San Diego Chargers: Where Blame Truly Lies

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San Diego Chargers: Where Blame Truly Lies

With another season starting out in a less-than-stellar way, the cries we hear this time of year for Norv Turner's head resound anew.

Yes, it is not too late, and 2-3 is not horrible, but even sitting at 2-1 after the Miami win I had a bad feeling about this year. Despite a solid record they just weren’t looking that good, even when winning. 

Chargers fans are passionate about their team, but the anti-Norv sentiment and rally cries in San Diego have taken focus away from the core problematic issue with the Chargers: A.J. Smith .

The conditions are ripe. He is not well liked in the media and is widely viewed as somewhat sour.  He fired a popular head coach in Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 regular season and replaced him with someone who is seen as something of a likeable putz. 

I think Norv is a nice guy. I think he's great as an offensive mind under a true head coach. So why was he hired?

Why put a guy with an unimpressive head coaching resume, who has rarely displayed the capacity to inspire or fire up a team, in a position to get his players to play their guts out? It seems Norv’s most appealing quality is that he’s a docile "team player" who isn’t going to undercut Smith or try to overstep his bounds. 

This is only speculation, and in contrast to my previous point, it can also be argued that Turner has earned the right to hold onto his job by way of playoff success in less than stellar circumstances. 

However, with regard to specific personnel decisions through the draft and free agency, Turner has given Chargers fans a more concrete set of evidence to resent him with .

I will give A.J. all the credit in the world for the way he played the Manning/Rivers situation.

The Manning family (When push comes to shove I put a lot of blame on daddy Archie over Eli for this one, but ring or no ring I’m still happier with our big farm boy of a ballchucker ) looked to play chicken and A.J. didn’t blink, coming away with a trade package a good deal better than he should have ended up with

Unfortunately, his early drafts put a bit of a protective shield around A.J. that has directed the worst of the under-performing ire away from him and towards Norv and the team itself.

His drafts (being a big "build-from within" sorta guy means this should be his bread and butter) are nothing to speak of.

 

2009 Draft  

I don’t give this one very much weight simply because the players have had less than half a season to showcase themselves, but we’ll judge what we can.

Larry English has looked solid in the time I’ve seen him, and the more we see of Merriman this year the better the pick seems. Still the guy feels like a late 20’a rather than mid teens sort of pick. 

Beyond that there were two third rounders with interesting potential but big wait-and-see tags, a decent value for the round with Ellison, and a great snag in Byrd in the seventh. (If he never sees the field you lose a seventh round pick. If he makes a full recovery you have a second or third rounder for cheap). 

All in all I’d say they got decent value, but when the issue casting the best light on your draft is one of your pro-bowlers underwhelming this year, it still doesn’t ignite excitement.

Now onto 2004-2008, where we can weigh in with more completion:

 

2008 Draft

Cason is looking better and better as Cromartie looks worse and worse. It would not surprise many to see him starting at the end of this year or beginning of next, However he still is a guy working his way up the chart and has yet to topple a guy with 10 good games. 

I’d call him more "meets" than "exceeds" expectations. 

After him there's a whole lotta nuthin

Hester is a starter because there’s no one else to throw in that spot, not because of any quality on his own behalf. We also cannot forget that Hester was picked up at the expense of a fifth rounder in '08 and a second rounder in '09.  

Cason would have to develop into a pro-bowler, not just a solid starter, to call this draft any form of a success. 

 

2007 Draft

Craig Davis is just about gone. Eric Weddle falls under that "starter for lack of anyone else" rather than "earning it outright" category.

The tail end of the draft is the only saving grace as Naanee keeps bumping his way up the depth chart and Siler is a mid-round quality guy coming out of the seventh round

At least most of this draft sees playing time, but only one guy, Naanee really yells "great pick."

 

2006 Draft 

What a year and a half ago looked like a great draft is slowly devolving. 

Cromartie already burned his mulligan last year. He needs to show something soon to keep from sliding down the depth chart. 

Marcus McNeil is still a solid No. 2 but it’s taken four years to get a first day draft pick that you really feel good about (this time next year Cason or English may be added to that list but for now…). 

Dobbins isn’t a pro bowler but is solid value as a fifth

Clary’s a solid backup bumped further up the depth chart than he should be, but as a sixth rounder is a decent snag. 

