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SAN DIEGO – The Chargers sent an NFL-best 11 players to the Pro Bowl in 2006, recognition for a 14-2 season that launched the current streak of four consecutive AFC West championships.
Six of those players currently are not on the San Diego roster.
Roster turnover, especially recognizable names, is a standard in free agency, ensuring change in professional sports.
Some take it as a sign that a team’s best days have passed. After all, the young, unproven players are just that: unknown quantities that don’t have the history that backs their predecessors.
The Colts watched Super Bowl Head Coach Tony Dungy retire and another generation of skill players rotate through. The Patriots had to restock an accomplished but aging defense and endure a season-long injury to their prized quarterback.
Each has kept winning.
So, now that it’s San Diego’s turn, why can’t they?
“(Some) see that, well, this team has a window and think it’s starting to close,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “The window (here) is getting bigger. Our team is a young football team. Now we need those young guys to come in and play well and do their part.”
It’s hard to argue with the track record of Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith, who have acquired better than average talent through the draft and make minimal but effective forays into free agency.
Then there’s something else the Chargers have in common with the two teams many consider the most successful of the last decade: an elite quarterback.
And while the passing game has been a magnet for offseason speculation and discussion, Turner believes this year’s team could be the most successful version since he became head coach in 2007.
Speaking to a group of San Diego media in Qualcomm Stadium’s End Zone Club during an informal luncheon, Turner explained that he and his football staff have renewed their commitment to running the ball. They drafted Ryan Mathews at No. 12 overall. Turner believes Mathews’ combination of speed and power will rejuvenate the 10 and 20-yard rushes that dwindled the last two seasons.
A younger, more athletic defense is focused on attacking more often.
San Diego hopes several recent draft picks in the middle of the defense will develop, including defensive tackle Cam Thomas, linebackers Donald Butler and Larry English and safety Darrell Stuckey. Antoine Cason, expected to start for the first time, could provide a more consistent performance at corner opposite Quentin Jammer, Turner said.
“Everyone throws the ball so well now. The yardage is up. The scoring is up,” he said. “You have to find a way to get stops. The quicker you get a stop, the quicker for us we get the ball back offensively. You look at the teams that create turnovers, stops, sacks, fumbles … you get those things when you’re playing aggressively.
“You have to either be disrupting the quarterback, and you do that with pressure, or you have to be disrupting receivers, banging them off the line, jamming them. If you’re not rushing more than four, you better be doing a great job of disrupting receivers’ routes so the quarterback has to hold the ball. I think that style will fit our players.”
Special teams may make the most marked improvement of all as they recoup players like Antwan Applewhite, Jyles Tucker and James Holt and add Butler and Stuckey to what could be an elite coverage unit.
Injuries forced San Diego to reload as recent as last season, when the Chargers had to make changes along the offensive line and on special teams midseason.
“It’s like you got knocked down and you had to take a mandatory count,” Turner said. “You’re looking around saying, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to do this?’ Once we got over the shock, we became a very good football team.”
Good enough to win 11 consecutive regular season games, a mark that remains in tact.
The young nucleus that will define the franchises’ future is eager to prove themselves and anxious to learn, traits that remind Turner of a similar group of players largely responsible for the current run of five playoff appearances in six years.
“They look at each other and want to show each other what they’re capable of doing. It’s a fun atmosphere because they’re big-eyed and they’re really working to do what you want,” Turner said. “I really believe we’ve made a transition as a team.”