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Chargers '07 preview

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The best record in the 2006 regular season seems so far away, so insignificant. The Chargers went 14-2 and then promptly lost their first playoff game.

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"It's not good enough," general manager A.J. Smith says. "We've got to figure out how to go to the postseason and win there. The first playoff game, that's all I'm looking for right now – how we do when we get there."

Yes, all the success and positive vibes of 2006 vanished in one January afternoon. The ensuing madness resulted in the loss of a head coach and both coordinators, the hiring of a coach who has posted a 54-70-1 career record and an offseason of inactivity in the free-agent market.

But the Chargers return 18 starters from a team that won 10 consecutive games to finish the regular season and lost by three points to New England in the playoffs because it made mistakes it hadn't made all year. Those starters include eight Pro Bowl invitees plus a Pro Bowl kicker, a Pro Bowl long snapper and a Pro Bowl special teams player.

GAME PLAN

Offense: The new coordinator is Clarence Shelmon, but their longtime running backs coach essentially will play facilitator for new head coach Norv Turner. It was Turner who installed the team's offense as its coordinator in '01 – a major reason he was hired to replace Marty Schottenheimer. Turner also was mentor to former coordinator Cam Cameron, who departed to become head coach of the Dolphins. Turner will continue educating quarterback Philip Rivers and tinkering with running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Tomlinson's touchdown total likely will decrease in '07, but the balanced offense won't change much.

Defense: New coordinator Ted Cottrell is a disciple of former coordinator Wade Phillips, who left to become coach of the Cowboys. Cottrell was hired the same day as Turner and, like Turner, was brought in to maintain continuity. The Chargers' 3-4 scheme will stay the same, though there are concerns. Phillips did a great job of calling plays, and his aggressiveness always seemed to pay off. Cottrell is more conservative, though that could change with top pass rushers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips at his disposal.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYERS

WR Vincent Jackson: Gates is the Chargers' top receiving threat – and his presence is almost as important as Tomlinson's. Gates can't consistently be single-covered, and that opens up things for Tomlinson and the wide receivers. Jackson is poised to become the No. 1 wide receiver. He showed last season that he can make difficult and clutch catches but is not always dependable and sometimes has trouble getting open. Jackson and Malcolm Floyd are the team's best vertical options because of their speed and size.

C Nick Hardwick: Athleticism is key to the offensive line, which constantly is shifting, pulling and moving this way and that. Blocks 10 yards downfield are not uncommon. Left guard Kris Dielman sets the tone with his nasty, all-out play. He is so effective because he is mean and strong. Hardwick (6-foot-4, 295 pounds), a former wrestler, is undersized but as fiery and almost as strong as Dielman.

NT Jamal Williams: Others get the glory, but the players acknowledge that the defense revolves around Williams. The strongest man on the team also might be one of the fastest men in the world at his size (6-3, 348). He almost always is double-teamed, sometimes taking on three blockers and still managing to divert or tackle the ballcarrier. Williams' presence causes opponents to run away from the middle, which pushes them into the arms of an outstanding end or linebacker.

ILBs Matt Wilhelm and Stephen Cooper: It's transition time inside. Wilhelm takes over for Donnie Edwards and has a lot to live up to. Cooper, who has split time with Randall Godfrey for two years, takes over as the full-time guy. Wilhelm is at least as fast as Edwards and also 20 pounds heavier. He probably can make the tackles Edwards did, but he must make strides in coverage. Cooper, a hard hitter like Godfrey, has a knack for blitzing.

VINNIE IYER'S TAKE

Though Turner won't deliver an elusive Super Bowl berth, Tomlinson, Merriman and the rest of the team's elite talent will carry San Diego to another dazzling regular season.
Prediction: 14-2 (first in the AFC West).

FALL FORECAST

The Chargers' record might not be as good as it was in '06. NFL teams simply don't win 14 games often. Plus, the Chargers' schedule is tougher this season after catching some breaks last season. But it would take a major collapse for them to miss the playoffs.

They have some of the league's best players, plenty of depth and veteran leadership. The hiring of Turner was not inspiring, though there is no doubt the man can coach offense. And the new guys the Chargers brought in on defense (Cottrell and linebackers coach Ron Rivera) are top notch. Fans are troubled by the Chargers' inactivity in the free-agent market, but this remains the most talented team in the AFC West and it will win at least 10 games. Maybe even a few more.

Still, this season will be judged solely by what happens in January.

Kevin Acee covers the Chargers for the Union-Tribune and Sporting News.