English Expects a Big Bounceback

LB Larry English (Kevin Terrell/Getty)

It has been a rocky start for the Chargers' top draft pick, Larry English. The outside linebacker has missed two weeks of practice with a tender hamstring. But English, who has missed two preseason games, isn't getting his feathers ruffled.

"It's a little bit (frustrating) but if it came down to it I feel like I could play today," Larry English said Wednesday. "It's just one of those things where we are being cautious in the preseason and not trying to rush anything."

Rushing the passer is English's game and that's why he was drafted out of Northern Illinois with the 16th overall pick. It was a selection which raised some eyebrows, considering the Chargers employ three-time Pro Bowler linebacker Shawne Merriman and opposite him, the steady Shaun Phillips.

But English, who has impressed coaches and teammates with his dedication, just shrugged on draft day.

"I can't say I was surprised just because I was a little bit ready for the unexpected," said English, who exited as Northern Illinois all-time in leader in sacks (31.5) and tackles for losses (63). "That was one thing throughout the process everybody was beating in my head that you never know what is going to happen. I was ready for something to come out of left field; I landed in the best situation and I'm happy. I couldn't ask for anything more."

Except two healthy hamstrings.


LB Larry English
Kevin Terrell/Getty
Before pulling up lame, English was in the regular rotation of outside linebackers in the Chargers' 3-4 alignment. And with Merriman being eased into practices while rebounding from his knee surgery, English was often running with the starters.

That's why English doesn't see his summer absence as the end-all of plans for him to contribute his rookie season.

"I don't think it's going to be a setback at all," he said. "I think once I get back in there I'll be fine and get back into the groove quickly."

His confidence comes from offseason workouts where it was obvious to observers English belonged. Even if shifting from Northern Illinois' 4-3 scheme to the Chargers' 3-4.

"Me having been through all the minicamps, and stuff like that, I've picked it up and I have learned the defense pretty well," he said. "So I am pretty confident with everything."

But smart enough to know, he doesn't know it all.

That's why after nearly every play, English slides up to Merriman and starts nit-picking his brain.

And that's something which Merriman appreciates.

"He was asking what I see and I would say something about it," Merriman said.

Said English: "I know, for one, he was in the same position as me a few years back so he knows what I am going through first-hand," English said. "I just think his accomplishments speak for themselves and I want a little bit of that to rub off on me."

He hasn't rubbed teammates the wrong way, showing a willingness to improve and accepting the rookie role of carrying Phillips' helmet on and off the field.

"I'm just trying to stay sharp mentally and physically," English said. "You really got to take mental reps and picture the plays that are called and what your responsibility is."

Battle of the week: Offensive guards Kynan Forney vs. Louis Vasquez for starter on the right side -

This one keeps going back and forth. It appears Forney has the position locked up, but he is having a tough time ignoring a neck sprain he suffered earlier in camp. Forney skipped the second preseason game, which gave Vasquez his first start and a chance to impress. Instead he struggled against an aggressive Cardinals front and was exposed as a rookie. This is still Forney's job to lose, but he has to prove that his neck is all right.

Other battle fronts:

Clinton Hart vs. Steve Gregory vs. Kevin Ellison for SS -

Hart, the starter the past two years on opening day, is in a real fight for his position. Gregory has been running much of the time with the first-team, but Hart came up with a big interception against the Cardinals. Gregory, it seems, has the inside track. Ellison was making a push but coach Norv Turner mentioned recently how playing strong safety at USC, like Ellison did, is almost like playing a hybrid linebacker position. So Ellison is still absorbing the learning curve as an NFL strong safety.

--Kevin Burnett vs. Tim Dobbins for ILB -

It appears Burnett is pulling away in this one as he has down well in both the preseason games. Burnett's speed is difficult to overlook as his is active approach. Dobbins likely is a tad more physical in the running game, but Burnett makes up for it by being so active.

Player of the week: Wide receiver Legedu Naanee

Those tracking the Chargers closely were wondering when the versatile Naanee would get into the mix more. It looks like this could be the year as he it is becoming more apparent Naanee's work load will increase in 2009. Naanee is having a good camp and now he is getting to show his skills more with Vincent Jackson missing time with a sprained finger. Naanee has been spectacular in practices, and in Saturday's game he had a touchdown reception for the second straight week. "Legedu is exciting," coach Norv Turner said. "He's continued to grow." Naanee has been patient and isn't going to miss out on his chance. "With the amount of talent we have one this team and especially at the receiver position, you've just got to wait your turn and when you're called upon make the play," he said.



The Chargers are looking to advance to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance. After three times of falling short in reaching the team's second Super Bowl, the Chargers know the team is running out with this core group of players.

