SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Chargers were one of the NFL's success stories last season, winning 12 games and the AFC West crown. When the season ended, however, Coach Marty Schottenheimer's prevailing emotion was dissatisfaction with how the season ended -- with a loss at home to the New York Jets in a first-round AFC playoff game.

"I was disappointed with the outcome," Schottenheimer said here at the Chargers' training facility late last week. "We had a chance to win it, and we didn't win it. I've been fortunate in my career. We've been to a lot of playoff games, although we haven't won as many as we would have liked. Having said that, though, there are no guarantees that you're going to get back there, you know, so you want to try to take advantage of each one."

It was another in a long line of stinging postseason defeats for Schottenheimer, whose previous playoff letdowns came while coaching the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. He has done just about everything there is to do as an NFL head coach except reach a Super Bowl, and he is far closer to the end of his career than to the start. But just reaching a Super Bowl, Schottenheimer said, wouldn't be enough.

"Not get to it," he said, "win it. I haven't gotten there, but the point is to win it. I take each year in and of itself. I don't wonder, 'What if?' As a young head coach, I thought we'd go to the playoffs every year. It was just a matter of taking care of little things and finding a way to do that. That obviously didn't prove to be totally accurate, but we've had some measure of success. Then when you get into that single-elimination stuff, you know, it's a play here, a play there. It's a field goal made, a field goal missed. It's a ball that's dropped, a penalty that's called or not called. There are so many things, but that's what makes the NFL so exciting come playoff time."

In the Jets game, it was rookie kicker Nate Kaeding's missed field-goal attempt in overtime after Schottenheimer suddenly reverted to his old, conservative offensive ways and played to set up the kick rather than plowing ahead toward the end zone. Still, Schottenheimer said he is able, when he forces himself, to put the sting of the season-ending loss aside and remind himself that the Chargers had "a terrific season" that began with them appearing to be one of the league's doormats.

Now, it's a matter of what they and their quarterback, Drew Brees, can do for an encore. Brees was nearly shoved aside by the Chargers before last season but kept his starting job because prized rookie Philip Rivers showed up late to training camp because of a contract dispute. Brees ended up being one of the league's top passers and most valuable players, but the Chargers want him to have another big season before negotiating a long-term contract with him; they refused to discuss a multi-year deal with him and his agent, Tom Condon, this past offseason and instead kept him off the unrestricted free-agent market with their franchise-player tag.

"As a team," Brees said, "we've got to kick it up a notch."

Brees has two of the league's best offensive players, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates, at his disposal. The Chargers used both of their first-round draft picks in April -- one secured in last year's draft-day trade that sent quarterback Eli Manning to the New York Giants and put Rivers in San Diego -- to bolster their defense by selecting Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman and Northwestern tackle Luis Castillo.

"Barring injury, I think we can compete with anybody in our division," Schottenheimer said. "But it's a well-balanced, competitive division. Ours is a strange business. You can't go out and predict this, that or the other thing. A year ago, they said we wouldn't win a game. We won 12. This year, they say we're going to win the division, win 10 games. We didn't listen to them a year ago, and we're not going to listen now." . . .

Merriman will end up being credited with a sack in his first NFL exhibition game, Sunday's triumph over the St. Louis Rams. Merriman initially was credited with only a tackle for a loss on Rams quarterback Jeff Smoker on a third-quarter play, meaning that it originally was interpreted that Smoker was trying to run with the ball instead of throw it, but a Chargers official said the ruling would be changed to a sack. . . .

Gates today agreed to a six-year contract with the Chargers. He joined the team Sunday after refusing to report to training camp while seeking a long-term deal. The Chargers placed him on their roster-exempt list when he missed a Saturday reporting deadline set by the club, meaning that he will miss the next three games -- including the regular season opener against the Cowboys.

Cowboys Looking For Help

The Dallas Cowboys still have glaring holes at right offensive tackle and one safety spot on defense, and are studying the possibility of signing a veteran player at one or both spots.

"We have the need at both positions," Coach Bill Parcells said. "But you can't just dial them up. It's not a '1-800' deal. It's hard to bring a guy in here for two or three million dollars if you don't know if he's going to be your starter or not. I wouldn't recommend that to Jerry [Jones, the team's owner]."

Cowboys officials were upset that Jacob Rogers, the favorite when training camp opened to be the starting right tackle, opted to have season-ending surgery on an ailing knee instead of playing through the discomfort. That leaves rookie Rob Petitti and third-year pro Torrin Tucker competing for the job. Petitti started Monday night's 18-10 triumph at Seattle.

