SAN DIEGO -- When you talk about the Chargers, the discussion in training camp invariably begins with the players not present.
It's a who's who of NFL talent that begins with wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who is holding out for more money and isn't likely to report any time soon. Then there is offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, who also wants a pay raise and is probably going to sit out a long time as well. Shawne Merriman was another prominent no-show until he signed his tender offer on Friday and reported to camp.
The offensive absences have raised the greatest concern, because offense is the Chargers' greatest strength. Without Jackson, for instance, the team lacks one of its more dynamic playmakers. The Chargers have other talented receivers, including standout tight end Antonio Gates, but the question of how much they'll miss Jackson figures to linger.
That is, at least until a quarterback named Philip Rivers -- a.k.a. the main reason to believe the Chargers still have a good chance of winning a fifth consecutive AFC West championship -- begins firing passes in games that count.
"We do have the guy that can throw it to them, and that's the starting point," coach Norv Turner said.
If Rivers simply were as good as he was in 2009, the Chargers would be in excellent shape. He ranked third in the NFL with a passer rating of 104.4, trailing New Orleans' Drew Brees (109.6) and Minnesota's Brett Favre (107.2). He finished third in the league in averaged yards gained passing (8.75), and fourth in touchdown percentage (5.8) and interception percentage (1.9).
Yet, anyone who has watched Rivers go through offseason and camp workouts will say that he is making a concerted effort to elevate his game. Although he might not acknowledge as much publicly, he fully understands that without the Pro Bowler Vincent, who is entering his sixth NFL season, he'll need to do plenty to help boost the overall performance of the receiving corps that suddenly got a whole lot younger.
Malcom Floyd, a fifth-year pro, has been promoted from No. 2 to replace Vincent. A pair of fourth-year players, Legedu Naanee and Buster Davis, are competing for the No. 2 spot. Josh Reed, who spent the past eight seasons with the Buffalo Bills, was added as a free agent to provide depth.
Additionally, when the Chargers said good-bye to long-time veteran LaDainian Tomlinson, now with the New York Jets, they lost one of the best pass-catching running backs in the game and an important dimension to their passing attack. They drafted running back Ryan Mathews on the first round, but the former Fresno State star has limited experience catching the ball.
The good news for the Chargers is that Rivers is limited neither by his experience or talent to throw it effectively.
"He's taken it, again, to another level and I think that happens when you have young guys (in your supporting cast)," Turner said. "We have the best receiver coach in the league in Charlie Joiner, and Philip does a great job of not interfering with Charlie. But he also has taken those young receivers under his wing and he's helped them grow."
Turner compares the situation to what Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts faced last year after they parted ways with veteran wide receiver Marvin Harrison and lost Anthony Gonzalez, who moved into the No. 2 role behind Reggie Wayne, to a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Thanks to major contributions from rookie Austin Collie and second-year man Pierre Garcon -- as well as a fourth NFL MVP season by Manning -- the Colts were able to rebound well enough to reach the Super Bowl.
"I know what happened at Indianapolis last year, with people saying, 'Well, they lost all their receivers,'" Turner said. "And then all those young guys just played great. I don't see why our guys can't, because if you have a guy who can throw it to them, then you have a lot of options."
Rivers does his best to try and downplay his ability to help the Chargers overcome the absences of Vincent and McNeill. For one, he calls himself "the ultimate optimist," saying the Chargers will see Vincent "at some point ... because we know what he means to this team and this offense." (The reality, however, seems to be that Vincent and McNeill have no intention of joining the team until about mid-November, only to ensure that they don't lose an accrued season toward unrestricted free agency or their pension). Second, Rivers thinks it's especially dangerous for a quarterback to fall into the trap of thinking he needs to do more than he's asked to do. "If you do that," he said, "that's when you don't play the way you need to play."
Rivers' teammates aren't sharing such concerns. To a man, they think he's handling the task of taking up the slack in the Chargers' passing game just fine. They didn't see him pressing during offseason workouts. They haven't seen him pressing during training camp practices.
