By Jeff Praught
Photos by Mike Nowak
The NFL is back, and Chargers fans are as stoked as ever. Following their months-long work "stoppage" (if you can call it that, since no actual games were missed), the Bolts look primed for a Super Bowl run in 2011. The doom and gloom some predicted labor negotiations would bring about never really transpired, as cooler (or smarter?) heads prevailed. After much negotiating behind closed doors and via the media, the owners and players announced a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, with no opt-out clauses. Dust off your "Super Chargers" disco moves, folks-we have professional football for the next decade.
Bolts backers can take comfort in the likelihood that any missed practices will not hurt the team much, as the majority of the roster is familiar with head coach Norv Turner 's master plan. Led by All-Pro quarterback Philip Rivers, the Chargers offense should be explosive and, dare say, stronger than last season.
How is that possible?
Top wideout receiver Vincent Jackson won't be holding out to start the year. He's now inked to a one-year, $11.933 million contract. The league's best tight end, Antonio Gates , should be fully recovered from foot injuries that robbed him of half the last season. The team's offensive line-a critical component to any team's rushing attack-returns in full. And second-year running back Ryan Mathews can only get better, as he attempts to build on his flashes of brilliance from 2010.
Yet, there are challenges to overcome.
Despite leading the NFL in total offense and total defense during the 2010 season, the 9-7 Chargers missed the playoffs. Defense and special teams seem to remain the area of greatest concern. There's no hiding it: 2010 was an embarrassment for special teams, whose circus-like season was riddled with blocked punts, missed kicks and long-return debacles.
As a solution, the Chargers hired special teams coach Rich Bisaccia away from Tampa Bay. After last season, improvement is virtually guaranteed, especially with the return of long snapper David Binn (recently recovered from a hamstring injury). Of course, the pressure will be on kicker Nate Kaeding to exorcise his playoff demons.
Defending the Faith
The Chargers' newest faces will line up on the defensive side of the ball, as San Diego tapped the free agent market this year to plug some holes. Linebacker Takeo Spikes ( 49ers ), a 14-year veteran and prolific run-stopper, is a highlight of the new acquisitions. Travis LaBoy ( Cardinals , 49ers) was signed to help improve the non-existent pass rush. And defensive end Luis Castillo is expected to generate more pressure on the line. This should more than offset the departures of Kevin Burnett , Stephen Cooper and Brandon Siler .
Hopefully, new safety Bob Sanders ( Colts ) can remain healthy-something he has not been able to do in years. He'll team with Eric Weddle , who signed a controversial $40 million, five-year-contract extension this year (including $19 million guaranteed), making him the second-highest paid safety in football.