|For the first time in years, Philip Rivers and the Chargers won't be preseason favorites. (Getty Images)|
There's a renewed sense of urgency with this year's San Diego Chargers, and there should be. Because if they do what they've done the past two seasons -- namely, miss the playoffs -- head coach Norv Turner won't be back, his coaching staff will scatter and the roster will be in for an overhaul.
None of that, of course, is lost on the Bolts. But now they must do something about it, and that something starts with this week's minicamp.
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"I'm not sure we could turn it up anymore," quarterback Philip Rivers said after Tuesday morning's practice. "But anytime you miss the playoffs two straight years -- and with the way we missed them and with the changes we made -- yeah, definitely, we're as cranked up and as eager and as hungry as we've been and could be.
"It's exciting, and I think our mind's in the right place. Of course, I say that every year, but I think we're off to the right start for us to have a great season."
Good. Because it may take a great start and a great season to win the AFC West. For the second time in the past four years, last season's division winner had a .500 record. But that won't happen again, not with Peyton Manning joining the defending champion Denver Broncos, Carson Palmer putting in a complete offseason in Oakland and Kansas City healthy again.
The Chargers will be in the middle of it all, but for the first time in years they won't be the preseason favorite. Denver will, and it's up to people like Rivers -- most especially Rivers -- to make certain that doesn't happen.
He plays the most important position. He's the team's most talented playmaker. And he's the guy who can carry the club, much as he did in 2010 when an epidemic of injuries forced him to find 17 targets while throwing for an NFL-best 4,710 yards.
Essentially, he's the key to the Chargers' success and to the future of his head coach, and if you don't believe me you weren't around at the end of last season. That's when San Diego finished with its accustomed rush, winning four of its last five games, and that's when Rivers approached team president Dean Spanos after the season to plead for Turner's return.
He got his wish, but the clock is ticking ... and Rivers knows it.
"It was pretty unanimous the way the guys felt about Norv," said Rivers, "and that was all I tried to express to Dean. From a locker room perspective, I [told him], 'I think you ought to know the guys believe in Coach, love playing for him and know he's the right guy.' That was really all. I know his passion and his energy and what he does day in and day out, and I can't imagine any coach doing more for his team.
"That said, we've got to go out and play better, and that's our mindset. Every guy in this building has said. 'What can I do to get better and help us win the division?' Because that's where it starts. We have to win the West. The last two years we've been 3-3 in the division, and that's what's kept us out. When you go 3-3 you're not getting in. So we have to win division games. We know that's where it starts, and that's where our focus is."
There's a similar focus in Philadelphia where coach Andy Reid is under the same win-now-or-else orders as Turner. Only there, quarterback Michael Vick last month said he was determined not to allow the Eagles to fire Reid ("not on my watch"), essentially promising Eagles' fans that they would not have to endure a second straight lackluster season.
"Is there a similar feeling with you and your teammates?" I asked Rivers.
"That would go on the list somewhere," he answered. "But I just think we have a ton of proud, competitive, hate-to-lose guys in this locker room. Sure, that can be one of the things on the list if you have to look for motivation. But it's more than that. I think we're tired of going home Dec. 31.
"It's two years in a row where we've been done the last day of the season, and, of course, we'd love to win every game. But I just want to win enough to get in ... to win the West, whatever that is. Everybody talks about 9-7 and 8-8, but win just one more and we're in the postseason.
"Ask the New York Giants if they care that they were 9-7 last year. So it's not so much about [winning for Turner]. That's part of it, but that's been pushed aside. We're not going to concern ourselves about that. We just want to go win."
To do that, Rivers must improve his play. A year ago he threw a career-high 20 interceptions and cost the club with atypical mistakes, including a last-minute fumbled snap in Kansas City. Critics insisted he was hiding an injury, but he reiterated Tuesday that he was not.
If there was a problem, people in and around the organization told me, it wasn't with Rivers' body as much as it was his head. Basically, they said, they thought he tried to carry the team and wound up overextending himself -- something Rivers did not deny when I spoke to him. "It's one of those things where you're just trying hard," he said. "Everything I do is with the intention of what's best for our team and trying to help us win. Because I want to win so bad and because I care so much I can be my own worst enemy and try too hard. It's when I get into a groove, play within myself and take things as they come, that I'm usually at my best. I don't think that was the reason I threw interceptions more than I had, but, certainly, it was part of it.
"The key is: You have to learn from those times. I'm my own worst critic, and sometimes you're never as good as you think and never as bad as you think. Last year there were plays that were as bad as I've had in my career, but there were games where we were so good for so much of that game ... and then a play here or there that kept us out.
"When I look back at last year I don't look at a season of bad play. I just think if I could personally just change five plays we're in the postseason. Or, if I could change just two, maybe we're in the postseason. But where I want to be critical I can't overbear now because that's not going to be efficient, either. I can't say, 'Uh-oh, I can't have another season like that.' I can't think that way. You just have to go out and know you can eliminate some of those plays."
More than that, he has to go out and make a case for his head coach, Turner's staff and Rivers' teammates -- because this season determines what happens to all of them. Call it a sense of urgency or call it a wake-up alarm, but Rivers knows what it's all about -- and he knows because he was overcome by the same feeling listening to former teammate LaDainian Tomlinson announce his retirement Monday as he was when guard Kris Dielman called it quits three-and-half months earlier.
"The first thing that came to mind," said Rivers, "was that this doesn't last forever. So, yeah, the urgency's there."