Patrick Crayton, Philip Rivers and Malcom Floyd (left to right) of the San Diego Chargers celebrate a touchdown against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on October 9, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. The Chargers won 29-24.
San Diego Chargers fans have become tough customers.
While most of them faithfully support their beloved Bolts through the downs as well as ups, an increasing number of them have an unsettled feeling even though San Diego is 4-1, its best start in five seasons under coach Norv Turner.
Maybe it's the lack of fireworks by the high-powered offense, which often has to turn to kicker Nick Novak when things bog down inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Or maybe it's Philip Rivers ' seven interceptions, compared to six touchdown passes. Or that Tim Tebow was much bigger news in a Denver loss than the Bolts were in a win at Denver, that the Chargers let the then-winless Kansas City Chiefs stick around into the 60th minute, that Tom Brady applied his usual whuppin' while San Diego had four turnovers at New England.
Or perhaps they're worried that the Chargers will flame out in January. San Diego missed the playoffs last year, and has one postseason win in the last three seasons.
The Chargers had their bye this weekend, allowing fans to take a deep breath.
The players simply say that 4-1 is better than the alternative. In the last three seasons, they've been 2-3 at this point.
"It's funny. Fans are going to always want more. That's just human nature," said safety Eric Weddle. "We want more, obviously. Being 4-1 right now, we know what kind of team we are. We haven't even hit our potential. The more the season goes on, the better we get. We put ourselves in a hole the last couple of years, and to not get out of it, that was one of the points of emphasis. Regardless of who we're playing, you've still got to go out there and win gams. For us to be in the position we are, it's encouraging. Now we've just got to keep it going."
Weddle and other players say they're not consumed with style points.
"In our minds, we've been through all that. We've done the whole stat deal, we've blown people out," Weddle said. "I think the identity of this team is, 1, find ways to win and 2, we're all about each other. We're not into individual accolades. We don't care who scores the touchdown, we don't care who makes the pick, who makes the sack. It's just all about winning and getting the win by any means necessary."
The Chargers' wins haven't been overly convincing, coming against teams that are a combined 4-15.
Up next is the meat of their schedule. They'll visit the New York Jets — and former teammates LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie — followed by a rematch with the Chiefs and then their marquee game of the year, at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Their final 11 games also include two matchups against the Oakland Raiders, who swept the Bolts last year; home dates against Buffalo and Baltimore; and a roadie against Detroit.
The Chargers hope to get back star tight end Antonio Gates, who's missed the last three games with painful plantar fasciitis in his right foot. That should aid the Chargers in the red zone.
"It'll certainly help. But again, it's been weird down in there," Rivers said. "We've been just a tick away on a few things, a few penalties, a sack last week, from just a bunch of little things that have kept us out of there. Schematically and things like that, we've spent a great deal of time all training camp working that area. I think it's just a matter of time."
Said Turner: "I think you're talking about one of the great red zone receivers over the last 10 years, for sure, so no question that will be a factor. But we're just missing. We've missed on five or six plays that we normally make. We missed two big runs last week that I think we had a real chance. Malcom (Floyd) has caught three balls one foot in, one foot out. We just need to execute just a little bit better down in there."
The Chargers rank 25th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns only nine times on 22 trips inside the opponents' 20. They've turned to Novak eight times in the red zone.
Overall, Novak has made all 11 field goal attempts in his four games. He was signed after Nate Kaeding was hurt on the season's opening kickoff — which was returned 103 yards for a TD by Minnesota's Percy Harvin.
The Chargers' running back tandem of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert has been solid. Mathews, a second-year pro, had a career-high 125 yards in a win at Denver in Week 5. He and Tolbert were hurt, but both are expected to play against the Jets.
Tolbert expects the fans to come around if the Bolts continue to win.
"I don't think people are going to be truly happy until we do what everybody wants us to do, and that's win the Super Bowl," Tolbert said. "Once we start making some noise, if we end up 10-1 or 12-1, whatever the schedule may be, on and on and on, it might start building more momentum. We'll be fine. We're not worried about how we win, as long as we win.
"We've typically started slow. To be able to start with a faster pace this year has really helped," he said.
Back to Work
In their first session since the bye break, the Chargers return to practice late Monday morning in Mission Valley.
The closed-to-public practice is scheduled to begin at 11:45 a.m. Running back Mike Tolbert is expected to participate for the first time since leaving the Broncos game early with concussion symptoms.
Ryan Mathews (calf strain) may also be on the field, but coach Norv Turner said last week the team may hold out the running back until Wednesday "just to be sure."
Mathews is expected to handle 16 to 20 carries and four to five touches in the receiving game against the Jets, Turner said.