Future of several offensive linemen up in the air


3:26 AM EST, December 31, 2011


The Chargers first have a season-ending game Sunday in Oakland, as they attempt to finish .500 and ruin the Raiders' chances of making the playoffs.

Then an offseason of change begins, with the status of general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner at the top of list.

But it is also possible the Chargers will be looking at rebuilding three-fifths of their front line.

Center Nick Hardwick told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he is considering retirement after the season. Hardwick is set to become an unrestricted free agent, but the pounding his body is taking might not be worth it.

Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman's return next year are also questionable. McNeill, out with a neck injury, has battled spinal issues since college.

Dielman has had a series of concussions that has him questioning his future.

So while the focus remains on Sunday, with the Chargers looking to avoid their first losing season since 2003, the not-so-distant future could become more clouded with the question marks along the offensive line.

Only Hardwick is playing Sunday, as McNeill and Dielman have already landed on injured reserve. The Chargers are hoping Hardwick has company in returning next season, but that remains to be seen.

Hardwick is a key part of Sunday's game plan as the Chargers will have to neutralize tackle Richard Seymour. Hardwick and Seymour have had some epics battles in previous games - some when Seymour was in New England - and that matchup is worth watching on Sunday.

-- Appropriately the Chargers end this dismal season in the Black Hole.

The Chargers will put a bow around 2011 on Sunday, facing the Raiders right before some key people possibly face the firing squad.

Is this coach Norv Turner's last game? Is general manager A.J. Smith on his way out, too?

The Chargers' season went into its own black hole in October and six games later, they came out of it. While they rallied recently with wins over the Jaguars, Bills and Ravens, the truth is they were never able to dig out from that hole from their mid-season skid.

So that leaves this week, where the Chargers are playing for, well, not much.

Last week's loss to the Lions did them in, eliminating the Chargers from the playoffs for the second straight year.

Turner, though, is keeping his chin up and preparing as if his job security wasn't an issue.

"I think there's a way you go about doing your job on a weekly basis," Turner said. "I've been around some great pros, players and coaches -- guys who know how to do their job.

"You take pride in doing that. Part of our deal this week is obviously from a coaching staff is doing the little things to make sure our guys understand that every time you get a chance to play it's important. We have some great competitors on our team so I expect them to go out and compete and play. We're playing a team that has played awfully well against us. When you look at the Raiders at their best, they're awfully good."

But maybe the Chargers are in the right spot. They have won six of the past seven at Black Hole, so just maybe they can spoil the Raiders' shot at the playoffs.

"This is one more chance to go out with this group," safety Eric Weddle said. "We don't know what the future holds so let's go make the most of it. Work on some things, get a win and in the process knock the Raiders out of the playoffs."

The Chargers will take their solace where it comes. And Sunday it could come in Oakland, with gathering storm clouds ahead.

Think too much about what may or may not happen in the offseason and the focus on the task at hand gets wobbly.

So the Chargers will try to reach .500 and that the eighth win could come in Oakland just makes it all the better.

"Yeah, I love it, actually," Weddle said. "I love playing on the road, especially at Oakland. It's always a raucous crowd, and they bring it out. It's usually always a close game, down to the wire. I expect it to be the same. I expect it to be a tough game, physical and nasty. It also helps having all those fans out there hating us. Hopefully, in the end, we'll hear a lot of silence out of the fans."

The noise coming from Chargers Park will soon be loud and clear. It's likely Turner and Smith might be on the wrong end of all the commotion.

Turner said the Chargers were playing their best ball - until that clunker in Detroit. He's hopeful his team can rally one last time.

"We've had such an obviously up and down year in terms of performance and played a lot of people and had a lot of people in and out of the lineup," Turner said. "I think probably over the last month we've had the best continuity in terms of keeping the same guys on the field and probably played as good as we could two weeks ago against Baltimore and then didn't perform very well Sunday against Detroit."

The Chargers get one more chance to do it right Sunday in Oakland.

SERIES HISTORY: 104th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 57-44-2. The Chargers long held the upper hand in this matchup, running off a 13-game winning streak. But that ended last year when the Raiders swept the season series, and then they won in their first meeting this season, 24-17, as the Raiders seized the AFC West lead from the Chargers. Frustrated Chargers fans longing for better days can still remember the good ol' days, when Air Coryell was at the top of its game. But among the memories is a nasty one, the 1980 AFC title game in which the Raiders won, 34-27, in denying Dan Fouts and crew one of their best shots of making the Super Bowl.


NFL Team Report - San Diego Chargers - NOTES, QUOTES

--FS Eric Weddle took some grief for signing a $40 million contract before the season, but his year will include his first Pro Bowl appearance. "I worked my tail off to get better and make the jump to become one of the elite safeties in the league," he said. "There is still room for improvement, but it's an honor to be voted in by the coaches and players and fans. Honestly, it's pretty sweet. I just have to be consistent and keep grinding and working to be the best."

--QB Philip Rivers didn't have his best year - a career-high 19 interceptions -- but it was good enough to be selected to the Pro Bowl. ""It's always an honor any time you're selected," Rivers said."Obviously the season's been disappointing from a team standpoint, which is most important. I think it's always an honor and humbling any time your fellow competitors vote you in. The handful of times I've been selected, it's always an honor."

