Empty Bleachers and Camp Goals

Imagine if an NFL team held a training camp and no fans attended? Welcome to Chargers Camp 2009, which will be unlike any other camp held locally.

Players, get ready to work.

Fans, get ready to be disappointed.

With Padres among major league baseball's most dismal teams, it's hard to overstate how much San Diego fans are looking forward to the Chargers set to open another season.

And that usually means treks to Chargers Park -- and before that, the University of California, San Diego -- where thousands of Chargers boosters get close up and personal with their favorite squad.

But a water pipe burst at the team's facility in February -- and as hard as it is to believe -- it has not been fixed some six months later.


Chargers Fans
Donald Miralle/Getty
So right where the bleachers are usually constructed, that area has been deemed unsafe by the Chargers and city officials.

"Training camp is a special time for our fans, and the decision to close camp this year was made very reluctantly," said Jim Steeg, the Chargers' Chief Operating Officer. "We share the city's goal of completing these critical repairs during the dry summer months so in the end, we had no alternative but to take this step."

The area's drainage system failed during heavy rains in February, causing significant flooding of the Chargers' practice fields and training facility. Repairs are ongoing, with the Chargers and the city of San Diego making the repairs.

But the repairs, the club said, won't be done until the fall. And that's long past the training camp exercises are done.

"The unfortunate closing of our training camp means that the entire Chargers' organization will work to find other ways to provide our fans with the chance to see the practices that they enjoy during training camp," Steeg said.

Fans will get at least three opportunities to catch practice when the teams works out at Qualcomm Stadium on Aug. 5, 8 and 12.

The Chargers have held training camp at Chargers Park since 2005, after a two-year experiment of the team working at the Home Depot Center, near Los Angeles.

That was considered a public-relations disaster as just a handful of Chargers fans made the 100-mile trek up to Carson, and the team's workouts barely registered a blip on the Los Angeles sports radar.

Before leaving for the Home Depot Center, the team's long-time camp home at UCSD was considered among the finest in the NFL.

After two years in Carson, the team returned to Chargers Park where the workouts were a hit with the area fans.

But this summer will mark one of the strangest camps in team history with the team unable to entertain their fans. And those fans -- many who can't afford tickets to NFL games -- will be shut out from seeing one is expected to be one of the top teams in Chargers history.

Training Camp Goals


LB Shawne Merriman
Jeff Gross/Getty
Determine if Shawne Merriman will be ready for the season opener: All indicators are Merriman, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker who played but one game last year, is healthy. Merriman, who has 39.5 career sacks, underwent reconstructive knee surgery which cost him most of the 2008 season. Merriman is back working with the team, but has yet to be cleared for practice. While running and doing other physical drills in the offseason workouts, he never did participate in a practice.

Are the Chargers merely being cautious with their game-changing defender? Probably. Will Merriman return to form which made him one of the game's most dynamic players? Likely. But until Merriman actually gets back to putting on the pads and wrestling with blockers, one can't say with certainty about his fitness level.

The key about Merriman's presence is that it is felt throughout the defense -- particularly in the secondary, a unit which was torched with regularity last season when the Chargers had one of the NFL's worst pass defenses. If Merriman is back to his old ways and harassing quarterbacks, that will aid the back end of a defense which is looking for a helping hand.

Settling the right guard position: The Chargers figure to once again have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. But it's hard to open running lanes and fling the ball around with accuracy if there is a hole at right guard. The Chargers let savvy veteran Mike Goff walk as a free agent and now much plug that gap between center Nick Hardwick and right tackle Jeromey Clary.

It appears Kynan Forney will get the first crack at Goff's old spot as he has been working with the first team. But Forney didn't take one snap last year after coming over early in the year off waivers. The Chargers now say that is more telling of them not wanting to upset the continuity that was being formed along the offensive line rather than Forney not being good enough to break into the lineup.

