Chargers ready to take next step

SAN DIEGO -- A.J. Smith knows "almost" doesn't mean anything in the NFL. He knows it all too well.

Smith was a personnel man for the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s when the team went to four straight Super Bowls and lost them all. After those experiences, Smith is weary of getting excited about having a good roster. So excuse him if he doesn't get caught up in all the hype about his San Diego Chargers, who finally may be ready to take that necessary step from contender to champion. He knows how talented his roster is. He knows the recent history in which his team won three of the past four AFC West titles. He remembers the 14-2 regular-season record in 2006 and recalls the trip to the AFC title game last season.

But Smith, San Diego's general manager, isn't impressed.

"We haven't accomplished anything yet," said Smith, embodying California cool as he lounged in his office, wearing shorts and sporting a slicked back 'do.

"We haven't done a thing. We heard all the nice things that is said about us and how we are an elite team. But we haven't done anything yet. We're trying to get to what Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the Giants and what New England has accomplished."

Smith is a realist. To him, "anything" means winning the Super Bowl.

In the first year of the Norv Turner experience last season, the Chargers moved a step closer to the Super Bowl despite the 21-12 AFC championship game loss at New England after a disappointing 11-5 regular season. Ultimately, progress was made because San Diego won two playoff games. It was the first time since 1995 that the Chargers had had success in the postseason. In 2006, San Diego's 14-2 regular-season record was the best in the NFL. But the No. 1-seeded Chargers were knocked out at home in the divisional round by New England.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers looks at the past two seasons as progress. But he knows it is time for the team to see bigger results.

"We have to keep on ascending and move up from that 14-win season, that trip to the championship game," Rivers said. "I think there is a sense of urgency here. We know how talented this roster is, but we're all not going to be young forever. It's time for that next step."

Smith compares his team to the Indianapolis Colts team of earlier this decade, and hopes the Colts' comparison fully plays out. From 2002-05, the Colts had a record of 48-16 (averaging 12 wins a season) but disappointed in the playoffs all four seasons. Finally, in the 2006 season, the Colts broke through and won the Super Bowl.

"We need to keep on banging on the door," Smith said. "We've made progress, but we still have to keep banging away."

While urgency is felt because San Diego doesn't want to waste all of its talent, there isn't any immediate pressure to win or else. Smith, who on Jan. 1 was given a contract extension through 2014, is as secure as any general manager in the league. The Chargers are 50-30 under Smith in the regular season, and he has earned a reputation as one of the NFL's most skilled drafters, bringing on board the likes of Shawne Merriman, Antonio Cromartie and Marcus McNeill in recent years.

Turner has Smith's full support, especially after he coached the Chargers to a 10-2 finish and two playoff wins after they stumbled out to a 1-3 start. The only way Turner would get the gate after this season is if the Chargers were to completely fall apart. But the same can be said for nearly every coach in the league. There is great continuity. Fifteen projected 2008 starters were on the team during Marty Schottenheimer's 14-2 run in 2006. That level of consistency excites Turner.

"We're still a young team, but we have some experience now," Turner said. "We know there is urgency here, but the guys have some playoff experience and know what it takes to try to get to that next level."

Adding to the urgency is the age of star running back LaDainian Tomlinson and some health concerns to key players. Tomlinson is entering his eighth NFL season and he'll turn 29 next year, which is an advanced age for a running back. Though he hasn't yet shown signs of wearing down, he won't be great forever. He also is one of several San Diego stars coming off a significant injury. He suffered a sprained MCL on his left knee in the playoffs but said during the team's minicamp he'll be 100 percent when training camp starts in late July.

In addition to Tomlinson, Rivers is coming off a torn right ACL, Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates is coming off a big toe injury and standout center Nick Hardwick is coming off a foot injury. Gates and Hardwick may not be ready for the start of the regular season.

The immediate future is mostly bright in San Diego, but questions remain, further intensifying the urgency for this talented roster to take the next step and win it all right now. Plus, Rivers, Merriman and McNeill all have just two more seasons remaining on their contracts. Thus, the clock is ticking.

"No better time than now," Rivers said. "We know we're ready to make that move."

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com