Parcells talked at length last week about the patience he's demonstrated in waiting for Tucker to possibly develop into a dependable player.

"Normally under similar circumstances, it would not have remained that way," Parcells said. "And it's not just because I'm getting older, okay? I do believe that football is important to him. I believe that. Now the direction he needed in order to develop into a pretty good pro football player -- there were a lot of things that he was lacking. Ability isn't one of them. I do think the kid does want to play, and I do think he is competitive. Now, he lacked technique. Quite frankly, he lacked discipline in his own personal training habits, nutrition and just a lot of the things that these kids are very naive about. . . . I see a little progress. As long as I keep seeing that, then I'm willing to give him everything that I've got."

Parcells said that Tucker has had "quite a few ultimatums here" but has responded to each one well enough to remain on the roster.

"He's got plenty of physical talent," Parcells said. "He's a big kid. He's strong. He can run. He's got pretty good feet. . . . So hopefully he'll grow into it and eventually maybe he'll say, 'Hey, I can do this and I know how to do it now and I'll be doing it the right way.' That's important to me that a player learns to play the game the right way.

" . . . Look, he was overweight. He didn't prepare well enough. He's distract-able [and] I'd say a little lazy. Now when you're young, that's a recipe for disaster, those characteristics. But he's starting to overcome some of those. He's working harder. He's keeping his weight under control. He's not making as many mental errors as he made. He's concentrating better, and he's less distract-able. So he's starting to learn how to do this."

He also plays the proper position, at least on this Cowboys team.

"I never really had too many choices here," Parcells said. "It wasn't like I had Anthony Munoz over there playing." . . .

Jose Cortez connected on all three of his field-goal tries Monday against the Seahawks and may supplant the injured Billy Cundiff as the Dallas kicker.

Unusual Dispute

It's highly unusual for a third-round draft pick still to be unsigned at this point in the summer, but that's the case for Rams center Richie Incognito.

The Rams have offered Incognito only a $411,000 signing bonus as part of a three-year contract even though his draft slot dictates that he should receive a $528,000 signing bonus in a three-year deal.

Jack Scharf, Incognito's San Antonio, Tex.-based agent, has offered to allow the Rams, who don't have room under their rookie salary cap to sign Incognito to a market-value deal, to make up the difference with incentives and escalator clauses. Scharf also has proposed, as an alternative, a five-year deal that voids to three seasons, enabling the Rams to squeeze a full-market-value signing bonus for Incognito beneath the cap. But the Rams have replied that they don't use such mechanisms in contracts for rookies that aren't first-round picks.

The problem can be traced back to Incognito, who played at Nebraska in college, suffering a knee injury at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. He was hurt pretending to be a defensive player in a "mirror" drill for offensive linemen. Incognito re-injured himself at his campus workout for NFL talent evaluators and was told by Birmingham orthopedist James Andrews that he needed to undergo surgery for a patellar subluxation.

The Rams were interested in Incognito all along and, according to Scharf, were given regular updates on his condition. Exactly when Incognito will be able to play remains uncertain, but it could be as soon as a little more than a month into the regular season. Part of the Rams' offer was to guarantee Incognito a $135,000 salary for this season if he's unable to come back and play.

Scharf says it's possible that Incognito will sit out the season and re-enter the draft next year. Scharf's partner, Jeff Griffin, was able to reach a contract agreement with the Rams for the team's second-round draft pick, Howard University cornerback Ronald Bartell. These discussions may have reached an impasse, however.

One of the interesting aspects of the case is that Incognito's injury technically is categorized as a "non-football" injury -- meaning the Rams aren't obligated to pay him his salary this season, under NFL rules--because it didn't occur during a game or practice. Scharf said that could have a chilling effect on draft-eligible players working out at the combine, as scouts and general managers annually urge agents to convince their clients to do.

"They say if the players don't work out," Scharf said, "it's a waste of their time. . . . [But] this kid didn't go home and get hurt riding a motorcycle. The combine is a function put on by the NFL." . . .

Philadelphia signed veteran punter Sean Landeta. . . . Quarterback Chris Redman, the former Baltimore starter who was out of the league last season after undergoing shoulder surgery, returned to the NFL by signing with Tenneesse on Monday. . . . Pittsburgh signed defensive tackle Casey Hampton to a four-year contract extension through the 2009 season. . . . Jacksonville signed cornerback Rashean Mathis to a five-year, $25.5 million extension.

Smith To Open Season On Bench

Quarterback Alex Smith, the top overall selection in the NFL draft in April, is slated to open the season as San Francisco's backup. The 49ers today named Tim Rattay their starter entering the regular season.