- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- If anything beneficial came out of the San Diego Chargers’ early-season stumbles in 2010, it was that the team that always seemed to be living dangerously had finally learned its lesson.
Starting slow can catch up to a team. In the three previous seasons under coach Norv Turner, the Chargers overcame slow starts with torrid finishes that resulted in AFC West championships. It didn’t happen last year. San Diego couldn’t overcome an early 2-5 hole and finished 9-7, allowing the upstart Kansas City Chiefs to steal the division title.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said earlier in this abbreviated training camp that the Chargers must learn from last year’s disappointment and find a way to finally start fast.
Turner is all for starting fast, and he said one emphasis during camp is working to fix what has made the Chargers vulnerable in recent seasons. San Diego's offense has often been sloppy early on, committing too many turnovers. Last season, the Chargers committed 18 turnovers in their first seven games.
“We’ve played good football, but the turnovers hurt us,” Turner said. “When we didn’t turn the ball over, we’d win. That’s what we’re working on. I think the key is not talking about the slow starts, but working on the reason why we started slow.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Getting special teams up to speed. The 2010 Chargers will be remembered for assembling perhaps the worst special-teams unit of all time. San Diego had the No. 1-ranked offense and No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL last year, yet it didn’t make the playoffs because of special teams, which cost the Chargers in every imaginable way. The Chargers have put a major emphasis on the unit during camp. Special-teams practice segments are long and spirited. New special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia is well-respected and determined to get his players on track.
“It is a major point of emphasis in this camp,” Turner said.
2. Get Ryan Mathews ready. This is a big camp for Mathews, the running back who was the No. 12 overall pick in 2010. He alarmed the team when he failed a conditioning test at the start of training camp. Teammates reportedly were surprised Mathews failed the test, and he admitted he should have worked out his legs more during the lockout. That is the last thing a team wants to hear from its rich 24-year-old tailback of the future. He is currently dealing with a minor leg injury that is expected to keep him out of the preseason opener against Seattle. Mathews had durability issues last year, although he flashed at times, and he must show during camp that he is ready to be a lead back and can stay healthy.
“Ryan has to get some carries,” Turner said. “We need to get him some work.”
Turner expects Mathews to continue to work in tandem with powerful veteran Mike Tolbert, who looks as fearsome as always. Tolbert is an underrated weapon. Look for him to see more action in all phases of the run game as Mathews tries to develop.
3. The veteran safeties. Oft-injured Bob Sanders looks good. It may be too much to ask for the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year to return to his peak form, considering he has played in nine games over the past three years, but Sanders looks primed to bounce back. He and fellow safety Eric Weddle, who last month signed a $40 million deal to stay in San Diego, seem to have a strong on-field connection. They should be fun to watch and should benefit from playing with each other.
“Bob has been amazing,” Weddle reports. “There’s no rust there.”
The Chargers have their starting receivers together. That wasn’t expected.
The Chargers wanted to bring back No. 2 wideout Malcom Floyd, but they thought they would be outbid for Floyd's services. The market didn't develop as expected, though, so Floyd took a two-year deal that could be worth as much as $7 million to stay in San Diego.
That means the Chargers have No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson (who held out for much of last season, and was given the franchise tag this year) and Floyd in the fold. Last year, because of a rash of injuries at the position, Rivers was throwing to street free agents at the end of the season. Having Jackson and Floyd at his disposal will be a treat for Rivers, who threw for 4,710 yards last season.
The Chargers couldn’t come to a contract agreement with inside linebacker Kevin Burnett. He was a priority for the team, but Burnett ended up being the one who got away from the Chargers, who otherwise enjoyed a strong free-agent period.
In the end, Burnett wanted more than San Diego was willing to offer, and he ended up signing with Miami.
Burnett had a good season for the Chargers in 2010, with 95 tackles and six sacks, and San Diego wanted him back as part of its 3-4 defense. Now a young player probably will be inserted opposite free-agent signee Takeo Spikes on the inside. Right now, 2010 draft pick Donald Butler (who missed all of his rookie year with an injury) is getting those repetitions with the first team. Second-round pick Jonas Mouton will have a chance to impress in the preseason too, and the Chargers could look for a veteran if the youngsters show they are not ready.
New defensive coordinator Greg Manusky -- who replaced Ron Rivera, now the head coach in Carolina -- lets his presence be known. He is a high-energy coach who is not afraid to bark instructions constantly. No need to worry about the San Diego defense falling flat after being ranked No. 1 in the NFL last year.
Spikes has looked good. He is 34, but he played for Manusky in San Francisco last year and has Manusky's trust. Spikes has never played for a winner and seems energized by being part of this roster.
Rookie free-agent quarterback Scott Tolzien has looked good in camp. The Wisconsin product is a smart player who may be a nice developmental prospect.
The Chargers are not overly concerned about the foot injury hampering star tight end Antonio Gates, who started camp on the physically unable to perform list because of the plantar fascia injury that ended his 2010 season prematurely. The team will be cautious, and Gates is expected to be ready for the season.
Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green continue to vie for the right guard spot. Vasquez had been the starter, but Green proved to be a worthy injury replacement for Vasquez and now is hoping for more playing time.
Cornerback Antoine Cason is going to take over punt returns now that Sproles is gone.
Defensive tackle Antonio Garay doesn’t look like a one-year wonder. He is having a strong camp after a huge season in 2010.
The Chargers have loved what they've seen from rookie cornerback Marcus Gilchrist so far. He may have a chance to contribute.
Last year, Chargers camp was dampened by the holdouts of Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill. This year, there is contract harmony after several players received new deals. It wouldn't surprise me to see Tolbert, Cason and center Nick Hardwick also get new deals in the next year.
5dEric D. Williams
5dEric D. Williams