Tuesday, October 7, 2008| Haven’t we been through this before?

Football panic is running amok throughout San Diego fandom with another Chargers loss Sunday to the Miami Dolphins that dropped the Bolts to 2-3. Panic is everywhere but Chargers Park, that is.

In 2005, the Chargers never topped .500 for good until they beat the New York Jets on Nov. 6 to improve to 5-4. They rallied to 9-5 before they lost their last two games to finish a disappointing 9-7.

In 2006, the Bolts finished 14-2, but they were only 4-2 as late Oct. 22 before running off 10 straight wins.

In 2007, the Chargers didn’t top .500 for good until they were 6-5 with a win on Nov. 25 over Baltimore.

It hasn’t mattered if it was Marty Schottenheimer, coaching in 2005 and 2006 with his brand of passion, or Norv Turner in 2007 and 2008 with his workmanlike style.

Yes, the Bolts are one game under .500, but it’s only the first full week of October. That’s not to say they aren’t in danger of letting their season slip away. They need to finish 8-3 to go 10-6, a record that some years can leave them short of the playoffs.

But my gauge on Chargers panic is running back LaDainian Tomlinson. When I hear panic in his voice, then you can be as concerned, too.

LT isn’t one of those guys who rants and raves, or whose voice gets high when he’s angry or befuddled. But he does give shorter answers, largely because the guy doesn’t know how to lie. He either gives you an honest answer or he keeps his thoughts to himself.

A year ago was one of the rare times when he slipped up. The Chargers had lost to the Green Bay Packers to fall to 1-3. LT shook his head and said he was lost. He said he didn’t have an answer.

That was far from his stance Monday, when the Chargers recounted another bewildering early-season defeat.

“I’m confident because we’ve been in this situation before,” Tomlinson said. “That’s the only confidence you can have. There is not a time you can know for sure because each game is different and each year is different. But I have confidence in these guys, this coaching staff and everybody here we have what it takes to turn around.

“But we have to go out and do it. We’re going to have to catch some breaks like we did last year, so it‘s going to be no different this year. Make no mistake about it: This is a critical time for our football team. The games before the bye are going to tell us what kind of team we’re going to be this year.”

The Chargers play host Sunday night to the New England Patriots (3-1)

— who remained in the Bay Area this week after beating San Francisco

30-21 rather than make back-to-back cross-country trips — and then travel Oct. 19 to Buffalo (4-1) and on to London Oct. 26 to face New Orleans (2-2) before the Bolts’ enjoy a bye week.

Even though the Chargers’ offense played poorly in the loss at Miami, you have to still figure they can put up enough points to beat New England, and certainly enough to handle the weaker defenses of Buffalo and New Orleans.

The game that might turn out to be the toughest is at Buffalo, because the Bills will be coming off a bye. Miami, it should be noted, was coming off a bye when it beat the Chargers. The Dolphins’ defense had the Bolts game-planned so well that San Diego couldn’t just show up and win.

The Bolts were outplayed physically and emotionally at Miami, but so were the Patriots when they played Miami at home two weeks earlier and lost 38 -13. Maybe Miami will physically beat down other teams before the season is over, but it’s too early to tell in the first week of October.

If the Chargers don’t make this their Super Bowl season, it won’t be because the players don’t care or the coaches can’t coach. It will be because their front seven aren’t good enough.

So far they haven’t shown they can stop the run or apply consistent pass pressure. The Chargers’ defenders are sensitive to hearing they miss outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who is out for the season after knee surgery, but they haven’t shown that they’re able to fill the void he left.

Maybe it’s only a matter of nose tackle Jamal Williams and tackling machine Stephen Cooper at inside linebacker getting into midseason playing form. Williams sat out the preseason to protect his aging knees and Cooper was suspended for the first four games for testing positive for a banned stimulant.

But we don’t know for sure this early in the season.

A year ago when the Chargers improved to 5-4 with their win over the Indianapolis Colts, there were still players doubting head coach Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. They were quoted anonymously in a story Michael Silver wrote for Yahoo! Sports. Some of those players are no longer with the Chargers, because they weren’t the voice of the Chargers.

LT is the voice of the Chargers’ locker room, although he leaves most of the actual talking to his verbose quarterback, Philip Rivers.

When LT panics, then the Chargers’ brass and fans can panic, too. Then it will be like LBJ losing Walter Cronkite on Vietnam.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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