If the Chargers are to advance to their second Super Bowl in franchise history, do they have to do it quickly? Is the clock running on what must be considered a young team, but one that has its biggest star showing seven seasons of wear and tear?
"I go one year at a time, one game at a time," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "I don't worry about my career being cut short or how many years I'm going to play."
But at 29, Tomlinson knows the sands of time are running out for a player at his position -- he has said he will play no more than through the 2011 season. He realizes there is some truth to the train of the thought that the time is now for the Chargers.
Although they have a few tweaks to the roster, it's mostly the same bunch which played the Patriots close in the conference title game despite being banged-up.
"With the era of free agency we live in, you can't pretty much stay young and stay with the same guys forever," Tomlinson said. "So I think that's why people always put a window of opportunity on teams, especially when they get so close.
"But we don't know what our window of opportunity is right now. I know we've still got a great group of guys that play at a high level. We've been fortunate enough to keep our core players. So we've just got to keep pushing at it."
Few -- any? -- push harder than Tomlinson. Not only is he blessed with unique skills but his work ethic is of the off-the-charts variety. So he trained just as hard this past offseason, but did so with an extra dose of motivation.
Tomlinson was roasted in some circles for not playing on a sprained knee in the AFC title game. He heard the talk that he took the easy way out and didn't push the injury which normally would need some three weeks to recover.
So if you notice that Tomlinson, the former MVP and two-time defending NFL rushing leader, has extra motivation, you might be correct.
"I think most definitely, there is," Tomlinson said. "But that's all a part of it. As athletes and competitors, that's something that we look forward to and we look for things like that. I know I do.
"That's something that has always pushed me throughout my whole entire career, not just the NFL but dating back to college and high school. So it's no different."
What's different from not all that long ago is the Chargers being Super Bowl contenders. With that tag comes with it expectations that are of the Super variety.
"The only expectation we have is to play as good as we can," Tomlinson said. "We know that if we do that, then we'll be in good shape. That's the only expectation we put on ourselves, not to try to do what we did last year, not to try to win a championship.
"Obviously, that's our goal. But you can't put expectations on yourself because each year it gets harder."
And each year for this potentially special group is one less they have to reach their goal: winning San Diego's first Super Bowl.
"We can't get ahead of ourselves," Tomlinson said. "We've got to make sure we take care of right now."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 2 - FanFest at Qualcomm Stadium; Aug. 6 - First night practice; Aug. 8 - Practice at NAS Miramar; Aug. 23 - Team breaks training camp
-- Many were surprised to see quarterback Billy Volek back with the team after he gained free agency after last season. But instead of going somewhere else with the possibility of starting, he returned as Philip Rivers' backup. "I've seen quarterbacks before chase the money," Volek said. "I didn't want to be like that." He didn't do too bad staying put, thanks to a three-year $9 million deal.
-- Quarterback Philip Rivers said he knows what to expect -- and how difficult it is -- to advance in the playoffs after last season's run. But, that exposure to being deep in the playoffs can pay off. "I think the expectations are more of a reality now, more of what's really expected," Rivers said. "We have an understanding of what it really takes. We didn't know what it was like to play in an AFC Championship Game. We didn't know what it was like to go on the road and knock off the defending champs. But now we know. So when all these things come arising again -- which we hope we get the opportunity again -- then we've actually been through it."
-- The Chargers placed four players on the Physically Unable to Perform list: tight end Antonio Gates (toe) and center Nick Hardwick (foot) are recovering from offseason surgeries. Fullback Andrew Pinnock and inside linebacker Anthony Waters, are also on it, rebounding from knee surgeries.
"Obviously, it gives them a chance to get healthy," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "It's really not a major deal. When they're ready to go, we'll take them off it and they'll start practicing."
Hardwick is the likeliest player to still be on the PUP list when the season begins. He said his foot is progressing well, but he has lost strength in his leg.
"I can't give any predictions as to when I'll be ready to actually play football," Hardwick said. "I'm pushing hard and going as I can tolerate it."
Gates said he expects to pass a physical by Aug. 30, which is required to leave the PUP list.
