Chargers General Manager AJ Smith is known for his hard-lined, no-nonsense policies, whether it be his approach to the media, his dealings with agents and players, or his philosophy towards free agency and the draft. As he would put it, "there is a book" on him - a track record. Known for keeping an eye on the future, having adequate depth at all positions, and taking care of his own, it's bewildering how such a well-run personnel department prepares to enter a season in which it finds itself caught with it's proverbial pants on the ground; without the services of Pro Bowl players Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeil, and no one legitimate replacements.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement deadline had been looming on the horizon for years; when the owners decided to opt out of the agreement in 2008 they thereby agreed to play the 2010 season without a salary cap. An uncertain situation such as this needed delicate action, but the Chargers seem content to simply freeze. AJ Smith has acknowledged the difficulties with retaining so much young talent in the past. But as someone who knew this day would come, it appears as if he is ill-prepared with what has transpired. It seems as though Smith was gambling that McNeill and Jackson would be happy to sign their tenders and that the Chargers would march towards an eventual Super Bowl berth.
But that's not was has happened. Jackson and McNeill refused to sign and are prepared to sit out a majority of the season. The Chargers will be without two important keys to their offense and could find themselves regressing.
“It hurts,” Smith said. “It hurts when you don’t have your players. How are you going to win a championship without your left tackle and your wideout? I’m sick about it. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how anybody could be more upset about this than me. My head is spinning. I’m trying to replace them. I think we’ve got a good football team. We’re losing a left tackle and a wide receiver, I want our team to know they’re gone. Talk about it now, process it while you’re on vacation, get it out of the way. But they’re not coming back, and we have to move on. If those players change their mind, I’ll deal with it then.”
AJ Smith responded quickly by signing journeymen free agents Tra Thomas and Josh Reed, but those acquisitions strike me as desperate moves, not executions of a well-formulated plan. Hadn't Smith and his front office people been in contact with the agents of Jackson and McNeill? Did they not discuss each others' intentions prior to 2010? Were those lines of communication even open? I would guess not, because the Chargers ignored both the offensive tackle position as well as the wide receiver position in the 2010 NFL Draft. Was drafting a safety and a middle linebacker in the third and fourth rounds really a smart decision? Couldn't the Chargers have found a tackle and a wideout instead?
The Chargers are a frugal team but have shown the willingness to lock-up players who they've identified as a key components to the team. No one will argue against signing Philip Rivers to a $90 million dollar contract, but there have been more than a few who've scratched their heads at deals handed out to Luis Castillo and Jyles Tucker; two players millionaires many times over. And as good as Darren Sproles is, $7 million dollars a year over the past two years is an enormous amount of money for a kick returner and specialty back.
At this point, I think the reality is that Vincent Jackson will not be signing a long-term contract with the San Diego Chargers. Unless the Chargers decide to franchise tag him in 2011, and they very well may, I think he leaves the team and signs a fair market deal elsewhere. And as for Marcus McNeill, I can only hope that the Chargers and McNeill's agent can come to terms on a long-term contract and secure such a valuable position on the Chargers' roster.
“In a normal year, we would be doing contracts,” says Smith. “My philosophy has not changed. I want to identify people and keep them. Under normal conditions, maybe we would have signed them. It’s a unique year, a difficult year. We’re all businessmen. I’m disappointed. They have rights. Unfortunately, it’s not good for us to win a championship without our Pro Bowl left tackle and wide receiver. Not every player can get max contracts. The more star players you have, the more difficult it becomes. But it’s very difficult to win championships without your best players. Everyone knows that.”
It's not hard to find the frustration and disappointment in AJ Smith's words. And if you look closely enough, a certain sense of concession can be found. The Chargers at this point don't seem to be making any big pushes for the 2010 season. With a rookie lead running back, no star receiver available, question marks at offensive tackle, and a tight end who hopes his foot is good to go, it almost sounds as if AJ Smith has lowered his expectations for his team.
“We haven’t won a world championship yet,” Smith says. “We have not been able to get it done. We cannot crack it. If you’ve not hit it yet, and now you have all these obstacles, it’s not fun at all. The bottom line is we’re all passing through here – the players are, and I am, too. I don’t know when Dean Spanos will knock on my door and not want me anymore. How do you know that? So all I can do is stay true to my philosophy.”
It's a philosophy that has worked well in the past, so why does the team now find itself looking unprepared when expectations are so high?
QUOTES SOURCED FROM: The San Diego Union-Tribune and Yahoo! Sports
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