Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Schottenheimer says Chargers will win this year

AP Sports Writer

        SAN DIEGO — There's good news for the San Diego Chargers. They absolutely, positively will not finish fifth in the AFC West, like they did four of the last five seasons. Guaranteed.

        Of course, with realignment, there is no more fifth place. So the Chargers have that going for them in their daunting chore of rebuilding from six years of staggering losses and no playoff appearances.

        Two years ago, they were the NFL's worst team at 1-15. Last year, they showed promise with a 5-2 start behind quarterback Doug Flutie and rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson, then lost their last nine games.

        Coach Mike Riley was fired and the Chargers hired Marty Schottenheimer, who has had a losing record only once in his 15 full seasons as head coach.

        Schottenheimer, who sounds as much like a politician as a football coach, is confident he'll lead the Chargers' long-sought turnaround.

        “We will win,” he promised.

        He apparently means immediately, although the Chargers have one of the NFL's toughest schedules, including a visit from Super Bowl champion New England and a trip to defending NFC champion St. Louis.

        “You tell me we can stay reasonably healthy, I'll tell you we're going to be a very good football team,” Schottenheimer said.

        Schottenheimer used to be the enemy, coaching division rival Kansas City during a 10-year period when the Chiefs and Chargers took great delight in pounding one another. From 1992-95, the Chargers and Chiefs took turns winning the division.

        But in 1998, the Chiefs finished 7-9 — Schottenheimer's first losing season — and he resigned. After two years in television, he coached Washington to an 8-8 record before losing a power struggle with owner Dan Snyder.

        With his 153-93-1 regular-season record and a reputation as an old-school disciplinarian, the Chargers figured he was just the guy to lead a franchise that had gone an NFL-worst 23-57 since Bobby Ross was forced out after the 1996 season.

        Throw in their 8-8 finish in '96 and the Chargers are 31-65 since their last playoff appearance on Dec. 31, 1995.

        “We just kind of needed somebody to put us over the top, and I think Marty is that guy,” said second-year pro Drew Brees, who beat out Flutie for the starting quarterback job. “It's kind of the attitude, win at all costs. Don't even think what it would feel like to lose, because we never want to know that feeling. Obviously it's hard to go undefeated in this league, but you just maintain that attitude.”

        Schottenheimer, 58, is San Diego's fourth head coach since Ross. Schottenheimer gets teams to the playoffs, but once there, they've been only 5-11, with no Super Bowl appearances.

        Rodney Harrison, one of the NFL's hardest-hitting safeties, buys into Schottenheimer's approach.

        “You have to have confidence in order to change attitudes,” Harrison said. “We know what Marty brings. His record speaks for itself. He's a very confident coach, he's a very competitive coach. But once again, coaches coach, players play. It's still up to us to go out and make things happen.”

        Harrison and linebacker Junior Seau, two of San Diego's four Pro Bowl defenders last year, lead a unit that got quicker with the addition of free agent linebacker Donnie Edwards, who's from the San Diego area and was a salary cap casualty in Kansas City.

        But run-stopping tackle John Parrella defected to rival Oakland, and cornerback Quentin Jammer, the fifth pick overall in the draft and a projected starter, remains a holdout.

        The offense has a lot of question marks.

        Although Brees was brilliant in his one appearance as a rookie, rallying the Chargers from a 19-point deficit to a 20-19 lead in a game they would eventually lose, he'll probably have growing pains. The line must prove it's not as shaky as in past years. And Curtis Conway is the only wide receiver on the roster with more than 36 catches in a season.

        Tim Dwight, who will start opposite Conway, got a $15 million contract even though this is the first time he's gone into a season as a starter. He missed six games last year with a collapsed lung.

        There's a big concern off the field, too. General manager John Butler was diagnosed with lung cancer on July 4 and is undergoing chemotherapy.

        Tomlinson (sprained ankle) was limited to just four carries in the exhibition season. Then again, he had just five exhibition carries last year after a long holdout and finished with a team rookie record of 1,236 yards.

        Tomlinson also was San Diego's second-leading receiver with 59 catches for 367 yards. With 1,603 total yards, he broke Hall of Famer Lance Alworth's club record.


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