After a quick one-day stop in San Diego, we made the three-hour drive to Oxnard, Calif., to watch the Dallas Cowboys practice for a few days. It wasn’t a bad drive, especially considering we stopped and grabbed In-N-Out burger on the way.
What happened in San Diego? Let’s go…
– I couldn’t imagine a better setting for a camp. Watching the San Diego Chargers for a day, it felt like vacation. The weather was perfect, the practice fields were scenic, and dealing with the Chargers was a joy. The only thing, and this is mildly comical, is that there are mountains surrounding the fields. So during the season, the Chargers have people manning those mountains to make sure no one is peeking. Seriously. A good idea.
– It’s amazing the athleticism and talent the Chargers have. That seems to always be the case, but even more so now. At receiver, everyone (except highly thought-of pass-catcher Vincent Brown) is tall and long, which no doubt makes Philip Rivers’ life easy. The fact that Brown makes circus catches allows him to join the fun. It’s easy to see why coach Norv Turner gets such flack for not making the playoffs. The quality of talent has to be better than most teams. One would guess they’ll need to make it this year.
– I liked what I heard from Turner when it comes to the defense. Sure, he’s an offensive guy, but he spent some of the offseason focusing on defense. He installed respected worker John Pagano as defensive coordinator, which the players seem to appreciate it. It won’t look much different, but the hope is for the unit to be more fundamentally sound. Turner told me the focus is on getting more turnovers and creating more negative plays. In games last year against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, that became obvious. As resurgent CB Antoine Cason told me, “We’ve really been stressing accountability and communication and trust in one another. Those things help on the field and those takeaways come when we play together.“
– We had only one night in San Diego, but the food selection didn’t disappoint. I wound up at the Crab Hut in downtown San Diego, and I didn’t have high expectations. It looked just like a regular bar, though I heard it would be good. I should’ve known it would be when I received gumbo in a mug. Man, that etouffee was spicy and awesome. It only hit you midway through the bite, but there was some serious kick. I’m not gonna say it was like New Orleans. But the closest to it I’ve had.
– Back to football, I couldn’t get over how different TE Antonio Gates looked. Essentially, he looked like himself. “I think I’ve learned to embrace health,” Gates told me. He was fast, he looked in shape, and he was destroying defensive backs. Corners couldn’t stay with him. Rivers is quick to mention that Gates has long been a top option for this offense. “So much has been made about the free agent acquisitions that you forget about Gates,” Rivers said. You won’t now. Sure, Gates said he had some expected soreness, but mostly, he felt young. Could be massive for this team.
– The Chargers have a completely new group on this team, bringing in 18 veteran free agents. They helped a ton on defense, adding savvy guys like pass-rusher Jarret Johnson. But to me, the most valuable free-agent pickup will be fullback Le’Ron McClain, and I’m not just saying that because I covered him at Alabama and he’s a great guy. There are so few old-school fullbacks left in the NFL the way it is, but McClain is one of them. The team plans to feature running back Ryan Mathews, and having McClain as a bodyguard will only help. If Mathews has a breakout year — and I think the Chargers think he will — make sure you notice that it’ll be McClain leading the way.
Wanted to add more, but now I gotta get out to Cowboys practice…