SAN DIEGO — There will be some new faces and fresh ideas confronting some old problems as an assortment of Charger rookies, free agents and veterans convene today at UC San Diego for the start of training camp.
There are dozens of questions to be answered before the Chargers open the regular season Sept. 7 against the Miami Dolphins.
At the risk of over-simplifying, the biggest question is this:
Will the new defense show enough improvement to get the Chargers into the playoffs for the first time since 1982?
The new defense is just that. A new defensive coordinator, Ron Lynn. A new linebacker coach, Mike Haluchak. Promising new pass rushers, including first-round draft choice Leslie O'Neal and third-round pick Terry Unrein.
There also is a new scheme predicated on rushing the passer and forcing mistakes. The ideas are borrowed from the Los Angeles Raiders and Chicago Bears, but how will they play in San Diego?
Among Charger fans, there is bound to be skepticism because they have been presented, on an annual basis, with the promise of a "new" defense. The sad facts are that the Chargers finished dead last in the NFL in numerous defensive categories in 1985, and the chronology of defensive shortcomings now stretches back five years and embraces five defensive coordinators.
The question of Don Coryell's future is directly tied to the success of the new defense.
This will be the ninth season for Coryell as head coach (a 68-49 record, four playoff appearances, two losing seasons).
His likely successor, Al Saunders, is doubling as assistant head coach and liaison between owner Alex Spanos and the coaching staff.
Even though the first six weeks of the schedule bristles with playoff contenders--Miami, the New York Giants, Washington, Raiders, Seattle and Denver--the Chargers are optimistic.
"We're very excited about the prospects, but we can't overlook all the ifs," Saunders said. "There are high expectations throughout our organization, so it's doubly important for the coaching staff to keep the focus on training camp.
"We all feel good right now, but so do the 27 other teams in pro football. I think of the Kansas City Chiefs and how they looked great the first month of last season. Of course, they wound up in chaos."
Taking some of the chaos out of the San Diego defense is the proposition facing Lynn, who succeeds Dave Adolph as defensive coordinator.
What he proposes to do is an outright reversal of the old, bend-but-don't-break philosophy that failed the Chargers the last four years.
Where the Chargers were conservative and patient before, now they will be aggressive, often employing more rushers on the line of scrimmage and relying on their defensive backs to make an effective transition from zone to man-to-man coverages. How quickly will Lynn's scheme be absorbed? And how long will it take him to blend new talents, like O'Neal and Unrein, into the scheme?
Those are the basic questions, but there are many others: Can the defensive line put enough pressure on quarterbacks to compensate for shortcomings at linebacker?
End Lee Williams--who led the team with 8 1/2 sacks--should benefit from the addition of O'Neal on the opposite side of the line. In the middle, veterans Chuck Ehin and Tony Simmons will be joined by Unrein and maybe by Earl Wilson, who was 20 pounds overweight at mini-camp.
Line coach Gunther Cunningham's goal for the unit is 50 or more sacks.
The outlook at linebacker is not as optimistic, but it will help if Billy Ray Smith successfully moves to the outside and Linden King to the inside.
Other questions at linebacker: How much do veterans Woodrow Lowe and Shane Nelson have left? Can rookies Ty Allert and Tommy Taylor make an impact?
Veteran Carlos Bradley will be used in passing situations, with Mark Fellows and Derrie Nelson targeted mostly for special teams.
In the defensive backfield--long an area of instability and embarrassment--the prospects seem less gloomy than in recent seasons. Still, there are many questions:
Can Wayne Davis and Danny Walters withstand the pressure of single coverage on the corners? Davis must regain his confidence after a rocky rookie year and Walters must develop more consistency.
How well will Jeff Dale, Gill Byrd and John Hendy defend against long passes? Hendy, who can play corner and safety, seems capable of becoming the Chargers' top defensive back.
The new defense is designed in part to give the Charger offense possession more often, which surely would be an unsettling notion for the opposition.
Once they get it, the Chargers will be attacking from all angles.
The potential is vast, but there are questions even for the offense.
The line is the most suspect area.
With the retirement of Ed White--who played more games than any blocker in history--a job opens at guard. Will it taken by a veteran--Gary Kowalski, Jim Leonard, or Chris Faulkner--or even by rookie Jeff Walker?