2008 was another head-scratching season for the Bolts as they sputtered out of the gate with a wildly disappointing 4-8 record but then somehow managed to rally for five consecutive wins, finishing just one game away from hosting the AFC Championship Game.
The Chargers finished second in the NFL in points per game (27.4) and 11th in total offense in 2008. Quarterback Philip Rivers is coming off the best season of his career, as he threw a team-record 34 touchdown passes and became the second Chargers quarterback and the first since Dan Fouts in 1981 to pass for more than 4,000 yards. LaDainian Tomlinson was bothered by groin and abdomen injuries at the end of the year, but he still managed to rush for 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns. Even though the running game struggled to get on track for most of the season, Tomlinson proved that he can still be a force as his three-touchdown performance against the Broncos in the last game of the year demonstrated. San Diego's pass-catchers are as good as any group in the league with Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers each possessing the ability to make a big catch at any time.
On the defensive side of the ball, the team had to go without their No. 1 playmaker when Shawne Merriman was forced to have knee surgery after just one game. In his absence, the defense was led up front by Jamal Williams, who started all 16 games. Stephen Cooper had a strong year at inside linebacker, finishing second on the team in tackles and leading in interceptions with four, while Shaun Philips managed eight sacks from the outside spot. In the secondary, Quentin Jammer had a solid season, but Antonio Cromartie was dealing with a hip injury throughout the year and regressed dramatically from the Pro Bowl form he displayed in 2007.
The special teams were led by Darren Sproles. He scored on a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Denver and had an apparent 86-yard punt return for a touchdown called back against Oakland because of a holding penalty. Nate Kaeding and Mike Scifres comprise one of the best kicker punter tandems in the league.
For better or worse, this team is starting to be known more for inconsistent play and heartbreaking playoff defeats than for its immensely talented players. History tells us that no team's window of opportunity can stay open forever, so the Chargers must redouble their efforts and hope to stay healthy in 2009 if they want to finally achieve their goal of winning a Super Bowl for the city of San Diego.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (16) Larry English, DE, Northern Illinois
Had 31.5 sacks in 50 college games and is expected to immediately upgrade the pass rush.
Igor Olshansky, DE (Cowboys)
Starting defensive end was good against the run but saw his time diminish late in 2008.
Mike Goff, G (Chiefs)
Started every game for the Chargers from 2004 through 2008.
Marques Harris, LB (49ers)
A key reserve at linebacker that played in 15 games last season.
TOMLINSON TURNS 30
LaDainian Tomlinson enters 2009 as a bigger draft day risk than he has ever been at any point in his fabulous career. He has battled an assortment of injuries over the past few years, and we are left to wonder if those bumps and bruises are signaling the beginning of the end for the superstar running back. Many are pegging Tomlinson as a prime first-round bust candidate this season, but head coach Norv Turner has promised that LT will get over 320 carries. One more great season is certainly not out of the question.
BOLTS LOOKING TO ESTABLISH BETTER BALANCE
The offensive coaches received a lot of criticism last year for seeming to abandon the running game for long stretches of time, but that probably won't happen again in 2009. The Bolts were frequently playing from behind last season (opponents scored first in 10 of their 16 games) and that forced them to throw the ball. When the Chargers finally started to play well at the end of the season, they averaged 151 rushing yards per game. LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles are both incredibly talented ball carriers, and the team is committed to using each of them to their fullest potential this year.
STARTING WIDE RECEIVERS BOTH IN CONTRACT YEARS
The Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing offense in 2008 thanks largely to the consistent production they received from Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers. Both players return to the starting lineup in 2009, but neither has a contract in place beyond this season. If you believe that players have extra motivation in their contract years, Jackson and Chambers both deserve an extra look.
MERRIMAN RETURNS TO A DEFENSE THAT FINISHED STRONG
Once Ron Rivera was promoted to defensive coordinator prior to Week 9, the defense began to flourish. From that point forward, the unit allowed 6.4 fewer points and 70 fewer yards per game. The defense will be looking to build on that momentum this season with the return of Shawne Merriman and the drafting of defensive end Larry English.
CHANGE ABOUNDS IN THE RETOOLED AFC WEST
The Chargers can attribute a great deal of their recent success to the fact that they have been able to compile a 5-1 record against the weak AFC West in each of the past three seasons. This year things might be a bit more challenging for the Bolts inside the division as the Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs all underwent sweeping coaching changes during the offseason with an eye toward improvement. Divisional wins will be even more important to the Chargers this year because San Diego faces a very difficult out-of-division schedule, which includes six teams that made the playoffs in 2008.
Rising: Vincent Jackson has the size and hands to approach 80 catches and 1,200 yards with just a bit more development.
Declining: Antonio Gates had his worst season statistically since he was a rookie in 2003, and he can't seem to fully recover from his assorted toe and hip injuries.
Sleeper: Darren Sproles has obvious upside based on how well he has performed in spot duty the past few years and the fact that LaDainian Tomlinson is getting more injury prone with age.
Supersleeper: Malcom Floyd developed a nice rapport with Philip Rivers as the season wore on and logged over 75 yards and a touchdown in each of the two games he was asked to start last year.
Shawne Merriman, LB
Should be 100 percent in time for the regular season and will certainly be itching to hit somebody again.
Shaun Phillips, LB
Will return to his natural weak side position and should get a lot less attention from opposing blockers with Merriman back in the lineup.
Antonio Cromartie, CB
A return to health will allow to him regain his explosiveness and should result in more interceptions.