--TE Antonio Gates also made the squad, with a solid if not spectator season. The Pro Bowl alternates from the Chargers are WR Vincent Jackson (first alternate), RB Ryan Mathews (second) and C Nick Hardwick (third).

--With all the upheaval expected this offseason for the Chargers, some speculate they need to blow up the roster. Raiders coach Hue Jackson said the Chargers aren't in need of an overhaul. "I think they're very talented," he said. "I think what people are putting out there about 'em, that oh, they're not very talented or they're not going to play, or this, that, I'm tired of hearing that. I mean, that's a very good football team with very good players, with a quarterback that's unbelievable, with skill players and defensive players and they're going to be different than the first time we played 'em and hopefully we're different than the first time we played them too. This is a good team, it's a heck of a rivalry, and they're going to come to play and we're going to come to play and we're going to have to play our best to win the game."

--Some day soon Gates will probably look back on passing Charlie Joiner as the team's all-time leading receiver with 588 career receptions. But it is a milestone which is bittersweet when coming in another disappointing year. "It's tough to think about anything except being eliminated from the postseason," he said.

--WR Vincent Jackson (groin) is having a hard time getting on the practice field and that's usually not a good sign. "I think it's hard on any player, but Vincent's history is when he's been like this and hasn't been able to practice we haven't gotten as much out of him," Turner said.

--The Chargers are 5-10 on the road the last two seasons. If they were to lose in Oakland, the team would be 16-17 since taking the field for their 2009 AFC divisional playoff game against the Jets. A loss on Sunday would also give the Chargers their first losing record since 2003.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2008 - The last season in which the Chargers claimed a playoff victory.

QUOTE TO NOTE:"You have to trust the things you believe in. That's not going to change now." - Coach Norv Turner as he prepares for what is likely his last game as the Chargers' head coach.


NFL Team Report - San Diego Chargers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Chargers could be in a pickle at running back.

Ryan Mathews didn't practice Wednesday or Friday with a calf injury. He was joined on the sidelines by Mike Tolbert on Wednesday and Thursday because of a hamstring injury.

To add to the woes, the Vikings plucked rookie running back Jordan Todman off the Chargers' practice squad on Wednesday.

The team signed Shawnbrey McNeal and put him on the practice squad. Depending on the health of Mathews and Tolbert, McNeal might even be active. He was in the Chargers' camp the past two summers.

In other news, linebacker Bront Bird was placed on IR with a knee injury. Bird made his contributions on special teams.


--OLB Travis LaBoy (knee) didn't practice this week after missing Saturday's game and was ruled out for the season finale.

--WR Vincent Jackson (groin) sat out of practice Wednesday and Thursday after gingerly getting through the last game. He returned Friday and is probable, but with the Chargers out of the playoff picture and Jackson soon to be an unrestricted free agent, he could sit on Sunday. If he goes, he may not be 100 percent.

--RB Ryan Mathews (calf) was a limited participant on Thursday and sat out Wednesday and Friday. He should be able to start Sunday, but might not finish the game.

--RB Mike Tolbert (hamstring) finally was able to practice on Friday and is probable.

--OLB Shaun Phillips (back) was a limited participant Thursday before returning in full for Friday's session. He should be able to start Sunday.

--LB Andrew Gachkar (hamstring) was a full participant all week and should contribute on special teams Sunday.

--LT Jared Gaither (ankle) took all the practice snaps and is a go for Sunday.

GAME PLAN: This could be fun, with the Chargers possibly treating this like a college team playing in a bowl game. Pull out all the tricks, try all the gadget plays, do anything and everything to stick it to the Raiders' defense.

The Chargers figure to go out swinging, using every weapon at their disposal as they play with house money. So Philip Rivers will be given every chance to exploit a Raiders unit that is ranked 29th in total defense and points allowed. The Chargers are going to try and win this with their strength, which is heaving the ball down field.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Chargers running game, with Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert vs. Raiders run defense which has been bad. Mathews didn't go off last week, with the Chargers saddled with an early deficit to the Lions. But if his ailing calf allows, the Chargers would love nothing more than for Mathews to finish with a big game to build his confidence over the offseason. Tolbert is ailing, too, which could restrict his carries. But the Raiders have to prove, at some point, they can stop a running game. The Chargers' interior line has another big challenge this week in taming DT Richard Seymour - he always seems to play well against the Chargers, dating to his time in New England. But the key is slowing LB Rolando McClain.

Chargers run defense, with ILB Donald Butler and Takeo Spikes, vs. a Raiders running game led by Michael Bush. Any good run defense is strong up the middle and the Chargers have had issues with Butler and Spikes. It's not that they are horrible, it just seems as the game wears on, and they wear out. In Bush, he is the typical bruising running back which gives the Chargers fits. In this season's earlier matchup Bush rushed for 157 yards and a score; added 87 more yards through the air. With Bush sitting at 911 rushing yards, the Raiders will be eager to get him to 1,000.