Monday, September 14, 2009
The journey to bring a Super Bowl to San Diego starts tonight and some think this is the year the Chargers win it all. We're joined on Morning Edition by North County Times Sports Columnist Jay Paris who joins us from the Bay Area.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego Chargers meet the Oakland Raiders for their season opener tonight with some very positive spin on the team's potential this year. Last year, of course, a similar kind of optimism was dashed early in the season and the team barely made it into post-season play. But now with running back LaDainian Tomlinson healthy, good hopes for Shawne Merriman and other Chargers stars, some say their 50th anniversary season could be a very good year, indeed, for the Chargers. Joining us from Oakland to talk about the Chargers' season is North County Times sports columnist Jay Paris. Good morning, Jay.
JAY PARIS (Sports Columnist, North County Times): Good morning. How we doing?
CAVANAUGH: Just fine.
PARIS: All right.
CAVANAUGH: So what are your lede storylines heading into this season for the Chargers?
PARIS: Well, I think it's, right off the bat, one of the most anticipated seasons really in franchise history. You have the 50th anniversary season, you have a team that's really built and primed to try to reach the Super Bowl, and even off the field what it might mean if it's a winning team – a Super Bowl team does come out of San Diego, what that might mean to a new stadium.
PARIS: Maybe that gives that some more traction as well. So there's – there are quite a few story lines and, you know, we got it all figured out until that football goes in the air tonight and then everything changes.
CAVANAUGH: You know, far be it from me to be a pessimist during this kind of, you know, optimistic start but, you know, didn't we hear something similar to this, Jay, last year?
PARIS: Absolutely. This – I think this is about the third or fourth straight year they were supposed to win the Super Bowl, which speaks to how unpredictable sports is. But last year they started out 0-2, at one point were 4-8 and in real danger of not even reaching the playoffs but they got hot down the stretch and the Denver Broncos collapsed and the result was that they did reach the playoffs. But I think, in looking at this year, there's a term 'the window of opportunity,' and with the players' shelf life and their contract situations, I mean, the core players usually only have a short window of opportunity to get it done. And you look around this team and Philip Rivers just extended his contract so he's going to be here for a long time. But Shawne Merriman, three-time Pro Bowler coming back from knee surgery, he's in the last year of his contract. We got LaDainian Tomlinson who – that was a point of contention whether he would even return this year, a Hall of Fame running back and one of the absolute all-time greats of the game but, you know, how many years does he have left? And there's other key players that are sprinkled around this team that are either getting toward the end of their career or their contract situation might have them going on to greener pastures, if you will. So, you know, this little era here, this little window, that the Chargers have had the last, maybe, three or four years, it's kind of coming to a close and that's not to say they can't be successful moving forward but with this group of key players, this is really the year to do it.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, so, Jay, let's put the hype aside for a second and just look straight on in reality. Are the Chargers a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season?
PARIS: Oh, absolutely. They have one of the most prolific offenses in the National Football League with Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson. I mean, that's pretty solid on that side of the ball. Where the question is – questions are—and every team has blemishes, there's not a team out there that's perfect—is can the defense hold up their end of the bargain? The offense is going to score points but the defense struggled last year especially against the pass and that leads back to Shawne Merriman, who gets after the quarterback. And without a consistent pass rusher getting after the quarterback, it hurts the guys on the back side of that defense. They have to cover the receivers longer and that's just difficult to do. So a lot hinges on Shawne Merriman and not only how he does but how everybody else feeds off him and how the – his performance leaks out to everybody else and makes them better. And is he the same Shawne Merriman? I mean, this guy's been out of – out of the game for all but one game last year, a serious knee surgery. The rehab's gone well and everything but until you're in the game and until you're playing at that speed, you just don't know how far back he is. So, you know, you hate to pin everything on one guy, and that's certainly not the case, but Shawne Merriman and how well he does is not only so big to him but how that affects the rest of the defense as well.
CAVANAUGH: Well, regarding Shawne Merriman and the rest of the Chargers team, is the one thing that they need to do this season is stay healthy? Is that the key to this?
