The firsts go way beyond Monday night’s season-opening meeting between the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers.
The Chargers are kicking off a new era as they play their first meaningful game since moving in the offseason from their longtime San Diego home.
In addition, Vance Joseph of the Broncos and Anthony Lynn of the Chargers are making their head coaching debuts in a game that marks the first time two African American head coaches have faced each other in their inaugural game.
“It’s obviously a special thing on the big picture,” Joseph said. “Hopefully in four or five years, it won’t even be an issue. It would just be two coaches going at it, and may the best team win.”
Joseph succeeded Gary Kubiak, who resigned one season after leading the Broncos to a Super Bowl title because of health issues.
Lynn replaced Mike McCoy, who’s back with the Broncos as the team’s offensive coordinator. McCoy also is facing the Chargers for the first time since he was let go as their head coach following the team’s last season in San Diego.
And Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen is set to make his return from a knee injury that sidelined him for much of last season.
Yet, for all the firsts and the impending rookie debuts for both sides there remains plenty of familiar elements between two longtime AFC West rivals, including a Chargers offense once again led by venerable quarterback Philip Rivers.
Broncos pass-rushing linebacker Von Miller said the Chargers have bolstered the talent surrounding Rivers, making their offense much tougher to reckon with.
“This is probably the most talented Chargers team that I’ve played against,” Miller said. “The defense is a whole lot better and the offense is a whole lot better. They’ve revamped the offensive line, two great running backs, the tight end (Hunter) Henry has come along and Antonio Gates has always been good. You also have a healthy Keenan Allen. It just seems like on film a new Chargers team. I guess the move from San Diego to L.A. really helped out. But they definitely look a whole lot better than what they’ve looked like in the past.”
Gates, in his 15th season, enters the opener tied with Tony Gonzalez for most touchdown catches in NFL history by a tight end (111). With his next scoring catch, Gates would also rank sixth all-time behind Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Cris Carter and Marvin Harrison.
“It really isn’t on my mind,” Gates told the Chargers website of the impending milestone. “I don’t think that way. I guess maybe it’s because I haven’t wrapped my head around it all yet. I know it’s happening, and I know it’s a big deal, but it’s not like I’m sitting here every day saying, ‘I need one. I need one.’ But one isn’t the destination for me. The destination is to surpass just one. I have 16 weeks.”
For the Broncos, Trevor Siemian returns for his second season as the team’s starting quarterback after beating out second-year pro Paxton Lynch in training camp. Lynch suffered a right shoulder injury during an exhibition game against Green Bay on Aug. 26 and remains sidelined indefinitely.
Brock Osweiler, who was Peyton Manning’s longtime backup in Denver before signing a free-agent deal with Houston and then being traded in the offseason to Cleveland, was re-signed to back up Siemian after the Browns cut him.
The Broncos, meanwhile, shook up their vaunted “No Fly Zone” defensive secondary when they released veteran safety T.J. Ward. He has been replaced in the starting lineup by Justin Simmons, a second-year man who excelled in the preseason.
The team’s top draft pick, Garett Bolles, gets the start at left tackle and free agent addition Jamal Charles will backup starting running back C.J. Anderson.
Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas resumed practicing this week after being held out of workouts since suffering a thigh injury Aug. 26 against Green Bay. Running back Devontae Booker (broken wrist) and defensive end Zach Kerr (bruised knee) both have missed practice time leading up to the Chargers game.
The Chargers top pick, wide receiver Mike Williams, missed all but the first day of training camp because of a lower back injury. His status remains unclear.