The Year That Was

Looking back on the San Diego Chargers

The New Year is upon us and there will be a plethora of changes in 2004. With a new year brings new hope to an ailing franchise. Looking back on 2003 will bring a lot of cringes to San Diego Chargers fans. The highs weren't as high as many thought and the lows were in abundance. How did this nightmare season really come together?

January: San Diego Chargers fans had just seen their team go 8-8 and everyone thought the team was on the upswing. The 2003 Draft loomed ahead and the thinking was defensive tackle from the masses. Keep the core together and this could be a promising team on the verge of something special.

February: The same day the team brought back what was thought to be a key part of the offensive line, by tendering Damion McIntosh, the team let go of six players, most notably Rodney Harrison. The heart of the defense was unceremoniously dumped and it brought an uproar from fans. It was just a precursor to the biggest dump in the team's history.

Number one receiver Curtis Conway was also jettisoned and many were left wondering how the team would compete with Reche Caldwell as the number one receiver. Marty Schottenheimer, on that day said he felt Caldwell could be the number one for the team. It left many shaking off nightmares.

Fullback Fred McCrary was also let go after helping LaDainian Tomlinson set a franchise records for yards in a season.

The very next day Lorenzo Neal was brought in to replace McCrary and immediately fans forgot who was blocking for LT the year before.

March: The biggest signing of the year got the smallest amount of attention. David Binn was re-signed by the team and by the end of the year he had proved his worth in gold.

Two days later, David Boston, a mammoth receiver formerly with Arizona, agreed to a seven-year deal. Fans across the globe instantly put the Chargers back in the playoff race as a contender with the big three, Boston, LT and Drew Brees.

The rumors hit the scene that Junior Seau would be released or traded from the team. March 14th was perhaps the saddest day in the history of the franchise. Seau, forever linked to the city of San Diego and epitomizing the vaunted Chargers defense of the 90's, was told to seek a trade or be released. The day the music died.

April: On April 11th, John Butler passed away from complications to cancer. His memory lived on throughout the season in San Diego as the team wore a "JB" patch to honor him. AJ Smith was named his replacement shortly thereafter.

The team re-signed Steve Christie to sighs from the faithful. Dreams of consistently making field goals outside of 40 yards were instantly dashed, as were kickoffs reaching anywhere near the end zone.

Seau was officially traded to the Miami Dolphins for a conditional fifth round pick in 2004. A future Hall of Famer gone for a bag of doughnuts. The move was made because of cap ramifications, but it was not easy for anyone to take.

The Draft followed and the team passed on defensive tackle, traded down from the 15th spot to the 30th, to take four defensive backs in eight picks, including the first three. The team also brought in a league high 26 undrafted free agents, including little known Antonio Gates, known best for his basketball skills.

May: The debates began in earnest when May hit. Who would start where, would Osgood beat out Charles? Who would be the number two receiver? OTA's began at the end of the month to orient rookies to the system.

June: Mini camp and OTA's started in earnest and several surprises stood out. Brian Sump, Antonio Gates, Phil Bogle, Nick Maddox and Stephen Cooper emerged from the ranks of the undrafted. Ryan McNeil was told he would move from cornerback to a safety spot to add experience to the group.

After month long speculation, Solomon Page was signed to a one year deal. It was thought he would help solidify a line that could be formidable in 2003. Four days later, Kwamie Lassiter was signed to add experience to the secondary and provide a physical presence lost when Harrison was let go.

By the end of the month, Terrence Kiel had emerged as a possible starter.

July: Rookie second round draft pick Terrence Kiel was shot in a Houston area mall. Kiel suffered three gunshot wounds and would be out until the end of training camp, dashing his chances of being the opening day starter.

Louie Kelcher was announced as the 31st member of the Chargers Hall Of Fame.

All eight Chargers' draft picks were signed and in camp on time. Camp opened in Carson, CA, the first time the Chargers left the cozy confines of La Jolla. The feeling was to bring the team together on the road and the weekend after it opened saw the vaunted Oklahoma Drill front and center. A few players were bloodied and it was a promising start to the year.

August: On August 12th, Ryan McNeil was told his services were no longer needed. That left no one that started the 2002-year in the Chargers secondary as a starter back with the team. Camp Carson closed on August 21st and the team ended the preseason with a 2-2 mark.

Five players were placed on injured reserve, a trend that would continue, and final roster cuts came at the end of the month. Toniu Fonoti was among those added to IR.

September: The team opened the season with four losses, trailing in each of the first three games by twenty points or more entering the fourth quarter. They then blew a 14 point fourth quarter lead to the Raiders to lose in OT. Vaughn Parker was placed on injured reserve.

Missing one game already in the season, David Boston was suspended for the Raiders game for getting into a verbal argument with strength and conditioning coach Dave Redding. He also missed a team meeting after a game. Fans far and wide immediately began calling for his head.

October: After an 0-5 start, the team finally gets their first win of the season, against Cleveland on October 19th. Tomlinson ripped through Cleveland's defense for 200 rushing yards and one touchdown on the day to pave the way to victory and earn player of the week honors.

The following week California is hit with the biggest wildfire in its history, forcing the Monday night return of Junior Seau to an out of state location. The game was played in Tempe, Arizona, denying San Diego Chargers fans the opportunity to see their favorite player. The Chargers lost the game and one member of the organization lost a home.

Another member of the O-line, Bob Hallen heads to IR.

November: In the first November game against Chicago, Drew Brees is pulled in favor of Doug Flutie. Brees dropped to 1-7 as a starter with the loss to the Bears. Flutie returned the following week to dismantle the Vikings, putting up 42 points to lead the Chargers to victory. The team would lose the next three games, all starts by Flutie.

Tim Dwight. Eric Parker and Ray Lee Johnson all went to IR during the month.

December: The Chargers won their third game of the season to open December. Doug Flutie was benched after the win, compiling a 2-3 record as a starter, and Brees returned to the fold to lose to Green Bay.

General Manager AJ Smith informed Marty Schottenheimer, with the team at 3-12 on the season, that he would return for the 2004 campaign before the final game against the Raiders.

Courtney VanBuren and Stephen Alexander went to IR. Alexander played in three games and had zero catches on the season. In total, twelve Chargers went to injured reserve during the season and Kelvin Garmon was the only opening day starter on the offensive line to end the season healthy.

In the final game of the season, the Chargers beat the Oakland Raiders at home where a crowd dominated by Raider fans went home with not only the loss, but with the number two pick in the draft. Arizona won their final game in improbable fashion giving the Chargers the number one overall pick in the 2004 Draft.

Recap:

At the beginning of the year, even after the loss of Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, many faithful thought the Chargers would compete in the AFC West. The addition of Boston and Neal, two Pro Bowlers, would make the offense unstoppable. Then Drew Brees failed to hit receivers and when he did they dropped the ball. The defense never recovered from their failure to put pressure on the quarterback and it led to a young secondary getting toasted. The offensive line depth disappeared quickly with four on injured reserve and countless others missing games. In the end, no move worked and the Chargers went 4-12.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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