Is this the year the Chargers finally crash through that door to reach their second Super Bowl in franchise history?
"I think we're very close," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. "Obviously over the past two years we've been hampered a little bit by injuries. That's been the unlucky part of it. I've got to figure that it's our time. I've got to figure that this is not going to continue to happen to us where we get so close and get injured and really hurt ourselves in that way where we can't be at full strength."
Tomlinson knows about the health issues all too well.
It was a torn groin muscle that prevented him from playing at Heinz Field when the team stumbled against the Steelers.
The previous season, Tomlinson was done for the game after the first quarter when aggravating a knee injury against the Patriots. Others ailing that frigid New England day were quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates.
"When we're at full strength, we're a tough team to deal with," Tomlinson said. "I think everyone has seen that in the past. I'm looking forward to being at full strength with this team."
The Chargers are hopeful it's not trend with Tomlinson being beat up and unable to go when he is needed most. He soon turns 30 years of age and its possible Tomlinson's bumps and bruises will take longer to heal.
Tomlinson said he is eager to show he can stay fit for 16 games, plus a postseason.
"Absolutely," he said. "I feel like I do have to prove I can stay healthy. I've always felt like I needed to prove something."
Tomlinson said his status reminds him of when he was drafted fifth overall and some wondered if he would last - he's entering his ninth year.
"When I first came into the league, I wanted to prove that I could play in this league and that I could be dominant," he said. "I know I can do that.
"Going on 30, I want to prove that I can stay healthy a full season and still be that dominant player. Honestly, I haven't had any serious injuries with surgeries. I don't see why I can't continue to be a dominant player."
Which would mean the Chargers would continue to be a dominate team.
--The Chargers have been busy in welcoming in potential players as the draft draws nears. Among those expected to break bread with the Chargers are: S William Moore (Missouri), LB Rey Maualuga (USC), DT Ziggy Hood (Missouri), DT Tyson Jackson (LSU) and DT Jarron Gilbert (San Jose State).
--The Chargers are hopeful S Clinton Hart can bounce back after a so-so season. Hart's season was derailed after he broke his hand in the second game. And he heard his detractors before eventually losing his starting job. "Nobody is more critical of my play than I am," he said. "I had a lot of swagger and confidence in 2007. I wasn't out there hurt. I believed I could tackle with the best of them, cover the best tight ends and do my job. For some reason, 2008 wasn't that way. It was a tough year and I know I have to be better than that."
--The San Diego City Attorney is contemplating drunken driving charges against DT Jamal Williams, who was arrested in February.
--The Chargers' preseason opponents, with the actual dates to follow: Seattle, at Arizona, at Atlanta and San Francisco. The game at Atlanta will be nationally televised by CBS on Aug. 29.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "My mind is fresh. I think my body is as young as anybody's here. My work ethic is just as good as anybody's here." -- SS Clinton Hart, on why he thinks he can rebound after a disappointing 2008 season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
No free agents are expected to meet with the Chargers until after the draft.
The team continues, it seems, to waffle between going for a running back with its first-round pick to start grooming as LaDainian Tomlinson's eventual replacement or filling another hole.
There are also needs on the defensive side, after losing starting end Igor Olshansky to free agency and questions about the durability of veteran defensive tackle Jamal Williams.
TEAM NEEDS/OFFSEASON STRATEGY
While the Chargers are seldom players early in free agency with any significant signings, keep an eye on them once the draft is history.
General manager A. J. Smith is keen at filling needs not addressed through the draft by picking up veteran players let go or have yet to sign as training camp draws near.
Last year he picked up backup linebacker Derek Smith and center Jeremy Newberry - both players were starters in the early part of the season because of injuries.
So just because the Chargers have yet to make a splash in the free-agent pool, that doesn't mean they won't dip their toe in the water again at some point after the draft.
1. Strong safety: The Chargers' pass defense was horrible last year. It wasn't all Clinton Hart's fault but it's obvious the team seeks a hard-hitter on the back end to strike some fear into receivers. That pass defense should improve with the return of a healthy Shawne Merriman, but an upgrade at strong safety would help as well.
2. Right guard: The departure of Mike Goff as a free agent and the lack of depth behind him is a concern. If the Chargers can fill the right guard spot, there might not as much urgency to try and replace right tackle Jeromey Clary as well. The Chargers must shore the right side of the line, but the biggest void is at tackle.
3. Defensive end: With Igor Olshansky being allowed to flee in free agency, the Chargers aren't certain they have a bona fide started on the roster. The team could fill this need through the draft.
MEDICAL WATCH: OLB Shawne Merriman (knee) is expected to be a full go in the offseason workouts.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: RB Darren Sproles: Tendered at $6.621M.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--OLB Marques Harris was used on passing downs and has shown some promise, but he won't be re-signed.
--C Jeremy Newberry was a valuable backup when Nick Hardwick was injured early last season, but the Chargers won't re-sign him.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--WR Malcom Floyd (tendered at $1.545M with second-round pick as compensation) has a good connection with QB Philip Rivers and can be a solid red-zone target. Injuries slowed him some down the stretch last year.
--CB Cletis Gordon (tendered at $1.545M with second-round pick as compensation) surprised some by getting that tender as some of his shortcomings were exposed when playing extended stretches last year. But he is a solid special teams player and has potential as a returner.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--OT Jeromey Clary: ERFA; $460,000/1 yr.
--OG Kynan Forney: Potential UFA; $4.8M/2 yrs, SB unknown.
--LB Kevin Burnett: UFA Cowboys; $5.5M/2 yrs, $2M SB.
--RB Eldra Buckley (released).
--OG Mike Goff: UFA Chargers; $3.5M/2 yrs, guarantees unknown.
--DE Igor Olshansky: UFA Cowboys; $18M/4 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--LB Anthony Waters (released).