Going into the 2003 season, the Chargers had a mediocre offense and a below average defense . They did have a couple good things in place, LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees, who were selected in the same draft by the previous GM in that great Vick for Picks trade. AJ Smith walked in, didn't like what he saw in Brees and made a decision to go get himself a QB of his own. The coach, Marty Schottenheimer, was not "his guy" either. Mind you, Brees was only 25 when the Chargers entered the 2004 draft with the number 1 selection (this feeds into my point of NFL teams expecting too much too soon from young QBs). Smith has wanted to impose his wishes and his vision on the franchise without anyone else's input.
Oh how great AJ Smith was to trade that number 1 pick (Eli Manning) for the bounty of picks from the Giants. Much is made of the Eli Manning trade, and how the Giants have not had a good return on the trade. I guess playoff appearances don't mean anything to them. Very little attention is paid to the Chargers end of the trade. The Chargers received Phillip Rivers, and other picks which turned into their kicker and a pro bowl LB (who does 'roids). The Chargers right now have a worse QB than either Brees or Manning, and they will be lucky to make the playoffs this year. Smith gave up on a 25 year old QB to get a new QB to develop, all the while their Hall of Fame running back keeps getting older. If Smith had given Brees another year and used that number 1 pick to trade for another type of player, the Chargers could be sitting pretty with a defense that not only has Shawne Merriman at LB & Castillo at DT but Sean Taylor at safety. Maybe they would run a two TE offense with Kellen Winslow Jr. along with Antonio Gates. Maybe they would have a real number 1 WR option for Brees in Roy Williams. These are a few of the high first round picks from that draft the Chargers could have picked up besides trading for another QB.
Once AJ Smith made that decision, he was locked into starting Rivers by year 3. The salary cap implications of a high first round pick are too costly to keep him on the bench. He could not forsee Brees turning inpro bowl seasons, but once that happened he could definitely have tried to either trade Brees for anything or dump Rivers off on another team. Smith sided with his guy, Rivers, and eventually allowed Brees, the clubhouse and Schottenheimer favorite, to leave for nothing. In his defense, Brees did have shoulder surgery and was damaged goods because of it, but Smith allowed the situation to arise with no compensation for his team. To let a pro bowl QB leave for nothing is a crime in the NFL. Why not franchise him the first time, but settle for one first round pick if you believe in Rivers so much? Why not offer him a real deal as you negotiate a trade of Rivers to fill in the blank team after a second stellar season? He made the game personal instead of keeping it business.
A glaring hole in the Chargers offense has been production from the WR spot. Smith recently traded a 2nd round pick for Chris Chambers (overpaid for him) to fix this problem. this is a bit late, but I give him credit for trying anything. It's bad when your passing attack with your guy at QB revolves around a TE and screen passes. Let's rewind things a bit. It's the 2005 draft. San Diego has two first round picks because of the Eli trade. They did pick up two good defensive players (Merriman and Castillo). Those picks made the 2006 defense what it was (along with Wade Phillips' blitz packages). What else could they have done? Hmmm, the Chargers could have used one of those first round picks as trade bait for Randy Phucking Moss. Yup, Moss was on the market, and the Chargers had a giant hole at WR. How on earth did they not use one of those picks to get Moss? Can you imagine an offense with the NFL's best WR (moss), the best RB (tomlinson), the best TE (gates) and one of the top 5 QBs (brees) in the NFL? I can. Think Dallas in '94 with Irvin/Emmitt/Aikman/Novacek.
The final wafer thing mint to this feast of bad moves or non-moves is the firing of Marty Schottenheimer and subsequent hiring of Norv Turner. Smith never liked Marty. Never. They did not get along from a personality standpoint nor saw eye to eye with what direction they wanted to go with the team. Marty did have a .588 winning pct as coach of the Chargers. The Chargers may have gone to the playoffs 3 years in a row if not for AJ Smith playing hardball with Antonio Gates concerning his contract negotiations costing them a loss in week 1, which kept them out of the playoffs. Yes, even as the number 1 seed in 2006 Marty lost a home playoff game in crushing fashion, which has happened to Marty quite a bit. Do you fire him? I said at the time yes, but only if you have a great guy who has been there before to step in (Vermeil & Parcells). If not, believe in your 'maestro' ability to build a team and your coach. The Chargers lost with so many weird little things not going their way. That, and an inability to use Tomlinson in the 4th quarter when he was carving the Patriots up all day. AJ Smith came out and supported Marty, watched the assistants leave for other coaching jobs, then fired him and replaced him with a recycled, failure of a coach: Norv Turner. If you get rid of Marty, either go for a top notch guy as I typed above or give the team to an assistant who will allow for some consistency from the 14-2 season. Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips both left for head coaching jobs, and I get the feeling both would have stayed if asked. AJ Smith hired Norv Turner probably with the idea that he had assembled such a great team any idiot could get them to the Super Bowl and Norv Turner is good at developing young QBs. This arrogance has caused Smith to put his "guys" into key spots. How might have the Chargers of 2006 done in the playoffs with Drew Brees at the helm instead of Rivers? What about the offense with Moss or Roy Williams added to it, or weak secondary with Sean Taylor added to it? What about this season with most of the coaching staff still intact or all intact? This arrogance has caused Smith to take hard stances at every turn. It has clouded his ability to make sound judgments to give his team the best chance to win football games.
*****Note: I am pretty biased concerning Drew Brees because I liked his college career and hoped the Cowboys would draft him. I also thought that the best 'player' in the 2004 NFL draft was Sean Taylor (followed by Larry Fitzgerald and Kellen Winslow). Run on sentence coming... I also felt that if you have a decent QB and Randy Moss is available for a first round pick and you have two picks, trade a goddamn pick and pick up the best pure athlete to ever play WR, it's a no brainer. Good QBs are hard to find so the Chargers could have received a 1st rounder for Brees. It's just too odd that the Chargers have actually received so little for what they have given up or traded for. I think the optimal arrangement would have been Eli for the bounty of picks which would have included Sean Taylor, but instead of Merriman, the Chargers would have traded that pick for Moss. The loss of Merriman's pass rushing skills would be partially covered defensively by the best young safety in the league and offensively by the long ball threat of Randy Moss.