San Diego – Opening Day
The morning fog slid over the waterfront like the greasy sauce on the enchiladas. The marine layer began to burn off just as the lattes were sliding into the cheaper seats in Qualcomm Stadium and another year of football was about to begin for the Chargers. It’s hard to sneak a 400 lb. Bear into the stadium, but I’m doing my job. I’m here to spy for the MHR.
The papers are but lightly filled with info on this team. The best article of the day was a short reflective on Charger history by Jerry Magee, and it might have been his last column for the Union-Tribune (downsizing – very sad). In it, he made the point that your record after having the most time to game-plan for any contest of the year matters - the best of coaches are ready to go for opening day (Shanahan is 11-4 on opening day going into tomorrow’s contest; Holmgren is next at 10-6). Norv Turner may not have read this, and certainly he didn’t internalize it – he’s now 4-7. The Chargers came out soft, unfocused, and ready to lose. They went on to carry out their game-plan.
They certainly had their reasons. Their starting center (Nick Hardwick) was out, they were missing their starting LT, Marcus McNeill, who was replaced by LJ Shelton. Antonio Gates just returned from surgery to repair a dislocated big toe injury, which only affects you if you walk, run or cut. LT had an offseason knee surgery, as did Rivers, and Merriman should have been out for the game but wasn’t.
They ran headlong into a team that had a lot to prove. Jake Delhomme needed to prove to himself and the team that his surgically repaired elbow was ready to go and he threaded a lot of needles today to show it. Julius Peppers suffered a big drop-off in production last year and wanted to announce his intentions. Jon Beason is now the man in the middle and is proving that he can be the leader and the power that the Panthers were lacking. Steve Smith was serving a suspension for conduct detrimental to the team and Dante Rosario, their 6’4 250 lb. tight end wanted to show the league that Gates wasn’t the only TE on the field with Pro Bowl skills.
In the first half the Chargers only completed one pass to a WR, although that was a 44 yard pass from Rivers to Chambers for a TD. The Panthers were held to three FG, but it seemed it was more a function of their not completing a play here or there – they were often dominating the Chargers physically. Merriman was in and out of the lineup, and you have to wonder if that threw off some of the defensive rhythm. Even A. Cromartie was uncharacteristically sloppy, misreading the play on the 37 yard completion to D. Hackett and later in the game committing a defensive holding call that negated a 6 yard sack of Delhomme by Shaun Phillips. It was a shaky half, not unusual in a preseason game, but a bad start for the regular season.
The Chargers began to pick up their run game in the third quarter, but the Panthers continued to dominate at the line. Harris of Carolina ripped the ball away from Gates that Gamble returned for a TD. Still, when the 4th quarter came around it was San Diego that began to assert themselves.
After the quarter began with a drive stopped for a FG by the Panthers, SD went on to score 14 points and looked to be strong with less than 3 minutes left. But Jake Delhomme went on to go 8-11 for a TD that sealed SD’s fate.
Conclusions after watching the contest – This is still a fine team that struggled to find itself once again on opening day. Gates was rusty, the line inconsistent and Rivers was limping by his last drive.
The sloppy play of the defense was the biggest surprise. If they give Cutler and Co., especially with Marshall returning, the time and space they gave Delhomme SD could be in for a tough time. They will still score – even with a patchwork line they are very, very dangerous. If they can keep the Broncos offense off the field too long they will be tough to beat.
Like last year’s opener, they started this game slow and seemed poorly prepared. Shanahan does have the league’s best opening day record and his September wins are a thing of legend, which is in Denver’s favor. But as they showed, SD doesn’t rattle. They are still supremely confident, very deep, and they don’t let a bad quarter or a bad half make them lose focus. We will have to maintain our composure, balance our attacks and get to Rivers consistently to win this game. If we leave our D on the field too much and let them wear out, we could lose the game near the end. SD will be in Denver next Sunday at 4:15 MDT.
I’ll be haunting the docks by the bay, looking for our ship to come in.