-- Cornerback Antoine Cason, the team's top pick who missed three rookie practices before signing his contract, got the usual ribbing when he got to camp." All the guys in there were giving me a hard time about it," Cason said. "Quentin Jammer gave me the hardest time. But it's all fun. That's just part of it." Cason will soon learn the Chargers tradition of the top pick picking up a dinner and drinks tab for all the veterans near the end of camp.
-- It doesn't show up on the team's injury report, but team president Dean Spanos had his left arm in a sling Friday after recently undergoing minor wrist surgery.
--Rookie running back Marcus Thomas is a fifth-round pick and lands on a team which has LaDainian Tomlinson. Tough luck? Maybe, but Norv Turner said keep an eye on someone trying to replace Michael Turner.
"If you put him down as a guy to watch, that would be good," he said. "He's got some real good running skills."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You learn that we've got to finish it. You get that far, you've got to finish. It don't mean a can of beans if you don't finish it." - Left guard Kris Dielman on the bitter taste left after the Chargers fell in last season's AFC Championship Game to the Patriots.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
After being rebuffed in their attempts to trade Eric Parker, the wide receiver was cut on the eve of training camp.
For two years, Parker was the Chargers' biggest outside threat. But he injured his toe before last season and was plopped on IR and missed the season.
Since Parker has last played the team traded for Chris Chambers and drafted Craig Davis in the first round. Along with the development of Vincent Jackson, Parker became expendable.
-- DT Jamal Williams, entering his 11th season, will be used with caution this camp. He is coming off two knee surgeries and the team needs him starting in September, not now.
-- QB Philip Rivers said at times he forgets which knee -- his left -- was the one rebuilt over the offseason. But he admits as camp wears on he is going to have to stay on top of it, as his legs get tired.
-- WR Kassim Osgood squawked about wanting to be traded unless he became a bigger part of the passing game. But Osgood, a two-time Pro Bowl special-teamer selection, remains in San Diego well down the depth chart.
-- What a difference a year makes for Darren Sproles. This time last year many thought the shifty running back and returning wouldn't make the team. Now he is bringing back kicks and part of various offensive packages -- especially on third down -- and giving LaDainian Tomlinson an occasional breather.
-- QB Charlie Whitehurst, the team's No. 3 quarterback, remains a favorite of the coaching staff and front office despite Billy Volek, Rivers' backup, being signed to a three-year deal in the offseason.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Antoine Cason vs. Paul Oliver for the nickel back role on passing downs. Cason has hit the ground running in his quest to snag a significant spot in passing situations. Oliver is in his second year and could put up a fight - the brass secretly hopes Cason is the guy. Oliver is also getting some work at free safety.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS:
Darren Sproles vs. Jacob Hester vs. Marcus Thomas for the No. 2 running back role.
We know this -- LaDainian Tomlinson isn't competing against anyone. But behind him is quite a tussle as these three try to replace one guy -- Michael Turner, who left as a free agent for Atlanta. There's a chance Sproles and Hester will share this job, depending to some degree on the down and the distance. Thomas has to prove he's a viable candidate. So far, Sproles and Hester are in the lead.
Jeromey Clary vs. L.J. Shelton for right tackle.
Clary started the second half last year when Shane Olivea's game dropped off. And by most accounts, Clary held his ground. But the team signed the veteran Shelton just in case, and has positioned him at right tackle to see if he can beat out Clary, or at the very least, push him to greater heights. Shelton started 16 games last year in Miami.
ROOKIE REPORT: CB Antoine Cason is making up for any lost time by practicing well. ... RB/FB Jacob Hester has been impressive, but the team is really curious to see him now that practices will start including pads. ... RB Marcus Thomas is probably not ready to back up LaDainian Tomlinson, but that could eventually be his role. ... CB DeJuan Tribble is basically playing to get on film for other teams. ... T Corey Clark's best bet is to land on the practice squad.
-- TE Antonio Gates (toe) is running with the trainer in drills, but still appears to be weeks away from practicing.
-- C Nick Hardwick (foot) could miss the season's first month.
-- RB Andrew Pinnock (knee) could be back for exhibition season.
-- LB Anthony Waters is out 2-3 weeks after undergoing knee surgery.