In short, 2008 was a strange season for the Chargers. They started the year 4-8, rallied to finish 8-8, somehow won the AFC West, and then defeated the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round – a rollercoaster of emotions that ended with a fairly impressive playoff performance. Now, as a chick pick in the world of NFL betting, the Chargers want that rollercoaster to continue.
And the team has gone about it by preaching stability. Franchise QB Philip Rivers was given a long-term extension; linebacking stalwart Shawne Merriman returned after missing last year with a knee injury and LaDainian Tomlison declared himself fully fit after an injury-plagued 2008. As such, expectations are sky-high for the Bolts this season; can a team generally considered as underachievers put it all together in 2009?
Key Departures: OG Mike Goff, LB Marques Harris, C Jeremy Newberry, DE Igor Olshansky.
Key Acquisitions: Free Agents – LB Kevin Burnett. Draft – LB Larry English (1st)
With Rivers heading into his fourth season as starting QB, the Chargers offense is officially one of the more veteran units in the NFL – Tomlinson has been with the club for eight years, stud TE Antonio Gates for six and emerging receiver Vincent Jackson for four. All told, this offense has gifted playmakers at every position, ones who have established a rapport and display that chemistry on a weekly basis. This year, though, the Chargers are even more lethal. Running back Darren Sproles emerged as a legit go-to guy last postseason (Sproles finished the Indianapolis game with 328 all-purpose yards, third most by a player in a single postseason game) and can shoulder some of Tomlinson’s running load. F-Back Legedu Naanee – the athletic QB-turned-receiver from Boise State – has been rumored to be the keystone of a Wildcat-style offensive package this year. With Rivers coming off a NFL-best and career-high 34 TD passes a year ago, look for the Chargers to set up the run via the pass and for them to score a truckload of points while doing it.
On defense, this season is all about two words: Lights Out.
That, of course, is the nickname of linebacker Shawne Merriman, the three-time Pro Bowl sackmaster that’s the undisputed leader of the defense. After missing all of 2008 with a torn PCL and LCL, Merriman returns this season, hopefully to inject life into a unit that was mediocre at best a year ago. He joins OLB Shaun Phillips as one of the best one-two linebacker combos in the NFL; up front, Merriman is often freed up by the work of Jamal Williams and Luis Castillo, two hulking tackles that are regular fixtures at the Pro Bowl. With all that being said, Merriman will have little to do with the Chargers main problem area – the secondary. Despite a wealth of talent in Antonio Cromartie, Quentin Jammer and Eric Weddle, the unit ranked 31st in the NFL against the pass last season and couldn’t establish any consistency in man or zone coverage. That’ll need to improve if the Chargers want to be a winning wager for sports betting enthusiasts in 2009.
Notable 2009 Games: The Chargers open the season as the second-part of a Monday Night Football doubleheader against the Raiders; four weeks later, they host AFC West division rivals Denver on MNF as well. But the most intriguing game might be a Week 14 game in Dallas vs. the Cowboys; two high-octane offenses going toe-to-toe in the newly-built Cowboys Stadium.
2009 Outlook: Given how lousy the AFC West looks this year, it’d be shocking if San Diego finished with anything less than 10 wins and a division crown. They’re too gifted, too talented and now – after last year’s rollercoaster – too battle-tested to throw away such an opportunity. This is a dangerous team that’s operating with full health, one that should be a major player when it comes time to the AFC playoffs.