At this time last year, there was no reason to believe the San Diego Chargers were anything but a football calamity. They were coming off a 4-12 season in 2003. They'd made no secret of the fact that they'd lost faith in Drew Brees to be their long-term solution at quarterback. They'd backed down from Eli Manning and traded the top overall choice in last year's draft to the New York Giants because the quarterback and his family had said he wouldn't play in San Diego. The rookie quarterback they'd gotten in return from the Giants, Philip Rivers, was on his way toward having a nasty contract dispute that cost him his training-camp chance to unseat Brees as the starter entering last season.
But a funny thing happened on the way to another dreadful season that could have cost Coach Marty Schottenheimer and General Manager A.J. Smith their jobs: Brees suddenly became one of the league's most valuable players last season and the Chargers emerged as a top team, going 12-4 and winning the AFC West before being upset by the New York Jets in a first-round playoff game.
Can they do it again? Of course they can. There's no reason for Brees to revert to his previous form, and the real benefit of the Manning trade came when the Chargers had two first-round picks in this year's draft (the earlier of which came from the Giants). They used both of the selections to fortify their defense, taking Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman and Northwestern defensive tackle Luis Castillo.
The most intriguing offseason decision for the Chargers, by far, came even before the free-agent market opened, when they decided to use their franchise-player tag to keep Brees off the unrestricted free agent market rather than attempting to agree to a long-term contract with him and his agent, Tom Condon. Brees had made it clear that he would have preferred to try to work out a multi-year deal, but he signed his one-year franchise tender without complaint. The deal pays Brees a salary of $8.078 million this year, and leaves him eligible for free agency next spring.
The Chargers, in effect, bought themselves another year to make a choice between Brees and Rivers. They get to see whether Brees can do it again, whether he'll be the player that he was last season or the far less successful version of his first three NFL seasons, before they make a long-term, really-big-money commitment to him. If Brees reverts to his previous form, the Chargers can give a chance to Rivers, the fourth overall choice in last year's draft.
Rivers is the unquestioned backup now, with veteran Doug Flutie having been released this offseason. If Brees has another good season, it would make sense to trade Rivers next spring, likely seeking a first-round pick in return. The way of the NFL these days is that a prized young quarterback becomes his club's starter by the beginning of his second season. If Rivers sits for another season and isn't the starter in San Diego going into his THIRD season, it's doubtful that he would be willing to remain patient and coexist peacefully with Brees. It would be burdensome on the salary cap to have two expensive quarterbacks on the roster. It would be, simply, time to allow Rivers to move on.
The San Diego offense should continue to be explosive as long as Brees remains effective, given that he has tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates at his disposal. Schottenheimer should have learned a lesson from last season's playoffs. He opened up his offense during the regular season, and got wondrous results. Then, in crunch time against the Jets, he turned into the old Schottenheimer and turned conservative again, taking the game out of Brees's hands and putting it into the hands of rookie kicker Nate Kaeding by playing for a 40-yard field-goal attempt in overtime. Kaeding missed, and the Chargers lost. The old ways are yet to get Schottenheimer to a Super Bowl, so he needs to stick with his methods of the 2004 regular season.
Merriman potentially gives the Chargers another ferocious pass rusher at linebacker to complement Steve Foley, who had 10 sacks last season. Merriman is exceptionally fast for a big man and was one of the draft's coveted 'tweeners -- those players able to play either defensive end or outside linebacker.
But there have been major problems early on in the relationship between Merriman and the Chargers. Merriman fired Gary Wichard as his agent after the draft and hired Kevin Poston, who kept Merriman from participating in offseason practices with the club because he and team officials couldn't agree to the wording of a waiver to protect Merriman's interests if he were to be injured before he signs a contract. Such waivers usually are agreed to without much haggling between agents and teams, and the incident reinforced the notion that Poston and his brother and business partner Carl are overly combative in their dealings with teams. A few other agents and players' union officials, however, believe in this case that the Postons might have had a valid point because of the way the Chargers' waiver was worded.
No matter who's at fault, it's clear that the Postons and Smith could have trouble agreeing to a contract to get Merriman to training camp on time, if they couldn't even agree to a waiver to have him participate in some offseason practices. Each of the Chargers' first-round picks comes with a disclaimer attached. The Chargers selected Castillo in the first round even after he tested positive for androstenedione -- regarded as a steroid under the league's testing program -- at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February.
Schottenheimer and Smith have signed contract extensions since the Chargers' magical 2004 season ended, and neither man's job will be on the line next season. But the quarterback situation will make the Chargers one of the league's most interesting teams to watch. They again should be an AFC contender, and if they get major contributions from Merriman and Castillo, they could seriously challenge the conference's other heavyweights for a berth in Detroit next Feb. 5.
Around the League
Free-agent wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, the former first-round draft choice who talked his way out of a job with the Philadelphia Eagles, is scheduled to visit the Kansas City Chiefs in the coming days. The Chiefs are looking for a replacement for wideout Johnnie Morton, who was released last week after refusing to accept a pay cut . . . .
Green Bay Packers safety Mark Roman hurt his right knee Sunday while playing in Brett Favre's charity softball game. Roman was injured in a collision with Packers defensive tackle Kenny Peterson while pursuing a fly ball in the outfield. The severity of the injury was not immediately clear . . . .
Jason Licht, the Eagles' assistant director of player personnel, and Tony Softli, the Carolina Panthers' director of college scouting, could be among the candidates to be the Miami Dolphins' chief front-office administrator. Rick Spielman resigned as the Dolphins' general manager Friday. His departure had seemed inevitable since Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga hired Nick Saban as the team's coach in December and gave him total authority over the club's football operations. Saban previously interviewed two candidates to serve as his front-office chief, Indianapolis Colts assistant general manager Chris Polian and Tampa Bay Buccaneers college scouting director Ruston Webster. But both received promotions to stay where they were, with Polian being elevated to vice president of player personnel with the Colts and Webster to director of player personnel with the Buccaneers . . . .
The Cleveland Browns provided themselves with some left-tackle insurance by agreeing Friday to a one-year contract with L.J. Shelton, the former first-round draft pick cut recently by Arizona. The Browns' starting left tackle, Ross Verba, is embroiled in a contract dispute with the team.