You'll here a lot of San Diego Chargers fans point out that the 2006 team, that went 14-2 before losing in the playoffs, was not as good as their record may seem. They faced an easy schedule, they were ridiculously lucky/healthy, etc. etc.
The truth of the matter is, the team was great. The reason they were great was not Philip Rivers or LaDainian Tomlinson or Antonio Gates or even Shawne Merriman. The San Diego Chargers had the #1 offensive line in 2006, according to Football Outsiders, after having the #7 offensive line in 2005 and the #17 offensive line in 2004.
Building the Line
This was how A.J. Smith was going to build a perennial championship contender, with a dominant offensive line. It was his plan all along, and for a long time, it was working.
He started in the 2004 offseason, the first full offseason for Smith as the team's GM. First, he signed veteran guard 28-year old Mike Goff to be the anchor of the line. Then, he drafted Nick Hardwick and Shane Olivea, both of whom would be starters on the offensive line as rookies.
There was a young player, an undrafted defensive lineman, that was deep on the roster that would eventually be the anchor opposite Goff. Give Smith some credit for not cutting Kris Dielman those first two years when nobody really knew what he was.
The Final Piece
The Chargers offensive line was trending in the right direction after Smith had drafted and signed a bunch of talented guys, but it was apparently that the Left Tackle position was either a current or future problem.
Roman Oben filled in as the team's LT in 2004, but at 33 years old, his body started to break down the following year. This lead to Leander Jordan starting at Left Tackle for the team for much of 2005, which explains how the team went from 12-4 to 9-7 and then back up to 14-2 the following year.
Marcus McNeill should have been a first-round draft pick. However, concerns about the future health of his neck scared off most teams, including the Chargers when they picked Antonio Cromartie at 19th overall. When McNeill was still there at pick #50, it was a chance they couldn't pass up again.
In 2006, McNeill showed himself to be arguably the most talented lineman on the Chargers roster, and the team seemed like it was set for several championship runs behind this unit:
LT Marcus McNeill
LG Kris Dielman
C Nick Hardwick
RG Mike Goff
RT Shane Olivea
So, what happened?
McNeill's neck did prove problematic, after all. He started 82 games over six seasons before team doctors decided that he couldn't play anymore. He was released by the Chargers and never signed by any other NFL team.
Dielman's career ended suddenly in 2011, when he played through a concussion in a road game against the Jets, leading to a seizure on the team plane on the way back to San Diego. While he recovered from the seizure, it was enough to convince him that he didn't want to play football anymore after 97 career starts. It was also enough to convince the NFL to change how they deal with concussed players.
Hardwick struggled to stay healthy for an entire season before 2010, when he added some weight and played four consecutive seasons without miss a game. Despite only making one Pro Bowl (in 2006), Hardwick consistently played at a Pro Bowl level. In total, he started 136 games.
In 2007, Goff's body started breaking down. By 2008, he had no business being a starter in the NFL. He left in free agency after 80 starts with the Chargers, replaced by another great draft pick, Louis Vasquez.
Olivea started at RT for 4 seasons before succumbing to some off-the-field demons. He was quickly and quietly replaced with Jeromey Clary, who was part of that 2006 NFL Draft class along with Marcus McNeill. Olivea finished his career with 57 starts while Clary retired with 93 career starts, mostly at RT.
The Championship Window
The Chargers had a run of about five seasons with Hardwick and Dielman on the interior and Marcus McNeill at LT. The other parts were mostly interchangeable. During those years, the team went 55-25 in the regular season. That's an average record of 11-5.
Some of what happened to that offensive line is predictable (Goff, McNeill) and some of it is not (Dielman, Olivea). Either way, they were the cause of A.J. Smith's rise to fame and also the eventual cause for his firing.
The last two guys from that group, a group that definitely should've had a Super Bowl run at some point, were Nick Hardwick and Jeromey Clary. Those two spent this season watching games from the Chargers sidelines and retired together this offseason. They, along with Dielman and McNeill, never wore another uniform except for the Chargers blue-and-gold.
I'm not sure if any one of them had a good enough career to make the Chargers Ring of Honor, or whatever that thing is called, but as a unit, I will never forget The Offensive Line that A.J. Smith Built. Nor could I forget how dominating they were when they were all healthy.