Jackson is still well liked by his teammates in San Diego, and they have stayed out of his long holdout. Yet, the players who are in San Diego have focused on playing without Jackson (and fellow holdout, left tackle Marcus McNeill) since the start of training camp. Jackson, at this point, is expected to sit out the entire season.
That’s why the offense wasn’t worried about the whispers that it missed Jackson in a 21-14 season-opening loss at Kansas City. Sure, the offense sputtered, but the Chargers put that more on an inability to get going in a Kansas City monsoon rather than playing without Jackson, who averaged more than 17 yards per catch on 68 receptions last season.
The San Diego offense validated itself in a Week 2 home game against Jacksonville. After watching the Chargers pick apart Jacksonville in a 38-13 win, there was no way anyone could say Jackson was missed.
Yes, it was just one game. But it was a compelling argument that this offense is fully loaded. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers spread the ball around to eight different receivers as he was 22-of-29 for 334 passing yards in the romp. Rivers threw three touchdowns passes.
“We have a lot of options on this team,” said tight end Antonio Gates after the win. “A lot of guys can catch the ball.”
Gates, who was Rivers’ top weapon last season and who is still the primary target, avoided saying San Diego doesn’t miss Jackson. But he was satisfied with the team’s available corps of pass-catchers. It's clear Rivers feels the same way. He knows this offense is a group effort and he thrives on his expanding menu of receiving selections.
“We got a great group to throw the football: backs, tight ends, receivers, all together,” Rivers said. “We’re going to use all of them -- we need all of them. Any given week could be their week as individuals.”
It was striking early in training camp how much Rivers was throwing the ball all over the field, utilizing the short and deep passing games effortlessly.
“We’re not worried about who is not here,” San Diego coach Norv Turner said in August. “We’re still going to throw the ball. That’s our game. Philip is very comfortable with what we have here.”
Fast forward six weeks later and the Chargers’ training-camp philosophy played out on the field.
Against Jacksonville, Rivers systematically chose from his targets as the game dictated. He hit Gates for two touchdowns. He hit No. 2 receiver Legedu Naanee for a key first down just as he did in a late comeback attempt at Kansas City. He hit No. 1 receiver Malcom Floyd for a long touchdown as Rivers displayed perhaps the NFL’s prettiest deep ball on a 54-yard touchdown pass. Rivers used his backfield as he hit running backs Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert each for big plays.
Rivers also utilized backup receivers Buster Davis and Patrick Crayton. Davis, a 2007 first-round draft pick, is finally healthy and he is quickly earning Rivers’ trust. He had five catches for 48 yards. Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Crayton caught a pass for a big first down while he is adjusting to the offense. San Diego traded for Crayton in early September to reinforce the receiver group in Jackson’s absence.
Rivers targeted four receivers at least four times against Jacksonville. After two games, Gates has a team-high 10 catches, Davis has seven catches and Sproles, Floyd and Naanee each have six. The five have been targeted by Rivers a total of 57 times. The spread-it-around Chargers have the fourth-ranked passing game in the NFL.
”Philip just has a knack of getting the ball to everyone,” Floyd said. “We all pull for each other and cheer for each other because we know everyone is going to get their chance.”
At the end of the season, Gates likely will have 20 to 30 more catches than any other San Diego receiver. But expect several receivers to finish with respectable numbers.
This is a committee group, and the chairman of the board couldn’t be happier.
“I can go on and on,” Rivers said. “It’s a great group.”