SAN DIEGO — Expectations are high again in San Diego, thanks to the Chargers’ return to the playoffs last season.
Led by a resurgent Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews, the Chargers won their final four games under new coach Mike McCoy — and got some big help from slumping Miami and Baltimore — to end a three-season playoff drought.
They beat the Bengals on the road in the wild-card round before losing at Denver.
Ah, Denver. Even though the Chargers won at Denver in mid-December by disrupting Peyton Manning, they couldn’t win twice in the Mile High City. The last of many defensive breakdowns during the season was letting Manning complete a 20-yard pass to Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from the Broncos 20-yard line, the first of three third-down conversions on Denver’s final possession.
So it wasn’t a surprise the Chargers took defensive players with their first two draft picks, and three in their first four, trying to prop up one of the most porous pass defenses in the NFL.
Their top pick, Rodriguez High graduate Jason Verrett, isn’t expected to practice until August due to shoulder surgery. When he’s ready, he’ll have to show he can play in the NFL despite his size: 5-foot-10 and 189 pounds.
Here are some things to watch for as the Chargers open training camp:
DIVINE INTERVENTION: Rivers is a devout Catholic, so maybe he should send a thank-you card to the Vatican for the Chargers’ good fortunes in December. The Chargers needed a lot to go right, and it did, from winning their final four games to having Miami and Baltimore both lose their final two games.
The Chargers’ entry into the tournament wasn’t assured, however, until they turned aside Kansas City’s junior varsity in overtime on the final Sunday. Having already clinched a wild-card berth, the Chiefs rested 20 of 22 starters. It still wasn’t easy for the Bolts, who allowed 332 yards and watched Ryan Succop push a 41-yard field goal attempt wide right with 4 seconds left in regulation. The league later said the officials missed a penalty against San Diego that would have given Succop another shot from 5 yards closer.
CLUB MED?: McCoy raised some eyebrows when he canceled the team’s final practice of a mandatory three-day minicamp in mid-June. Teams have a limited number of practice days under the collective bargaining agreement.
McCoy said he wasn’t concerned.
“No. I thought about it and I think the way they practiced and worked from the very first day of the offseason program, and the last couple of days, I was happy where we are at right now,” he said.
Nine days earlier, McCoy aired out his team for several minutes after practice during organized team activities. At one point, he invoked the playoff loss at Denver.
Even if he’s going soft on the players, McCoy said during draft weekend that he and general manager Tom Telesco work 365 days a year to make the Chargers better.
RUN, RYAN, RUN: This could be a pivotal year for running back Mathews, who enters the final season of a five-year contract he signed after the Chargers drafted him in the first round to replace LaDainian Tomlinson.
Mathews made it through a full regular season for the first time. His strong December helped the Chargers reach the playoffs, and he gamely played on despite spraining an ankle against Oakland on Dec. 22. The injury finally forced him out of the playoff loss at Denver, illustrating the Chargers’ lack of a thumper to back him up.
He ran for a career-best 1,255 yards.
BLOOMING?: Brandon Flowers joins the Chargers after being released by the division rival Chiefs. He gradually lost playing time and his bloated contract made him a salary-cap casualty.
Flowers joins the mix at cornerback, where the Chargers also signed Brandon McGhee from the Bengals and took Verrett with their first-round draft pick.
DWIGHT FREENEY: Now 34 and entering his 13th NFL season, the outside linebacker is trying to bounce back from a quadriceps injury that sidelined him after just four games last season, his first in San Diego.
Freeney wants to prove “that I can still go out there and be very effective and still play with the top guys out there in the league. That’s just my mentality. Until someone proves otherwise, I’m going to believe that.”