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Rivers takes positive view

The Chargers will sport a new look after parting with stars such as Tomlinson and Cromartie, but their veteran quarterback expects the team's youngsters to step right in

July 23, 2010|Sam Farmer

Sure, he's among the NFL's elite quarterbacks, but San Diego's Philip Rivers in some ways is just another click in the crowd.

He's one of the people who have clicked their way to more than 56,000 viewings of a highlight video of former Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews, the Chargers' first-round draft pick. It's clear that Rivers cannot wait for the season to begin.

Of all the changes in San Diego this season -- and there are many -- the change at running back from LaDainian Tomlinson to Mathews will be the most scrutinized.

"I YouTube all our draft picks to watch them," Rivers said this week. "It gives you a feel for them. . . . I don't like to ever make any predictions for a guy because that's unfair, [but] you can just tell that guy has a presence about him.

"He has a demeanor about him that says, 'Hand it to me.' "

That's a good sign for the Chargers, whose rookies report to training camp Sunday, followed by the veterans next Friday. Mathews, the 12th overall pick, has yet to sign a contract and cannot report until he does.

The Chargers were ranked 31st in rushing last season and got just 730 yards from Tomlinson, by far the fewest of his illustrious nine-season career. Some people saw it as the natural decline of a 30-year-old running back, but others blamed San Diego's offensive line. A clearer picture should emerge this season, as Tomlinson now plays for the New York Jets, who led the NFL in rushing last season.

The Mathews-for-Tomlinson change is just one of several subplots for the new-look Chargers, who also bade farewell to Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie (Jets) and defensive tackle Jamal Williams (Broncos), and probably are facing prolonged holdouts by top receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill. Also of note, Jackson has been suspended for three games by the NFL for violating the league's personal conduct policy (a second conviction on charges of driving under the influence).

Whereas the Jackson and McNeill situations will require the Chargers to make some adjustments on the fly, they clearly were comfortable parting with Williams, who was injured for all but one game last season; Cromartie, who followed a spectacular season in 2007 with two subpar ones; and Tomlinson, whose role had been diminished by the emergence of 5-foot-6, 185-pound Darren Sproles.

So while some might see the Chargers as a team in transition, that's not the way Rivers looks at it.

"There will certainly be some faces who won't be there, and it will be different," he said. "Maybe more looking at it from the outside than the inside. I think we still feel pretty intact, even though we lost some guys who were staples. It's not as drastic as it may look."

What Rivers and his teammates are counting on, among other things, is that receivers Malcolm Floyd, Buster Davis and Legedu Naanee -- along with Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates -- will step into the spotlight and pick up the slack left by Jackson, who caught 68 passes and scored nine touchdowns last season. The Chargers had the AFC's No. 1 passing offense last season, and Rivers had a 104.4 rating, also best in the conference.

Since becoming the starter in 2006, Rivers has led the Chargers to four consecutive AFC West titles and a 20-4 mark in division play. Although the team has struggled with slow starts in each of Norv Turner's three seasons -- going 1-3, 1-2 and 2-3 in successive years -- it has routinely finished the regular season strong, posting an 18-0 record in December with Rivers at the helm.

"A signature point for a quarterback is how he plays late in the fourth quarter," Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith said. "Philip has a resume that he's building that's pretty special. To see that unfold yearly is impressive."

Rather than building to a peak in playoff appearances, however, the Chargers have regressed. They reached the AFC championship game in Turner's first season but were knocked out in the divisional round in his second season and had a one-and-done showing in January.

Rivers said the most recent of those defeats, a 17-14 loss to the Jets in San Diego, was the most painful -- even more excruciating for the Chargers than going 14-2 in 2006 and then getting immediately knocked out of the playoffs at home by New England.

"That year at least we can look at and go -- not that it made us feel any better -- but it was new for all of us," he said. "This time, we had a lot of guys who had been in a lot of playoff games and we had grown a lot. And then to fall short with, on paper, maybe our best chance yet. . . . It was tough."

In one way, Rivers is surrounded by Lombardi trophies. He was selected fourth in the 2004 draft (then traded by the Giants to San Diego), and the quarterbacks taken before him (No. 1, Eli Manning) and after him (No. 11, Ben Roethlisberger) have won a combined three Super Bowls. Drew Brees, the quarterback Rivers replaced in San Diego, led New Orleans to its first championship in February.

Norm Chow, the widely respected offensive coordinator who coached Rivers at North Carolina State, predicted a few years ago that his former Wolfpack quarterback would wind up with at least one ring and maybe more.

"I saw that," Rivers said, smiling. "I hope he's right."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesfarmer

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