Forney does have some experience, but he needs to prove he is a good fit with the other four blockers. If Forney falters, the Chargers don't have much of a fallback position. Scott Mruczkowski could get a look, but he is considered more of a backup than a starter -- he started but one game last year and is used mostly on the goal-line package. Another player in the mix will be rookie Louis Vasquez, who arrives from the pass-happy offense of Texas Tech. The key will be how quickly Vasquez can show he has the skills to be an effective run-blocker in the NFL, especially with an offense featuring LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.

Find a starting strong safety: Clinton Hart was a first-time opening day starter last year at this spot but his season didn't go as planned: a broken hand early and a neck injury down the stretch compromised his play. He lost his spot to Steve Gregory but the level of play from Hart's mediocre showing didn't improve at a significant level. Rookie Kevin Ellison, a sixth-round pick and a hard-hitter from USC, will be given a chance to show he can contribute quickly. Ellison's biggest quest is stay healthy, which he wasn't able to do at USC with numerous knee injuries. How his body holds up over a demanding NFL season remains to be seen.

CAMP CALENDAR:

July 26: Rookies and select veterans report.
July 27: Rookies and select veterans work out.
July 30: Balance of the squad reports.
July 31: First full squad workout.
Aug. 5: Practice at Qualcomm Stadium.
Aug. 8: Practice at Qualcomm Stadium.
Aug. 12: Practice at Qualcomm Stadium.
Aug. 28: Team breaks camp.

NOTES, QUOTES


QB Philip Rivers
Jeff Gross/Getty
--QB Philip Rivers is no LeBron James -- at least when it's being shown up at his own camp. While James, or his handlers, confiscated a tape of him being dunked on at his offseason camp, Rivers just shrugged when he was defeated in a quarterbacks competition by a high school kid at his camp in Alabama. Rivers participated in a quarterback skills challenge that was won by Huntsville, Alabama's Will Nunn. Video clips of it hit the Internet and Rivers has been hearing about it.

"I didn't know it would be such a big hit," Rivers said. "It was a lot of fun."

Rivers joked the setting wasn't to his liking.

"The tires were about has high as my (1-year old son)," Rivers said. "I'm used to throwing to big targets. Besides, how bad would it have looked if I won the QB challenge at my own camp against a local high school kid?"

--Curtis Brinkley is back at home in Philadelphia, roughly a week after being shot. The Chargers running back, signed as an undrafted free agent out of Syracuse, was released from the hospital after spending about three days there while recovering from gunshot wounds inflicted early the morning of July 10.

"I'm just happy to be alive," Brinkley said. "Now my focus is to get healthy and get back to being a productive football player." Brinkley was shot when sitting in a parked car waiting for his sister to get off of work.

--DT Jamal Williams shows every bit the wear and tear of 11 years in the drenches. But he said what keeps him around is ignoring the pain which is never far away.

"Over the years I've been through a lot of bumps and bruises," he said. "A lot of people on the outside don't realize certain things I've gone through to get prepared to play. You have to take care of your body. This game is 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical. When your body starts to give way at certain points of the year, you have to have that mental aspect that pushes you forward."

--The latest news in the team's quest to find a replacement for Qualcomm Stadium is it focusing on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, some 25 miles north of San Diego. With California suffering through a financial meltdown, it is considering selling the land it owns at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and the Chargers just might be interested.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's getting close. The quarterbacks are probably more fired up than anyone. We don't get hurt. We work and get after it but certainly we have a fun deal. I can't wait to throw the first pass. When you get to this time of year, there's a little more football on the news and you start to sense that it's just around the corner." -- QB Philip Rivers, on training camp being on the horizon.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Among the people to watch at the Chargers' training camp is defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.

With the Chargers' 2008 season threatening to circle the drain, the team fired defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and inserted Rivera.

The difference was recognizable as the unit went from a read-and-react mode to one which became more attacking. Sacks went up; yardage and points went down with Rivera calling the plays.

Now let's see what Rivera can do with a full offseason to implement his approach and schemes.

Plus, he has the luxury of welcoming back linebacker Shawne Merriman. If Rivera can utilize Merriman's skills and improve the production of others with Merriman being on the field, the Chargers' defense could become a force again.

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