PARIS: Yeah, that's always the key, staying healthy and getting lucky. But if you could just circle one big red flag flapping in the wind there, it's how they defend the pass. And last year they were next to last in stopping the pass, and what would happen is, their offense would score a boatload of points and then the defense would be asked to hold them and their run defense would be okay but once that other team started backpedaling and flinging the ball around, that's where the Chargers' deficiencies really showed. So, you know, if they can shore that up and if they can stay healthy – and you mentioned health and LaDainian Tomlinson now at 30 years old, which, to me, sounds pretty young but in the life of the NFL and pro football he's taken a considerable pounding going into his 9th season in the NFL and you just wear down. I mean, it's just not humanly possible to take the pounding they do year after year later in life. So there's a huge bell curve that once running backs reach 30 that their production drops. But that said, LaDainian is fit. He looked spry as ever in training camp, and that's really a big plus. But one more point is this is really Philip Rivers' team now and he's become the face of this franchise. And while the Chargers once ran the ball almost exclusively, they pass the ball a lot and they pass the ball behind Philip Rivers and last year he had one of those – the best seasons that a quarterback could have, 34 touchdown passes so, you know, they need LaDainian to stay fit but this is a passing team now and, really, this is Philip Rivers' team now.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with North County Times sports columnist Jay Paris. He's talking to us from up in Oakland. The San Diego Chargers meet the Oakland Raiders for their season opener tonight. And tell us, Jay, what's in store for the Chargers tonight when they go to the black hole to face the Raiders?
PARIS: The black hole, boy, look at you showing your NFL talk. Here we go. They're going to face an Oakland Raider team that's one of the most proudest (sic) franchises in the NFL and is in – and is mired in one of its worst stretches in franchise history. The Chargers have beaten the Raiders eleven straight times, which is hard to believe and certainly the most they've – one team has won in this series. They're struggling. They're trying to get back as the Raiders picked up Richard Seymour from the New England Patriots the last couple days, big defensive lineman. He's going to be a thorn in the Chargers' side and – and they're trying to come back. And, you know, sports being what it is, you really can't tell what's going to happen until it does happen. But the Chargers are definitely heavily favored but, you know, this Charger-Raider rivalry goes back to 1960 and strange things always happen when these two teams play, it seems.
CAVANAUGH: You know, just to go back to – for a minute, you know, this window of opportunity thing that you were talking about…
CAVANAUGH: Is this sort of like – is this going to start playing mind games with the Chargers? Or is this something that they're going to be able to use as a motivator?
PARIS: Well, you talk to the coaches and they'll say motivator and talk to other people and they say, you know, it can within them. But, you know, let's face it, they've had some dynamite teams in the last two or three years and, rightfully so, they could've won the Super Bowl, maybe even one or two of them. But they know they didn't and they know that slipped away. What they're hoping is that the slow starts of the past two years will be remembered and not pushed to the side and maybe form an impetus to have a strong start. But you all – one thing the Chargers do, I need to say, is they play in a very weak division, the AFC West Division with Oakland and Denver and Kansas City, three teams that are really rebuilding. So what the Chargers need to do is win their division, which they should do fairly easily, and then get in the playoffs and see what happens. But they know that road's getting short and the hope is upstairs in the Chargers brass and the coaches and the executives is that that'll be the last motivation they need to get over that final hump.
CAVANAUGH: And, finally, Jay, have you heard anything new about the Chargers search for a new stadium?
PARIS: Just Escondido has come up the past couple of days. The North County Times was reporting that real heavily last week, up by the 78 and the 15. There's still some talk in Oceanside where the old Oceanside drive-in – drive-in movie theaters were, if anybody remembers those…
PARIS: …in the San Luis Rey riverbed there. So seems like North County's kind of taking a little bit of the charge but they're still trying to figure out how to structure it, still figure out who's going to pay for it and all that. But, you know, you win on the field and look – just look at the San Diego Padres, they got that stadium done coming off a World Series season. And it's – You can't buy that – can't buy the publicity or the goodwill that wining – a winning franchise will give. So that's why, again, we go back to this might be one of the most critical seasons in the franchise history.
CAVANAUGH: And before I let you go, Jay, I just wanted you to comment on the SDSU Aztec win. New Aztec coach Brady Hoke picked up his first win.
PARIS: He sure did, over Southern Utah Saturday night. And there's a program there who's been on tough times, been on the skids for a while. Brady Hoke coming in from Ball State, kind of midwest approach, old school guy, an old linebacker, and he's got them playing pretty good. Now Southern Utah, that's not a real power or anything but, you know, around the campus there at San Diego State, they deserve a win and it may be something they can build on moving forward.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hope the Chargers pick up some of that Aztec fever.
CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much, Jay.
PARIS: All right.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with North County Times sports columnist Jay Paris. And you're listening to These Days on KPBS. You know, I want to remind you that you can comment on anything you hear on These Days by just going to KPBS.org/TheseDays. Stay with us. We'll be returning in just a few minutes.