I have generally tried not to be overly, publicly, vocal about sharing my opinions on what’s happening with the Chargers over the last few years. I have a platform to share my views with a wider audience than most, and yet I’ve been reticent to use it. And I’m reticent to use it now, because it will merely look like I’m piling on. Or sour grapes. Or something.
But enough is enough. Something’s gotta give out there in Murphy Canyon. This team has been in a sort of death spiral for several years now, and it’s painfully obvious that the current regime is incapable of preventing the Titanic from going down.
The ship needs a new captain, and no, I’m not talking about the head coach. The head coach is not responsible for restocking an increasingly depleted roster. That duty falls on the General Manager, AJ Smith. Turner can only do so much with the roster he’s been given to work with. And since the 2005 draft, it’s the personnel decisions that must be called into question.
We can actually start with the 2004 decision to jettison Drew Brees. I know, Brees wasn’t cast aside until after the 2005 season, but it was on draft day 2004 that Smith made the choice of anointing Philip Rivers the franchise QB. Brees’ stellar 2004 season and Pro Bowl 2005 performance only made getting rid of him more difficult, and the shoulder injury Brees suffered in the regular season finale against the Broncos that year gave Smith exactly the excuse he needed: There’s no way Brees could come back from a shoulder injury that severe.
Privately, quietly, I’m sure Smith knew that wasn’t true. Anyone who knew Brees at the time knew that he would do anything and everything necessary to recover and return to form in The League. But that wasn’t the point. Rivers was Smith’s guy. Period. End of discussion. Thank you for your services Mr. Brees. They will no longer be required.
All Brees has done since his departure from San Diego is become one of the premier quarterbacks in a quarterback driven league, leading his New Orleans Saints to a win in Super Bowl XLIV, earning MVP honors.
In 2005, the selection of Shawne Merriman was hailed as brilliant, but there were those within the organization that had serious reservations. Character matters, after all, but with Merriman’s early career performance, those reservations didn’t seem to bother anyone, as long as he continued to play like a superstar. Then came the positive test for steroids, the suspension, and the utter disappearance of Mr. Merriman, who has played in five games this year for Buffalo, recording a grand total of three tackles and one sack. Those reservations suddenly don’t seem so silly anymore, and his actual talent appears to have been grossly overestimated.
There was the first round pick spent on Buster Davis. And another spent on Larry English, who was touted as Merriman’s successor, but has led a career fraught with injuries of various nature and who has yet to break into the starting lineup on his own merit. Yet a third first round pick was spent on Antonio Cromartie, who is currently earning a paycheck from the New York Jets. And Antoine Cason has not exactly achieved elite status, either.
Smith has been notorious for antagonizing his team’s players, particularly ones who have upcoming contract negotiations. In 2009, he openly mocked LaDainian Tomlinson, the player who for nearly a decade had been the face of the franchise for essentially saying that he wanted to finish his career with the only professional team he had known; the Chargers. Smith wanted Tomlinson to know that his future was in his hands, and his alone, and if he wanted to get rid of one of the greatest players in franchise history, he would do so without blinking. And he did.
He seemingly went out of his way to alienate two players who had performed at Pro Bowl levels for his team and their agents, refusing to offer them the long term contract that each deserved. Darren Sproles became one of the most dynamic players in The League, and Vincent Jackson one of the most feared receivers in all of football. But Smith seemed hell bent on showing them who was in charge, doing nearly everything in his power to drive them both away.
Sproles is now starring with Brees in New Orleans, and Jackson is having another stellar year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while their replacements in San Diego languish below mediocrity.
Perhaps Smith’s biggest failure is along the offensive line, the current version of which leaks like a sieve. In 2006 the team drafted Marcus McNeil in the second round, a player of certain first round talent. The team knew all too well that McNeil’s career would be a short one because of a congenital narrowing of his spinal column, yet when McNeil’s career came to an abrupt but predictable end, Smith had no viable replacement in place. They scrambled, signed Jared Gaither off the street in the middle of the 2011 season, then signed Gaither to a big money contract during the offseason, and were rewarded with a player who was oft injured and couldn’t find his way to the field and ultimately was placed on season ending injured reserve.
Of the offensive linemen that Smith has drafted since McNeil, none have proven to be up to the task. And when former All-Pro left guard Kris Dielman announced his retirement, there was only mediocre talent to step into his shoes. Tyronne Green and Louis Vasquez would be hard pressed to find a starting job anywhere else in the league. Right tackle has been sore spot for years now.
The atmosphere in the Murphy Canyon facility is toxic because Smith rules with an iron fist. Chargers Park was once a place where neither the players nor the staff wanted to leave at the end of the work day. Now it seems it’s just a job that can be eagerly cast aside once the clock strikes 5pm.
Smith is not interested in opinions that differ from his, not even from the scouts whose job it is to evaluate players for the draft. You’ve submitted your report, and your evaluation is noted. Now go sit in the corner and keep quiet. Compare that to his predecessor, who wanted to hear differing opinions, knowing that they made his own decision making process stronger.
Norv Turner is the easy scapegoat in this mess, and it is very easy (and popular) to blame him for all of the Chargers’ woes. After all, he was a failure in Washington with the Redskins and a failure in Oakland with the Raiders. Why should San Diego have expected anything different from him? But here’s a more pertinent question: What have the Raiders and Redskins done since Turner’s departure? Have either team improved at all? Maybe the problem wasn’t Norv Turner, but rather ownership and/or management? Dan Snyder and the late Al Davis don’t exactly have histories of being great or easy people to work for. Not even Mike Shanahan has been able to right the Redskins badly listing craft.
Turner took a roster that went 14-2 the year before he arrived and earned a 13-3 mark and a berth in the AFC Championship game with a group that more resembled a MASH unit than a football team. But since then the roster has been on a downward trajectory that has only gained momentum of late. Turner can only do so much if he doesn’t have the players to work with.
Lord knows that Norv Turner is not a perfect man or a perfect coach. He could surely benefit from hiring an offensive coordinator that he can entrust the playcalling duties to while he does what a head coach is supposed to do and manage the game. That Turner is too preoccupied with running his offense to effectively be a head coach on the sidelines is perhaps a valid criticism. And maybe—just maybe—a change at head coach is necessary at this point, although I’m not convinced it is.
But I am absolutely certain that a change must be made at General Manager. AJ Smith’s tenure has run its course, and it’s time for new leadership; someone who will create a more positive atmosphere instead of the utterly noxious environment that has poisoned the entire franchise. Only then can Dean Spanos begin to see his team’s fortunes change for the better.
And if this piece sounds like sour grapes or is perceived as piling on, then so be it. Someone has to say it.
Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyCohenSD