The practice fields at the San Diego Chargers' training complex are a football paradise. The weather is almost always perfect and the fields are bound by the Chargers' offices on one side and picturesque hills on the other.
Entering last season, the only blemish on the idyllic scene was the team practicing on those fields. The Chargers were coming off a 4-12 season in 2003 with seemingly little hope of improvement. They had been snubbed by quarterback Eli Manning, the top overall selection in the 2004 NFL draft who had informed club officials that he wouldn't play in San Diego. They had searched desperately for a quarterback to replace incumbent starter Drew Brees but were stuck with him for at least part of another season because prized rookie Philip Rivers had showed up late to training camp after a contract dispute. Coach Marty Schottenheimer and General Manager A.J. Smith seemed to have little in the way of long-term job security.
But a funny thing happened to the Chargers on their way to the trash heap: Brees became one of the league's best quarterbacks and led the team to a 12-4 record and an AFC West title. Now, as they prepare to play the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener Sunday, the Chargers are regarded as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and Schottenheimer must fend off questions about complacency and overconfidence.
"Ours is a strange business," he said after a recent training camp practice. "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."
The main issue is what Brees, 26, can do for an encore. Even the Chargers are waiting anxiously to find out. They kept Brees off the unrestricted free agent market this past offseason by using their franchise-player tag on him, signing him to a one-year contract worth just under $8.1 million. But the club wouldn't negotiate a long-term contract with Brees and his agent, Tom Condon. The message was clear: The Chargers want to see Brees repeat last season's heroics before they're convinced that he, and not Rivers, is the team's long-range answer at quarterback. "It's a business," Brees said. "You realize that very early on. Hey, they made a business decision. I'm not complaining [about his salary this season], trust me. Of course, for me, the big thing is the commitment: 'Hey, you're our guy. We want you long term.' And no, I haven't gotten that."
The feeling league-wide is that the Chargers probably will part with either Rivers or Brees after this season. The team obtained Rivers, the fourth overall selection in last year's draft, in a draft-day trade that sent Manning to the New York Giants and secured an additional first-round choice in this year's draft for the Chargers, which they used on University of Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman.
Rivers might have won last season's starting job if he had made it to camp on time. But he didn't, and Brees kept Rivers on the bench all season by throwing for 3,159 yards and 27 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.
"I did a lot of things last offseason to prepare myself to be the starting quarterback of this team," Brees said. "That was my thought process. That was my attitude. It was, 'Hey, I am the guy, and I'm going to make sure everybody knows it.' . . . You always get a little bit smarter and a little bit stronger mentally as you go along. That's what this league does. It hardens you up a little bit. That's just through experience. I think any guy will tell you that.
"And then obviously our team, we had better people, high-character guys, good leadership. It's just one of those things. In '03, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. And then last year, everything that could have gone right went right. We were not a 4-12 team in '03, even though our record showed that. We were better than that. Just due to circumstances, that's the way we finished. We all got stronger through that experience. I don't think we could have accomplished what we did last year if we hadn't gone through that in '03."
The follow-up, Brees acknowledged, will be tougher than the breakthrough.
"To match it or eclipse it -- absolutely that's harder," he said. "At times, it's easier to be the underdog than to go out and do it again and again. We've got a bull's-eye on our chests now. Expectations are so high that you just put so much pressure on yourself. . . . As a team, we've got to kick it up a notch."
Everyone in the Chargers' locker room seems to realize that. "One of the first things I realized when I got here," Merriman said, "was that this team has some really, really big goals this year, and everyone is dead serious about it."
Brees has two of the league's top players at his disposal on offense in tailback LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Gates, however, must sit out the Sept. 11 regular season opener at home against the Cowboys because the Chargers placed him on their roster exempt list (requiring him to miss three games) in the middle of the preseason as a tactic to get him to report to the club during a contract dispute; Gates missed the deadline set by the Chargers by a day, but soon thereafter got the long-term deal he had been seeking.
The defense was bolstered in the offseason by the additions of Merriman and fellow first-round draft pick Luis Castillo, a defensive tackle from Northwestern. Merriman's status for the opener is uncertain because of a knee injury suffered during the preseason.
Even with last year's surprising accomplishments, Schottenheimer said the prevailing emotion for him when the season ended was disappointment over a first-round playoff loss to the New York Jets. Rookie kicker Nate Kaeding missed a field goal attempt in overtime after Schottenheimer turned conservative and played to set up the kick rather than plowing ahead toward the end zone.
"We had a chance to win it, and we didn't win it," Schottenheimer said. "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."
Schottenheimer, like Smith, signed a contract extension during the offseason. The loss to the Jets was another in a long line of stinging postseason defeats for Schottenheimer, with the others having come while he was with the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. He has done just about everything there is to do in coaching in the NFL except reach a Super Bowl. But just reaching a Super Bowl, he said, is not the goal.
"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."