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Another slow start for Chargers? After lockout, maybe not

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Philip Rivers is one of the keys to what the Chargers hope will be a fast start this season. (Getty Images)  
Philip Rivers is one of the keys to what the Chargers hope will be a fast start this season. (Getty Images)  

DALLAS -- Every year the San Diego Chargers promise to junk their habit of slow starts, and every year they fail. Don't ask me why. Heck, don't ask them why. They stopped trying to figure out why they keep getting stuck at 2-3 -- which is where they've been the past four seasons.

Only this year could be different. No, this year should be different, and I'll tell you why in one word: lockout.

With no offseason mini camps, OTAs, quarterback sessions or classroom study, NFL clubs that have returning head coaches, veteran quarterbacks and a core that stayed intact are at an advantage -- and put the Chargers at the head of that class. Their coach didn't change. Their quarterback is one of the game's best. And their offense remains pretty much the same, except for the loss of running back Darren Sproles.

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But that's it, and that's why I think the Bolts have a shot at a respectable start for the first time in years. Two of their first five opponents (Minnesota and Denver) are clubs that have either new head coaches or new quarterbacks, and both have new coordinators.

So what? So that means new systems, which take time to absorb, only there is no time this summer. Coaches and their teams are learning on the fly, which puts someone like, say, Carolina, with a new head coach, a new staff and new quarterback at a disadvantage while favoring someone like, say … yep, San Diego.

If the odds aren't on their side, the lockout is, and finally, finally, finally, the Bolts could find themselves with a winning record after five games.

"I think it can [happen]," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "But you still have to go do it. We've caught up with the lost offseason rather quickly because we have a lot of guys back and have the same schemes in a lot of ways, especially offensively.

"When you have the same offensive lineup back -- every guy is here except for Darren -- that's big. We didn't have to start with the basic Day-1 install or the basic Day-2 install. We were two or three days in, and we had our whole deal in. That definitely helps. But you still have to play the game. You have to go do it."

The Chargers haven't the last four years. I thought the streak would end last season when, after a 2-2 start, they faced Oakland -- an opponent they'd beaten 13 straight times. It seemed logical, but then history prevailed. The Chargers lost 35-27.

Now, look at this season's schedule. Three of San Diego's first five opponents had losing records in 2010, and two have new head coaches (yes, I'm counting Leslie Frazier, an interim with Minnesota last season, as a new coach). They also draw New England and Kansas City, but meet the Chiefs at home, where they've beaten them six of the last seven times they met.

So maybe, just maybe, this is the year. It should be.

"We emphasize starting fast so much that I don't know what more we can do," Rivers said. "Last year we started off where we were rolling up and down the field, but the biggest thing that hindered us that we kept turning [the ball] over."

He's right about that. They lost 12 fumbles in their first seven games, including three each in two losses. They lost seven the entire 2009 season. So they made key mistakes, their special teams stunk and they still finished 9-7 -- largely because the Chargers are among the league's best at making stretch runs.

Imagine what happens if they combine a fast finish with a decent start. Now, more than ever, they should have that chance.

"I think it's an advantage," coach Norv Turner said, "but I think it's going to be an advantage over the long haul. I do believe people are making a bigger deal out of it than it is because there are some teams that have had coaching changes that have a lot of good players, and we're playing one of them in Minnesota [the season opener].

"They have a new offensive coach, a new defensive coach and a head coach who took over in the middle of last year. And we're sitting there trying to figure out what they're going to do. We know the preseason tape isn't going to be an indication of what they're going to do, so there's going to be some uncertainty there.

"So how much different are they going to be? They still have to go execute it, but for a given week I think you'll see some of these teams that have new staffs sneak up on some guys."

I can see where that makes sense. But I can also see where someone like San Diego is ahead because its players don't have to familiarize themselves with a new playbook. They read it last year. And the year before that. Plus, they know what to expect from their head coach.

"I think it's an advantage over the long haul because continuity and good players are what win for you," Turner said. "But I do believe you're going to see someone come in and play some front or give you a look that you haven't seen -- like when Miami went up to New England [in 2009] and ran the Wildcat. So there's going to be something. That stuff can blow up in your face."

I don't know that that will happen to San Diego. Not now. I understand Turner's point, and it's a good one. At the same time, he strikes a chord when he talks about "continuity and good players are what win for you."

I think that makes a difference, and I think it makes a difference early -- not just in San Diego, but everywhere.

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