San Diego Chargers Dominate The AFC West: GM AJ Smith Does It Right

phinneas cContributor IMay 11, 2009

1980:  Center Bill Walton of the San Diego Clippers stands on the court during a game against the Chicago Bulls at Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois.  Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport

San Diego isn't much of a sports town. 

The Padres, short-lived playoff visits in 2005 & 2006, allowed ownership to dupe the public into fronting big bucks for a new ballpark.  Since then, its back to fielding a weak product while owner John Moores unskillfully negotiates divorce court.  

Is it a little difficult for you to get permission to pay for a major league payroll, Mr. Moores?  Thanks for the civic responsibility lesson and the Triple A squad, sir.     

The ill fated NBA squad shipped out to loathed Los Angeles years ago.  The Clippers hired World B Free, Tom Chambers, Terry Cummings, Norm Nixon & home town hero, Bill Walton to no avail.  They remain one of sports ongoing punchlines. 

San Diego hosted Norton/Ali in the 70s when Norton broke the champ's jaw with a vicious and truly underrated performance.  Other than that, there is not much to brag about.  If you're looking for excellence in San Diego sports, there is but one question to answer. 

Indoor Soccer anyone?  

These Chargers are different.  They've won 3 AFC West Division titles in a row, and 4 of the last 5.  Denver, Kansas City and Oakland have been reduced to rubble.  Each is a horrible mess.  Does anyone out there believe the new regimes in Denver, KC and Oakland will win the AFC West this year or next?  Good luck, my friends.    

It is not a coincidence that those teams are stuck in rebuilding mode while San Diego sprints into the playoffs every year.  KC lost Dick Vermeil, and Oakville lost Chuckie Gruden many moons ago.  To paraphrase Rick Pitino, neither Derrick Thomas nor Howie Long will be reporting for voluntary offseason workouts anytime soon.     

It could not have been much uglier than last year in Denver.  The incredibly overrated, but immaculately coifed QB Jay Cutler effectively axed exceptional coach Mike Shanahan.  Cutler and crew gagged 3 in a row down the stretch with a 3 game lead.  Cutler did so after he choked early in the season against San Diego, only to be bailed out by referee Ed Hoculi. 

Now, he's a great QB?  He's never even won the AFC West, let alone a playoff game.    

Speaking of the playoffs, ask Peyton Manning how he's enjoyed each of his exits following the '07 and '08 seasons.  A really physical Tennessee Titans squad got beat up by the Bolts in '07, causing their playoff exit.  San Diego remains among the finest NFL teams year in and year out.        

Their constant during this surge is General Manager/Puppet Master AJ Smith.  He started in 2003 and has kicked butt for five years and counting.  Judging by the national and local attention he gets, which is to say critical if at all, he is misunderstood.   

He employs a three fold strategy.

  • Draft Well;
  • Don't sign expensive free agents; and,
  • Pay the players on your own team for successful performance.


Starting in '04, his drafts have been sensational.  He bamboozled the NY Giants into giving up a package including two first round drafts picks for Eli Manning.  They became starting QB Phillip Rivers, excellent kicker Nick Kaeding, All-Star Rush Backer Shaun Merriman and others. 

He's drafted Shaun Phillips, Luis Castillo, Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, Marcus McNeill, Michael Turner, Antonio Cromartie and Antoine Cason.  Those are some big time ball players. Davis comes to mind, but Chargers' draft nails it more often than not.  Watch this year's draftees contribute, such as Larry English, despite the "F" grade proffered by Sporting News and various national publications.               

He has no use for big dollar free agents.  He quietly signs lesser named players and brings in great developmental talent. 

Randall Godfrey, Steve Foley and Brandon Maumaleuna contributed big time on the cheap.  Antonio Gates, Kassim Osgood and Kris Dielman went from undrafted to All Pros.  This year, he signed tackling machine Kevin Burnett from Dallas to fill a gaping need at inside backer.  

He bit the bullet and renegotiated with local legend LT.  LT's selflessness matched AJ's foresight in liberating cash to sign players to win in the future.  He pays big dollars exclusively to proven San Diego performers like LT, Rivers and Darren Sproles.  Other media darlings including Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck deservedly get credit for their ongoing success. 

They were seen as heroes for working similar deals as AJ and LT.  But, AJ doesn't seem to be appreciated, even here in San Diego.  If you don't think AJ knows how to win in the NFL, sprint the 40 in Denver, KC or Oaktown's cleats.       


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