What they've seen is a quarterback who shows a thorough understanding of the offense -- the kind that comes from entering a seventh season in the same scheme.
"It's just taking his mastery of the game to another level," center Nick Hardwick said. "It's amazing the things our offense does with shifts and motions. They've got every route combination you could possibly imagine, and he knows them all. He can see them in his head with a photographic memory. It's pretty wild how he runs the offense. It takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of pure brain power to be able to process that, and he does it like it's nothing. It just happens so quick for him."
Cornerback Quentin Jammer, beginning his ninth season with the Chargers, has always been impressed with how Rivers seems to relish pressure. He expects Rivers to react the same way to any disruptions caused by the offensive holdouts.
"When things aren't going the way you want them to, he amps it up a bit," Jammer said. "Elite athletes amp it up under pressure; some guys crumble under pressure, but Philip's one of the guys who takes it to a whole different level."
Floyd and the other receivers in camp are stepping up their play as well. Rivers has been pleased with their steady progress since the start of offseason workouts. "They're hungry and excited about their opportunity," he said. "And I think, from what I've seen so far, they're going to do a nice job."
After Rivers, the next-most important piece to the Chargers' passing game that is in place is Gates, who recently received a lucrative contract extension. Gates is one of the league's best players at his position, and will no doubt do his share to help ease the pressure on his quarterback.
He fully expects Rivers to connect with him and Floyd as well as the quarterback ever has. The question marks will come with the other targets. But Gates thinks it will only be a matter of time before Rivers is as comfortable with his entire receiving corps as he was when Jackson and Tomlinson were in the lineup.
"Malcom, we've seen his ability down the field," Rivers said. "He has the unique ability to judge the ball and go up and get it down the field. Malcom's turned himself into an every-down receiver. And then you have Buster Davis, Legedu Naanee, and you bring in Josh Reed. They all bring a different element, and they all have a knack for how to play the game and they bring their style, and it should be a lot of fun."
Rivers expects Mathews' development into a reliable pass-catcher to be a process, considering the rookie wasn't asked to do much receiving in college. During camp, Mathews regularly spends time after practice catching balls from a Jugs machine. The extra work is needed, but the Chargers don't have to force him into a receiving role because they have a good pass-catching back in Darren Sproles.
"It's not that Ryan can't do it, but I think you have to grow into it," Rivers said. "Last year, he caught 11 passes at Fresno State, so he wasn't a huge part of the passing game. He's really improved, just in these two weeks of training camp, with his route-running and catching the football. He doesn't have a problem catching it; it's just that we ask a lot of those guys, both in protection and running routes. But Ryan definitely can be that."
The Chargers are looking for a dependable replacement for McNeill at left tackle. It hasn't been easy. They're trying Brandyn Dombrowski, who started at right tackle last season. Dombrowski is a strong run-blocker, but he doesn't come close to having McNeill's superb pass-protection skills.
"People don't know who Brandyn Dombrowski is," Turner said. "I watch him every day and Philip watches him every day. If he's our left tackle, I'm comfortable with what we do with him, and Philip's comfortable with what we do with him. He's a physical player, a very competitive player. People will know more about him in the next couple of years."
Still, what they know right now is that he isn't McNeill.
"I hope to see Marcus sometime soon," Rivers said. "But at the same time we have to prepare to go without him, and I have confidence in the guys that are going to be in there."
The same goes for the receivers. But the Chargers should get a stronger indication of just how well the replacements for their holdouts are doing Saturday night, when they play their preseason opener against the Chicago Bears.
"It's definitely progressing," Naanee said. "That's what the fun thing about this preseason is, to kind of see where we're at -- to see what happens when all of a sudden (Rivers is) getting hit, he's not just getting tagged off (as in practice), and everything's going full speed. So we'll see where we're at on Saturday."