history.
Quarterback: Starter—Philip Rivers. Backups—Billy Volek, Charlie Whitehurst.
The Chargers will take the Rivers who did so well in last season’s second half, thank you very much. Rivers experienced a bit of a sophomore slump in his second year as a starter early on, then came on down the stretch. In the eight-game winning streak which led to the AFC Championship Game, Rivers threw for 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Volek turned down offers to compete for a starting job elsewhere to return as the backup. The team remains high on Whitehurst and likely would have been comfortable with him backing up Rivers if Volek would have exited.
Running Backs: Starter—LaDainian Tomlinson. Backups—Andrew Pinnock, Jacob Hester.
Tomlinson is healthy and entering the season with a chip on his shoulder—bad news for opposing defenses. Tomlinson, who is aiming for this third straight NFL rushing title, was piled on pretty good when getting hurt in the AFC title tilt. Many thought he did try hard enough to enter the game; his strained knee told him otherwise. But he is fit and motivated, knowing the window for him and the Chargers closer to being shut than flung wide open. The team will miss Michael Turner, Tomlinson’s stellar backup. They hope Pinnock can fill the void, but he is coming off a serious knee operation. Lorenzo Neal, the Pro Bowl fullback, wasn’t brought back. His role figures to be filled by Pinnock and Hester, a rookie.
Tight Ends: Starters—Antonio Gates, Brandon Manumaleuna. Backups—Scott Chandler.
This area is usually one of strength for the Chargers but the uncertainty over Gates’ toe injury raises a red flag. Gates is a tough guy, but it might be asking too much even for him to rebound in time for the opener. That could give Manumaleuna more chances at catching the football instead of blasting open lanes for Tomlinson. Chandler is in his second year and seems capable, but he is unproven.
Wide Receivers: Starters—Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson. Backups—Craig Davis, Legedu Naanee, Malcom Floyd, Eric Parker.
Chambers gave the offense a huge lift when he came over last year from the Dolphins. He has the ability to stretch the defense, which gives Tomlinson and Gates more room to run on the rushes and underneath routes. Jackson was among the benefactors as well with defenses leaning their coverage toward Chambers, which gave Jackson more opportunities. Davis is battling consistency problems, but figures to be in the mix as well. Keep an eye on the versatile Naanee as Norv Turner has him lining up at various spots to take advantage of his considerable skills. Floyd’s time is now or never; Parker could be moved before training camp, caught in a numbers crunch.
Offensive Line: Starters—LT Marcus McNeill, LG Kris Dielman, C Nick Hardwick, RG Mike Goff, RT Jeromey Clary. Backups—Jeremy Newberry, L.J. Shelton, Cory Withrow, Scott Mruczkowski.
Hardwick is critical to the line and the offense. The team elected to wait until the offseason was well underway to have his toe surgery; it had hoped rest would cure it. So with Hardwick’s availability unknown, the team could trot out Newberry on opening day. The team was pleased with the way Clary came on when starter Shane Olivea fizzled last year, but it is protecting itself by snagging the veteran Shelton. Dielman has been a monster in the weight room this offseason and could be headed for a Pro Bowl season. Goff could be in his final year with the Chargers, but his experience can’t be overlooked. McNeill has made two Pro Bowls in two years—enough said.
Defensive Line: Starters—LE Igor Olshansky, NT Jamal Williams, RE Luis Castillo. Backups—T Ryon Bingham, T Brandon McKinney, E Jacques Cesaire.
Williams is the key here as rival lines can’t dedicate just one man to block him—he is too strong. So with so much attention paid to Williams, Olshansky and Castillo are able to provide a solid push off the edges; Olshansky is more of a run-stuffer while Castillo’s quickness allows him to reach the pocket. But Williams’ is getting long in the tooth, so expect to see plenty of Bingham and McKinney in a rotation to try and keep Williams fresh. Jacques Cesaire often comes in on passing downs and is an able fill-in when Castillo—he has a tough time staying on the field—gets hurt.
Linebackers: Starters—OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Stephen Cooper, ILB Matt Wilhelm, OLB Shawne Merriman. Backups—Derek Smith, Marques Harris, Carlos Polk, Brandon Siler, Tim Dobbins, Anthony Waters, Jyles Tucker.
Merriman and Phillips give the Chargers a 1-2 pass-rush combination that is among the league’s best. Merriman gets most the headlines—rightfully so—but don’t overlook Phillips. Both of them often end up in the pocket, where they combined for 21 sacks. Cooper is out the first month serving a suspension, so Smith will hold down his spot. Wilhelm is solid and is developing into a team leader. Harris and Tucker can be forces on passing downs and the Chargers aren’t shy about using them.
Defensive Backs: Starters—LCB Quentin Jammer, RCB Antonio Cromartie, SS Clinton Hart, FS Eric Weddle. Backups—CB Antoine Cason, CB Steve Gregory, CB Cletis Gordon, Paul Oliver.
Cromartie had a breakthrough season last year, leading the NFL with 10 interceptions and scoring touchdowns in three different ways. He should only get better, although teams might be more reluctant to throw his way. Jammer is coming off his second consecutive solid season; he’s not reluctant to give plenty of help in the run support as well. Hart is entering his second season as a starter after setting career highs in numbers categories last year. The team is high on Weddle, who they traded up to snag in the second round two years ago. Weddle is a smart player not prone to many mental mistakes. Cason could be tested as the nickel back and there are some depth concerns here. But the starters—especially on the corners—are spot-on.
Special Teams: Starters—K Nate Kaeding, P Mike Scifres, LS David Binn, PR/KR Darren Sproles.
Kaeding is consistent and healthy going into the season after his plant leg was fractured late last year. Scifres is always among the NFL’s leaders in net-average return and he’s among the reasons the Chargers are so good on third downs. If a play isn’t there for a first down, Rivers knows he doesn’t have to force something: just let Scifres punt it away, get the field position back and play on. Sproles is electric with his quickness and had two returns for touchdowns last year. Binn is long in the tooth, but he’s an institution for the Chargers, missing just one game—in 1998—having played in 223 regular-season games with San Diego.