SAN DIEGO -- Ask any member of the San Diego Chargers what their theme for the upcoming season is, and they will utter, "Super Bowl or bust."
That's because a Super Bowl championship is the only thing missing for a franchise that has rung up many notable accomplishments over the past three seasons.
The reigning three-time AFC West champions have ruled their division behind a star-studded roster that many regard as the most talented in the NFL, but they repeatedly have come up short against the conference's heavyweights in the playoffs. With that as a backdrop, a sense of urgency appears to be permeating Chargers Park as the team realizes its window of opportunity might be closing with several of their stars' contracts ending after this season.
Whereas coach Norv Turner's previous training camps could be considered country club in nature, this year's version features a heightened level of intensity designed to prepare his troops for another postseason run. The coaching staff has raised the level of accountability among the team by demanding a greater attention to detail, and the renewed focus on discipline could result in a mentally tougher squad down the stretch. The more rigorous camp also could help the Chargers avoid the slow starts that have plagued them the past two seasons.
The Chargers have possessed the swagger of a champion for years, but everyone associated with the team knows 2009 might be their best shot to grab the hardware to accompany it.
LaDainian Tomlinson still has juice: After enduring much criticism following his worst season as a pro, Tomlinson reported to camp in outstanding shape. The 30-year-old looks noticeably more chiseled and still possesses the trademark quickness that enabled him to join Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin as the only running backs to post eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons at the start of their careers. While Tomlinson's detractors have cited his declining production and nagging injuries as evidence of his demise, the sight of the former league MVP running through drills makes those reports seem premature. Given Turner's continued desire to use Tomlinson as the team's exclusive workhorse, the thought of another 1,300-yard season doesn't appear out of the question.
Shawne Merriman is back: The loss of the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker wrecked the Chargers last season, as they were unable to field a consistent pass rush in his absence. But Merriman's return to the lineup could return the unit to the ranks of the elite. The four-year veteran looked as explosive as ever in drills and should resume his relentless pursuit of quarterbacks off the edge. With 39.5 sacks in 43 career games, Merriman ranks as one of the best in the business, and there is no reason to believe he won't produce another double-digit sack season in 2009.
Philip Rivers is big time: The five-year veteran was a surprising Pro Bowl snub last season, but he rightly deserves to be in the conversation when discussing the NFL's top quarterbacks. Rivers finished 2008 as the league leader in passer rating (105.5) and was the co-leader in touchdown passes (34). While his numbers were impressive, Rivers appears to have taken his game to a new level for 2009. He has won the respect of his teammates with his gritty performances over the past year, and his complete command of the offense has allowed Turner to increasingly rely on the passing attack to carry the offense. Given River's budding leadership skills, his rapid growth as a playmaker and his impressive record (36-18) as a starter, this might be the year that the quarterback receives his proper recognition.
Larry English and Vaughn Martin will play prominent roles in the Chargers' rejuvenated pass rush. English, who will act as a situational pass rusher behind Merriman and Shaun Phillips at linebacker, gives the team another edge player to use in their exotic blitz package, and Martin is a hefty defensive end with surprising rush skills.
Antonio Gates looks ripped after spending the offseason hitting the weights. The four-time Pro Bowl tight end has packed on significant upper body muscle and is tipping the scales at 263 pounds. With more strength at his disposal, the six-year veteran has the option of defeating defenders with finesse or power in his pass routes. Given how tough of a matchup he was prior to his increased explosiveness, Gates might be unstoppable as a pass-catching weapon this fall.
In what appears to be a tribute to the Chargers' 50th anniversary season, Merriman and wide receiver Kassim Osgood have dyed their hair in the team's colors. Merriman is sporting a neatly trimmed blue Mohawk, and Osgood is donning a bleached-blond mini Afro. While the look is sure to earn kudos from the Chargers' faithful, the duo will not earn any fashion raves for their appearance.
» The pressure is on cornerback Antonio Cromartie to return to his Pro Bowl form of 2007. After tallying 10 interceptions in his first season as a starter, Cromartie was maddeningly inconsistent in coverage last year. With the Chargers geared up for a Super Bowl run, they need their most talented defender to return to an all-star level.
» The Chargers are counting on guard Kynan Forney to fortify the interior of their offensive line. The eight-year pro replaces Mike Goff in the lineup and gives the team a more physical presence at the point of attack. Though Forney didn't see any action for the Chargers last season, he logged 89 starts while anchoring an Atlanta Falcons rushing attack that led the league in three consecutive seasons (2004-2006). With Forney joining a rejuvenated Marcus McNeill, the Chargers hope their ground game returns to the ranks of the elite.
» Vincent Jackson has firmly established himself as the Chargers' No. 1 receiver. The four-year pro stepped up his game last season and led the team with 1,098 receiving yards, but he is playing at an even higher level during training camp. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder has refined his route-running skills and is creating exceptional separation from defenders out of his breaks. With defenses sure to focus on taking away Gates in the Chargers' aerial attack, Jackson might duplicate his outstanding production.
» Rookie Kevin Ellison is making a strong push for playing time in the secondary. The former USC standout has impressed coaches with his football acumen and natural instincts. Though he must unseat Clinton Hart and Steve Gregory to win the strong safety job, Ellison would have a legitimate chance with a strong preseason.