San Diego Chargers cornerback Marcus Gilchrist #38 celebrates after his first-quarter interception against the Miami Dolphins at Qualcomm Stadium on September 25, 2011 in San Diego, California. The Chargers won 26-16.
A silver dog tag jangled loosely around Chargers tight end Randy McMichael's neck. His body ached from battle. His skin was bruised from collisions.
On his face, he sported a wall-to-wall smile.
“Man, I love to play football,” McMichael said after the team's 26-16 Sunday win over the Miami Dolphins at Qualcomm Stadium. “I might not be able to walk Wednesday and Thursday, but as long as Sunday comes around, I'm going to be fine.”
The Chargers played without Antonio Gates, Quentin Jammer, Nate Kaeding and, for about half the game, Vincent Jackson.
But when they needed them most, there was McMichael, a time-tested veteran, Marcus Gilchrist, a rookie cornerback in his first career start, kicker Nick Novak, fresh out of the UFL, and rookie wide receiver Vincent Brown, who had no career NFL catches.
They stepped in and delivered, and they weren't alone, as the youth-infused Chargers found production from all sides to improve to 3-1, the franchise's fastest start in five years under coach Norv Turner.
McMichael's smile said it all.
These Chargers jump at the chance to contribute.
“That's what our team is all about,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Next guy up. Next guy's got to do just as good as the starter would have done, and that's what you love about this team … We all root for each other. We all want everyone to do well. But once a guy goes down, there's no hesitation. Eleven guys are going to be out. Let's go make a play and win a game.”
Gilchrist, who may lead the team in interceptions on the practice field, didn't wait long to continue what has been a fantastic first impression with the Chargers. The second-round draft pick out of Clemson intercepted a deep Chad Henne pass in the Dolphins' opening drive. In the third quarter, he deflected a pass intended for Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall in the end zone.
On the interception, second-year middle linebacker Donald Butler hurried and hit Henne, who left the game on the next possession with a shoulder injury. Count the duo as part of a wave of young defenders who've sparked the unit.
Outside linebacker Larry English, healthy after a Groundhog's Day of injuries in his first two seasons, had a career-high two sacks, the start of a comeback storyline the team hopes can stick.
Novak, who hadn't played a regular season game since 2008 before signing after Kaeding's Week 1 knee injury, tied a career high with four field goals. Brown made his first two career catches, and both were third down conversions. The second was a 20-yard strike up the middle on third and 15.
Five plays later, Chargers running back Mike Tolbert scored on a leaping 1-yard touchdown run to give the Chargers a 20-10 lead with 9:24 left in the third. The Dolphins (0-4) wouldn't get closer than within seven points the rest of the way.
“Somebody asked me, 'What is our identity?'” linebacker Takeo Spikes said. “I can't answer that because I would be short-changing us. It's a process. It's a process what we're going through now. The greatest thing about it is that we're winning games early. And where we are going to be, where we need to get to, I see us getting there week by week. That's what's exciting about this. Just to see us continue to get better.”
On Saturday night, Turner showed the team old game footage from the last time the Chargers faced the Dolphins. It was Sept. 27, 2009, and right tackle Brandyn Dombrowski made his first NFL start.
Dombrowski, only 23 at the time, was also starting at right guard for the first time in his life, Turner said.
He gave it his best effort, kept developing and filled in admirably last year for Pro Bowl tackle Marcus McNeill.
“I start thinking about all the guys over this period of time who we've asked to step in for great players, and I get spoiled,” Turner said. “We just expect them to do it, and a lot of teams that just doesn't happen. When they lose a guy like Gates or like (Kaeding), they're lost. I've been in a situation where you lost your kicker, and it took three years to find another.”
The Chargers seem to find those replacements.
Their faces change over the years.
That post-game smile doesn't.
A jaw-dropping catch was a promising start to Jackson's afternoon.
He beat double coverage and ran down a deep pass from a pressured Philip Rivers. He dived forward in full extension, made the grab, stood back up, and ran the remaining 10 yards for a 55-yard score.
Turner called it “remarkable.”
Rivers, who was 21-for-31 with 307 yards, said he was “wowed.”
“I asked him, 'How in the world did you make that catch?'” Rivers said. “It wasn't an awful throw, but it could've been a lot easier on him. I was trying to give it some air and it kind of leaked on me to the right … All of our guys make those catches in practice. You have to practice making those plays. You don't just say, 'I went out one day and made them.' He's done that a bunch.”
Jackson's big day was tempered with a leg muscle strain suffered late in the second quarter.
He played sparingly in the second half and finished with three catches for 108 yards.
“He went in and played a little bit,” Turner said. “He couldn't turn it completely loose. It will be a day-to-day thing."
Mathews Keeps Improving
Running back Ryan Mathews is turning his head coach into a broken record.
The 24-year-old rushed 16 times for 81 yards and had five catches for 68, including a screen play he turned into a 42-yard gain that helped set up Tolbert's touchdown plunge.
"Every week, we're going to keep saying it," Turner said. "He's getting better, better and better, He knows when there are plays there he misses, and he's harder on himself than anybody. When we get him freed up, obviously the screen ... was a big play in the game. When we get the ball pitched on the edge, it helps loosen people up. He's still a very powerful runner on the inside."
Mathews and Tolbert were mixed together effectively, including a couple instances of sharing the field at the same time. Tolbert had five receptions for 51 yards and six rushes for 17.