"I think you can only say 'next year' for so long," running back LaDainian Tomlinson said.

There's no denying the Chargers have shined since 2006 in compiling a 33-15 record, but they've yet to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Not since 1963 when in the AFL have the Chargers worn the crown of a league champion.

They enter their 50th season eying that elusive Super Bowl title. And many of the Chargers think the previous heartaches will come in handy as they move forward this year.

But what the Chargers hope to avoid is something one of the most celebrated eras in franchise history couldn't - being good, but not quite good enough.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Christian Petersen/Getty
The four disappointing years roll off the tongue, even if they are hard to swallow: 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1982.

In '79, the 12-4 Chargers won the AFC West for the first time in 13 seasons. But they fell to the Houston Oilers in a Divisional Playoff Game when Dan Fouts threw five interceptions.

In '80, the 11-5 Chargers repeated as the best in the AFC West. But after disposing of the Bills in the divisional round, they lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.

In '81, it was another division title at 10-6, but coach Don Coryell's team stumbled in the postseason. After their thrilling overtime playoff win in Miami, the Chargers lost to the Bengals with another Super Bowl invitation at stake.

In the strike-shortened '82 campaign the Chargers finished second in the AFC West, beat the Steelers in the Wild Card Game, then bowed to the Dolphins the following week.

That's four playoff trips and zero Super Bowl rings.

Do the current Chargers grasp that eventually the window of opportunity slams shut?

"Probably not," said Kellen Winslow, the Chargers' All-Pro tight end during the Air Coryell era and a Pro Football Hall of Fame member. "Sometimes what you run into is that the players are too young to know. They are at an age where there is a lack of experience, lack of perspective. There is no context to know what does it really mean that one day my career will come to an end."

During their latest playoff run, the Chargers advanced to one AFC Championship Game and lost to the Patriots. The other dips in the postseason pools have seen the Chargers dunked in the divisional rounds.

But the chatter around the Chargers' locker room would warm Winslow. While general manager A.J. Smith scoffs at the "window of opportunity" phrase, others don't.

"In today's NFL, teams don't stay together too long," Tomlinson said. "They have to be broken up; everybody can't be paid and that whole process that happens.

"So you can't say 'we will get it next year.' The window of opportunity is closing and it's not as wide as it used to be and we certainly know this."

Especially with Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Marcus McNeill, Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers having contracts which expire after this season.

Plus Tomlinson is on the other side of 30.

That's not to say the Chargers can't win a Super Bowl title if these pieces leave. But if aching to accomplish it with what surrounds them, they better hurry.

"We have talked about that amongst each other," Tomlinson said. "We've talked about the sense of urgency this year."

The Chargers' roster has talent. But Winslow knows that's not enough.

"It's not how much talent you have; it's what you get out of it," Winslow said. "And it's not just on the field but in the front office and on the coaching staff. They all have to be on the same page."

Rivers feels that the time is now.

"I think there is definitely a sense of urgency," Rivers said. "I think the window of opportunity is a term that probably gets used more than necessary. But certainly for this group of guys, for this core group and maybe guys later in their careers, for the 53 guys that are going to be in the locker room, there is a big sense of urgency."

CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 27: Camp breaks.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The man who played five seasons in the Land of 10,000 Lakes said the Vikings' signing of Brett Favre is no mistake. "I think it's great," Chargers RB Michael Bennett said.

"I think it's great for the game. I wish it would have been done a little sooner but the fans in Minnesota are eating it up."

Bennett is enjoying a solid camp and has looked good in both of the preseason games.

"I just keep running, that's all I can do," Bennett said. "I've found my little fountain of youth."


RB Michael Bennett
Chris Graythen/Getty
Bennett is entering his ninth season, after coming over last year to serve as backup and just-in-case crutch down the stretch. Now with LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles -- that's nearly $13 million in compensation -- in the backfield, Bennett has to fight for carries. He also might be battling for a roster spot, depending on how many fullbacks the Chargers carry. Bennett, though, is of the glass-half-full variety. He's seldom without a smile and is a plus in the locker room with his upbeat demeanor.

"It's going good and it's good to be here," said Bennett, who also works on special teams. "I'm getting acclimated with the things in this offense so it's been fun. I've enjoyed it and everything is coming along pretty well. You want that run that just sticks out so they can see your speed, see what you can do.

"As a back, you always want to think you want to break the big run, but if you are in there pounding away and working hard enough, it will eventually come."

The hated Favre coming to Minnesota after all those years his Packers beat the Vikings? Bennett, who was a Pro Bowler in Minnesota in 2006, said no one envisioned that.

