Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 | The stakes seldom have been higher for the Chargers, who on Monday night in Oakland will open their 50th season.

Gone are the days when just getting to the playoffs was seen as an end to itself.

It’s Super Bowl or bust say the players and the club’s general manager, A.J. Smith, for a franchise that’s never won the NFL’s biggest prize.

“Anything less than a Super Bowl championship doesn’t exist for us,” Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said after his first day of training camp.

Gates wasn’t predicting a Super Bowl title, just reinforcing the goal.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson also struck an urgent note on his first day of training camp.

“The window could close,” he said.

“In the NFL,” added Tomlinson, who turned 30 this year, “you realize that we might not be together that much longer.”

Tomlinson and Gates were key players for a Chargers team that won the AFC West in four of the last five years. None of those teams got out of the AFC playoffs.

Quarterback Philip Rivers, who received a six-year, $92 million contract from the Chargers recently, will be around to lead future bids for the Lombardi Trophy. But several other prominent players might become free agents after this season, depending on whether the NFL and its players union extends a labor pact.

The player who anchors the team’s defensive line, nose tackle Jamal Williams, is entering his 12th season with the Chargers and has battered knees that may not hold up a lot longer.

“We just need to go out there and establish ourself and show the world this season what we’re all about — the San Diego Chargers, straight up,” Williams said.

I covered all of the team’s practices in training camp, including the special teams workouts. The players struck me as confident and focused, yet also respectful of their AFC rivals, several of which have won the Super Bowl in recent years.

The Chargers are coming off an excellent training camp and preseason, largely because they lost no starters to injuries.

Tomlinson missed no practices in training camp and, in an attempt to get off to a faster start this year, played in the preseason for the first time since 2005. He may not always have the final gear that a few years ago allowed him to pull away from the last line of defenders for repeated long gainers. But he showed good quickness, plus improved chemistry with the team’s second-year fullback, Jacob Hester. A potential Hall of Famer who enlisted a biomechanics expert last offseason to rid himself of imbalances caused by groin and toe injuries, Tomlinson said his offseason workouts have him primed for a strong season.

“I feel great,” he said. “I’m pain-free. Looking at the film of my two games (in the preseason), I was a little impatient, but I liked how I cut, how I moved.”

Who’s Looking Good

The first Chargers player you should pick for your fantasy team is Rivers, even if he’s expensive. He said he’s never completed passes at a higher rate in training camp than he did across the 30-plus sessions in August. “It’s impressive — Philip has gone to a higher level since last season,” said Chargers receiver Legadu Naanee.

A year ago, Rivers led the NFL in passer rating although he was coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Rivers said that he’s only recently reached the point where he doesn’t even think about his surgical knee anymore.

Running back Darren Sproles was sharp throughout training camp, practicing at high speed and suffering no injuries. Left tackle Marcus McNeill, less worried now about his neck because he had offseason surgery, appears ready to regain his Pro Bowl form. Center Nick Hardwick is much further along than he was last September, when he was coming off foot surgery.

On the defensive side, Williams, coming off knee surgery, had his best training camp in several years. The quick 348-pounder stuffed the Seahawks in short yardage in the first preseason game and felt so strong throughout August that he asked Norv Turner to stop resting him so much. Sackmaster Shawn Merriman showed good straight-line speed and power in his first training camp since he had surgery last September to repair two torn ligaments in his knee. Merriman is more apt to excel two or three months into the season — but he’s still dangerous.

Expect a few young players to emerge if called upon, although there could be growing pains.

Merriman’s protege, rookie Larry English, impressed McNeill with his quickness, power and maturity and has the luxury of a streamlined role because the team is deep at outside linebacker.

Strong safety Kevin Ellison, a sixth-round draft pick from USC, leveled two opponents in preseason and hammered a few teammates in training camp. Next, he needs to evolve as a pass defender.

Another rookie, Louis Vasquez, won the job at right guard. He’s a 325-pounder from Texas Tech’s spread offense who runs well enough that he was 20 yards downfield alongside Tomlinson on a screen pass against the Cardinals. “He’s going to be a very, very good player,” said coach Norv Turner.

Defensive end Luis Castillo and cornerback Quentin Jammer said the entire defense is more capable, owing to the designs of Ron Rivera, who became the defensive coordinator midway through the 2008 season; and a new secondary coach, Steve Wilks.

I saw improved awareness from the defensive backs throughout training camp and the preseason. The team reworked its coverage schemes, and the defensive backs had fewer breakdowns than we saw from them last season.

What Could Go Wrong?

Skeptics also have plenty of material.

The offensive line allowed the Cardinals to sack Rivers four times in the team’s second preseason game. Merriman’s arrest early last Sunday, after a TV reality show star and friend, Tila Tequila, accused him of choking and restraining her, created an ongoing media sideshow and raised questions about Merriman’s decision-making off the field. The team is carrying only three cornerbacks, making it vulnerable to injury at that position. Just a year ago, the Chargers were 31st of 32 in pass defense.

Turner increased the emphasis on being more physical day in and day out, partly because the team’s non-division schedule is loaded with bruising opponents. Chargers coaches and players also worked extra hard to reduce the potential turnovers, and to better coordinate the pass defense — keys that Turner identified as crucial to starting faster than in recent seasons.

“We’re a much more mature, disciplined team,” Rivers said.

Smith, the GM, said he senses greater “maturity” and “presence” to this Chargers team than recent others.

“They’re older,” Smith said of his returning players. “They’re wiser, they’re healthier, they do know that they’re good, they were embarrassed and humiliated last year as a football team.”

Smith isn’t making any predictions about this Chargers team. For now, he’s deferring to the teams that have won Super Bowls.

“Right now, we’re not good enough for the big boys, yet,” he said. “I’ve identified who the big boys are in my own thinking — Indianapolis, New England or Pittsburgh. They’re world champions. When you’re world champions, you’re the big boys. We’re underneath that. Time will tell whether we ever crack that. Or whether we fade away.”

An institution with deep roots in San Diego, the Chargers again will carry the Super Bowl hopes of longtime followers.

“I think we’ve waited long enough,” said Paul Lowe with a smile.

Lowe is an original Charger, the player who scored the team’s first touchdown by running 105 yards with a kickoff at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1960. He also ran for a TD when the Chargers trounced the Boston Patriots at San Diego’s Balboa Stadium to win the American Football League title in 1964.

“I can’t see any weakness,” he said of this Chargers team. “I can’t say we’ll win it all, but I’ll be disappointed if we don’t win our division.”

San Diego’s Bill Walton was an avid Chargers fan as a boy in the early 1960s, well before he won basketball championships with John Wooden’s UCLA teams and the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazer and Boston Celtics.

Walton smiled when asked what it would mean to him to see the Chargers win a Super Bowl.

“It would mean the world to me,” he said, “because San Diego is home and the Chargers are a team that represents so many of our dreams and aspirations.”

Please contact Tom Krasovic directly at tkrasovic@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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