A.J. Smith took over the reins as general manager of the San Diego Chargers on April 11, 2003. With a long and distinguished resume that included 14 years in the Buffalo Bills organization (many of them coinciding with the great Bills teams under Marv Levy), Smith was well qualified to assume the mantle of leadership in San Diego.
He started with a flourish, engineering the much publicized trade of the 2004 draft that sent first overall pick Eli Manning to the New York Giants in exchange for the fourth overall pick in 2004, a third-round selection, and a first the following year.
For Smith, that 2004 draft was the baseball equivalent of a grand slam home run. The Chargers acquired Philip Rivers with the fourth overall pick in the first round, then incredibly went on to draft Igor Olshanksy, Nate Kaeding, Nick Hardwick, Shaun Phillips, Michael Turner, Ryan Bingham, Shane Olivea, and signed undrafted wideout Wes Welker.
The following year, with the second of their first-round picks in the Manning trade, the Chargers took Shawne Merriman, but Smith also brought in Luis Castillo, wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and Darren Sproles. The fact that Merriman went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award only served to enhance Smith’s reputation as shrewd and knowledgeable evaluator of talent—and his command of the front office.
Smith’s incredibly astute selections did not go unnoticed: he was named Pro Football Weekly’s GM of the Year in 2004, and, two years later, Forbes magazine declared him the NFL’s top executive following the Chargers' impressive 14-2 season.
And it didn’t stop there. Adding to a roster that seemed to be bursting at the seams with talent, Smith took Antonio Cromartie in the first round of the 2006 draft and Marcus McNeill in the second. Cromartie electrified Chargers fans with his play in 2007, leading the NFL in interceptions, though his play has not measured up to that standard since then.
However, Smith recruited a fistful of undrafted starters during his early tenure: besides Welker, he signed Antonio Gates, Kris Dielman, Stephen Cooper, special teams stalwart Kassim Osgood, and Jacques Cesaire.
The Chargers teams went 46-18 in the four regular seasons after Smith assumed the general manager’s title, and, to the envy of many other teams, they strongly competed for the AFC West title in each of them, winning three.
Put another way: This was the rise of A.J. Smith.
More recently, however, there are signs that all has not been not well in Charger land. In 2008, the team that Smith assembled struggled dearly, finishing at 8-8 and winning the division only in light of Denver’s late-season collapse. Although the team saved additional face by beating the 12-4 Colts during a wild card matchup, glaring deficiencies abounded a week later when they were steamrolled by the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers: the Steelers ran outside and up with middle with noteworthy aplomb, and beautifully exploited weaknesses in the Chargers line and secondary.
In 2009, after a tenuous 2-3 start, the Chargers effectively ran the table to finish 13-3, riding the golden arm of Rivers, who led the team to a fourth consecutive division title in convincing fashion, sweeping the talented NFC East among other achievements. The Chargers finished the season as the Conference’s No. 2 seed, and at that juncture, perhaps everyone associated with Smith and the Chargers management looked again like geniuses. San Diego entered the playoffs heavily favoured to dispatch the wild card Jets.
But then the wheels came off. The Chargers were embarrassed by the Jets and lost a season-ending playoff game to an AFC East team for the third time in four years.
The loss was a comedy of errors. Players made glaring errors, took undisciplined penalties, and missed assignments.
The loss left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Charger fans, or at least, it left one in mine. But it also left the kind of scar tissue that comes from seeing the same disappointing result bubble to the surface yet again. As John Madden used to say over and over on air, “Great players make great plays to win big games.”
When will a Charger do this? Make a great play to win a big game?
The argument that the Chargers are loaded with talent but can’t quite pull the trigger seems oddly circumspect in light of recent history. Your players either make the plays or they don’t.
Adding to this malaise, one wonders too about the Chargers’ (and Smith’s in particular) more recent performance in player acquisition, particularly in the last three drafts. Although players do require time to develop skills and learn the playbook, it is noteworthy that since 2007, the Chargers have not produced a single player whose development points to anything we might consider elite.
In 2007, the Chargers selected Craig “Buster” Davis during the first round to bolster their wide receiver corps. While the Arizona Cardinals beefed up their wide receiver corps by selecting Steve Breaston in the fifth round, and the Minnesota Vikings beefed up their wide receiver corps by selecting Sidney Rice in the second round, the Chargers beefed up their disabled list with Davis, who has not shown much even when healthy.
In the second round of the 2007 draft, Eric Weddle, for whom the Chargers traded three picks to move up in the draft, was acquired. (After swapping second-rounders, San Diego gave up their third, fifth in 2007, and third in 2008). While Weddle, a safety, rotated in and out of the Charger in 2007, he started every game in 2008 and 2009 when he was healthy.
The verdict: Weddle is serviceable but is certainly not elite. As such, whether he develops into the calibre of player that one considers worth three decent draft picks remains to be seen, but, thus far, one cannot say that Weddle has made Smith’s move look great.
Similarly, in 2008, the Chargers traded up to acquire LSU fullback Jacob Hester in the second round. Hester saw limited action in both 2008 and 2009, sharing time with Mike Tolbert, but the Chargers gave up a second and a fifth in the 2009 draft to get him. Has Jacob Hester shown that he was worth surrendering both a second- and fifth-round pick? He has not, and in fact he seems oddly undersized for a blocking fullback. It doesn't help either that he can't block.
What is apparent, then, from both the 2007 and 2008 drafts, is the Chargers did not produce a bona fide star from either year. 2008 first-round choice Antoine Cason has been the nickel back in obvious passing situations the past two seasons, but, in fact, has moved backward on the depth chart, not forward.
In 2009, the Chargers used their first overall selection to take Larry English, an outside linebacker who had 36 tackles and two sacks rotating in and out of the lineup. In the third round, they selected left guard Louis Vasquez, who beat out veteran Kynan Forney for the starting job and turned in a promising season as a rookie.
As for the balance of the Chargers draft that year, two other notable selections were sixth round choice Kevin Ellison, who saw considerable playing time at safety once Clinton Hart was cut, and fourth-round selection Vaughn Martin, who is optimistically called a “work in progress.”
In fact, one would be hard-pressed to convince me that all of the Chargers' draft choices from 2009 can be classified as anything other than “works in progress.”
Moreover, one also also wonders about the wisdom of trading so many draft choices in the past few years. In the 2008 draft, the Chargers had but four measly picks (plus one compensatory pick). For the record, 2008 produced: Cason, Hester, Marcus Thomas, DeJuan Tribble, and Corey Clark.
While Smith’s tenure is extremely secure with the Chargers, one can’t help but wonder if the lustre of his early years has begun to fade. Clearly, the draft selections in both 2007 and 2008 have not set the world on fire.
Though somewhat successful, there are certainly Chargers fans who disparage the fact that Norv Turner, a Smith choice for head coach, has recently been given a contract extension. Further, Smith also recruited Randy Mueller to assume a significant role in scouting prospects, the same Randy Mueller fired by the Dolphins after having a huge GM role in assembling the team that went 1-15 in 2007.
Is it inconceivable, then, that Smith may fall out of favour in San Diego? The short answer to that question may well be yes—inconceivable—but with so many disappointments compounding themselves since the Midas drafts of 2004-05, the pressure to burst the losing bubble has never been greater. Somewhere, perhaps, it’s written that the first sign of a fall is that the ticking of a clock never sounds louder.