"The Vikings fans, they couldn't stand him all that time and now they embrace him," Bennett said. "It's a love-hate relationship."

It's one Bennett predicts will shine.

"He's doesn't have to throw the ball 40-50 times a game," Bennett said. "Just hand it off to Adrian Peterson and throw 20-something passes and he will survive with that. I hope it works for them and we meet them in the Super Bowl and beat their tail.

--Wide receiver Legedu Naanee returned to the University of Phoenix Stadium Saturday, the site of one of college's most exciting games.

Naanee was on the Boise State team which upset Oklahoma in thrilling fashion in overtime to win the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. It will be Naanee's second visit with the Chargers, as they played the Cardinals there his rookie year of 2007.

"It's exciting to walk through the stadium and see the points on the field and remember the plays that happened," Naanee said.

Naanee was in the thick of those hectic final minutes when Boise State came roaring back. When the Broncos scored the game-winning touchdown, quarterback Jared Zabransky faked a throw to Naanee before slipping the ball behind his back to Ian Johnson on the Statue of Liberty play.

--OLB Shawne Merriman said he is moving better with every game after returning from a serious knee operation. "They ran the ball my way a little bit more and I feel more comfortable in my rushes," he said after Saturday's game. "Every week I look to go out and play a little bit better."

--The Chargers are supposed to be a hot team this year in the NFL. So that makes the Chargers a hot ticket in town, right? Not exactly. The Chargers have yet to sell out any of their home games.

--Going against one of the NFL's top passing games, the Chargers got two interceptions on the Cardinals' Kurt Warner. "That's what we expect to do," said CB Quentin Jammer. "To make big plays in the passing game." The Chargers were next-to-last in 2008 defending the pass.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson had 10 touches in playing in his second preseason game against the Cards. At one point he carried four consecutive times for 13 yards. "That's how you get into a rhythm," Tomlinson said. "That's all you could ask for in the preseason." He rushed for 18 yards on eight carries and caught two passes for 18 yards.

--The Chargers play at Atlanta this week, their longest trip of the preseason.

--The Chargers were humbled at a recent training camp practice as they worked before sailors and Marines at the Naval Base San Diego. They were touched when visiting with the base's wounded warriors.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The explosiveness is coming back, although my timing is still getting there." -- OLB Shawne Merriman on knocking off the rust after missing all but one game last year with a knee injury.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

It's not critical yet, but there is some concern about the right guard spot. With Mike Goff fleeing to the Chiefs as a free agent, Kynan Forney was to settle in at the position. And he had, then suffered a neck sprain earlier in camp which was thought to be minor. But Forney has had a tough time shaking it. The Chargers turned to rookie Louis Vasquez, a third-round pick out of Texas Tech. But in his first start against the Cardinals, he looked shaky. The Chargers are crossing their fingers that Forney bounces back quickly.

--Michael Bennett keeps playing well in his bid to stick as a third running back. He had 16 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals on five carries.

-- One week after missing a 33-yard attempt, Nate Kaeding was 1 yard off his career-best when he nailed a 56-yarder versus the Cardinals. Kaeding recently became a father for the first time.

--Darren Sproles, unlike in the first game, returned kicks and showed his usual burst. Sproles returned two kicks for 54 yards and two punts for 24 yards.

--QB Charlie Whitehurst rebounded from a tough first game and showed well in his second appearance. Whitehurst, who is penciled in as the No. 3 quarterback, he was 5-for-9 for 52 yards after turning the ball over three times the previous week.

--WR Malcom Floyd continues to have a great camp. And with Vincent Jackson (finger) missing some time, he is getting more reps in practices and games.

ROOKIE REPORT: OLB Larry English (hamstring) should return to practice sometime this week. ... RG Louis Vasquez got his first NFL start last Saturday, but the results were mixed - at best. ... Vaughn Martin, a fourth-round pick out of Canada, is playing a lot as the team tries to get him up to speed and to compensate for injuries along the line. He's hanging in there - still needs to figure out the NFL game. ... Charly Martin continues to shine - could be in for a practice squad spot. ... RB Gartrell Johnson is showing a toughness which is growing on the coaches. He had a team-high 11 carries for 32 yards against the Cardinals. ... Seventh-round pick Demetrius Byrd has yet to sign his contract. He wasn't expected at camp as he still recovers for injuries in a car accident.

INJURY REPORT:

--ILB Larry English (hamstring) is working his way back; should play in Atlanta.
--WR Vincent Jackson (finger) day-to-day.
--DE Ryon Bingham (arm) won't work this week.
--DE Jacques Cesaire (calf) likely practices early in the week.
--RG Kynan Forney (neck) should practice this week.

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