Whenever the U-T does it's feature on whoever the Chargers pick this weekend, A.J. Smith will invariably say that he chose whoever he chose because wanted "good football players" that have a "nasty streak." Then, why are the Chargers always considered soft? I think critics rightfully call the Chargers soft but then I asked myself why. Last year, even A.J. called his own team soft after the game against Denver when their record fell to 2-3. Is it a teamwide attitude or arrogance? Is it the style of play? Is it the players? I decided to break down.
CITY: Part of it may be the climate and perception of San Diego. San Diego has a beach and is a tourist destination. We're often perceived as fair-weather fans since there are always alternatives if our teams suck, which they often do except for the Sockers and the recent success of the Chargers. It is hard to look or feel gritty when the TV shows 70 degree weather and people in shorts as opposed to the snow blizzards in Buffalo or New England. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are all more blue-collar cities associated with tough working class jobs and urban blight. Let's be honest, we're better looking as a people than those cities so we can't complain about that. At the same time, San Diego has tons of military which clearly isn't soft and we're right next to Tijuana with its drug wars which isn't soft either.
STYLE OF PLAY: "Air Coryell" is admittedly softer than "Ground Chuck." We don't have a "Steel Curtain" or "Purple People Eaters" (okay that sounds queer when you look at it.) We did have "Martyball" for a while. We are known much more for offense than defense which makes us soft, like the Colts. Passing is softer than running and the recent spell of "Air Norvell" was heavily pass but I would argue that has more to do with the ineffectiveness of the future Hall of Famer/Defamer, discussed ad nauseum on this site. Our defense under Ron Rivera seems to built around eliminating big plays and allowing the underneath stuff. The run defense isn't as stout as it once was although we have been known to chant "you can't run" on occasion, pre-loss of Jamal. If it was more attacking with blitzes, we might be considered less soft but might give up bigger plays.
PLAYERS: I thought about this a little bit and thought our players were soft but I realized it was just a few of them. If we look at the Offensive Line, Kris Dielman isn't soft and Louis Vasquez has some of the nasty along with Nick Hardwick, who does get injured a lot so that might be considered soft. Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd are two of the biggest WRs in the league and some people say Vince is up there with the much smaller yet physical Hines Ward in terms of best blocking receivers.
Philip Rivers is slow, moves extremely awkward and throws in a feminine manner but with the exception of Big Ben or Steve McNair, most QBs are considered soft compared to other football players. DBs might be considered soft but everyone's CBs are a little Deion-like and try to avoid contact. Quentin Jammer is one of the most physical corners in the game and likes to support in the run game. Eric Weddle and Steve Gregory are a bit undersized and white which might make someone consider them soft. Weddle was trucked by Shonn Greene in the playoff loss but is usually a reliable tackler but not much of a hitter for a safety (although he does seem to put a few more licks of late.)
Lights-Out used to be one of the most feared defensive players in the league and literally ended the careers of Priest Holmes and Wayne Chrebet with hits given his incredible size and speed combination. Post knee surgery, he hasn't been the same guy but we all hope he is taking the two years it normally takes to recover from his kind of injury. Cooper and Philips talk a heck of lot and are good if not great players which may lead to a soft label. On the D-Line, Jamal was a roadgrader and Igor was known for his "superhuman strength" but both are gone. Luis Castillo may be considered soft because his sack dance is an air salsa he does with himself but that is more a celebration of his culture. I think Phillip has at least learned to turn down the JV hairy-back league name calling and "act like he's been there before" and hopefully the rest of the team will as well.
At running back, Mike Tolbert is no Lo Neal but is a physical fullback and Hester is a little undersized so may be considered soft. Darren Sproles is only 5'6'' but weighs over 200 lbs and can lift a truck - as AJ puts hit, he may be soft but he's not little, or soft. Neither is Michael Turner but that ship sailed long ago.
Which of course brings us to the notable omissions: Antonio Cromartie and LaDanian Tomlinson. I believe AJ got rid of them because they are soft. A running game does a lot to define the identity of the club and LT, for many years, has tried to preserve himself in history in avoiding big hits by going down on first contact, running out of bounds, and generally trying to squirt to the outside. Cro, Deion's protege at Florida State, was coached to play corner the Deion way and look for picks while preserving himself in the run game.
In looking at this draft, I believe AJ will look to further define the Chargers as not soft. I think he wants a bruising tailback that can get the majority of the carries and wear down a team by the fourth quarter. Everyone seems to forget that Norv made Tyrone Wheatley, Lamont Jordan, and Terry Allen 1,000 rushers - historically, he loves the balance of the run game and probably lost the playoff game because he kept trying to get water from a dried up well. I hope that the Chargers built up the middle on defense and get nasty players at middle linebacker, safety and nose (hopefully with a pass rush) to finally shed the soft label on their way to a Superbowl.