Overall this is a borderline okay draft if Cromartie stays on the path he’s on. It's a pretty good (still not stellar) one if he goes back to his 10 pick form. (He’ll never be a good tackler/true defender so he needs the INT numbers to be that gaudy to be worthwhile).

 

2005 Draft

This is another draft that two years ago looked great and is now tarnishing a little. 

Merriman had one great year and two solid years.  He's considered all but gone in SD. If he continues as he’s been this year there is no reason to resign him and some team’ll take a chance. 

If he picks it up in the second half (and he’d have to really turn it on for this) then his value probably nets a Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder, who’ll throw more money than he’s worth at him, and he walks anyway. 

Neither proposition means a great return on their investment. 

Castillo is a decent player when on the field, but ultimately as a first rounder pretty much plays at value, not really over value. 

Jackson and Sproles are the gems of this draft. Jackson is quickly evolving into a great number one with pro-bowl numbers, though his value would be much higher with a sure-handed possession guy on the other side. 

Sproles is a great role player as a fourth rounder but this year has really shown that he is just that—a great ROLE player.  He's above value as a fourth rounder but not quite stellar value. 

This draft still floats between "very solid" and "good" depending on what happens with Merriman (though they had a lot to work with this go-around).

 

2004 Draft

’05 solidified the reputation but this was the only one I’d call a great draft.  The choice of Rivers was a foregone conclusion, but the way he handled the Manning situation and played New York like an instrument (ring be damned they still overpaid considering Eli’s “I won’t play in SD” declaration). 

Igor was a fringe starter they let walk.

Kaeding I’m on the fence about. He has a solid overall percentage. But the third round is still fairly high for a kicker, and the guy has shanked just enough big kicks that I call him a solid rather then great choice. 

Hardwick has had injury problems but is still a great value as a third rounder. 

While Phillips has proven he is very much a great "other guy" rather than the primary rusher, as a fourth round pickup it is still a great value relative to where he was snagged. 

Turner’s gone but that is more a testament to his quality, as the fifth rounder churned out great numbers for Atlanta in his first year starting. 

Bingham is nothing special, but still a solid snag considering he’s a seventh rounder.

 

Final Draft Thoughts

The more time passes the weaker Smith's drafts begin to look. 

Two years ago he was a great drafter with an off year. Now he has had three consecutive poor drafts, and those before are looking a good bit weaker then they had looked. 

Merriman’s value to the Chargers is now a slightly protracted flash in the pan while Cromartie’s has been even more flash without being the least bit protracted. 

Looking across all of them '04 and '05 were pretty solid while '06-'08 all fail to impress.  Two out of five is not that great of a track record especially considering he’s had a respectable number of picks to work with. 

 

Now that we’ve looked at the draft, let’s look at some of the other major GM decisions surrounding the current roster:

 

Chris Chambers Traded to San Diego for Second Round Draft Pick  

If you think of the Rivers/Manning swap as more associated with the draft this is the only real major trade on the Chargers roster. It is yet another "two years ago this looked good" deal. 

In 2007 he looked like a good snag for a second rounder as he caught 66 balls for 970 yards. However this guy has 74 catches for about a thousand yards in the two-and-a-half other years with SD. 

Considering the yards and points this team has put up, that is fairly weak for his salary and the loss of a second rounder. 

 

Brand Manumaleuna to the Chargers for a Fourth Rounder  

This one is an underrated move. While Gates gets the attention as the pro-bowl TE with big numbers, this guy is a tank. I’d feel more comfortable behind his blocking than half the O-line’s.

And while he’s a 95 percent blocking TE, has put together a nice handful of big catches here and there.  This is the little under-the-radar type of transaction that occurs all the time on championship squads, and what the Chargers really needed to see more of. 

 

Billy Volek to the Chargers for a Sixth Round Pick  

Another good subtle trade, this guy is one of the better backups in the league (see 2007 playoffs) and was picked up for a pittance. 

Overall that makes for one poor middling trade and two solid small trades.  That's not horrible, but what stands out more is that that’s about it for the team’s roster. 

Let’s pair with it some of the other major considerations of this roster:

 

LT Restructures Contract, Remains With the Team Instead of Being Cut  

Ultimately this move is biting the team in the keister thus far. He is pretty much playing the poster boy for the workhorse running back age adage. 

That having been said, I still like this move .  Dumping him in the offseason would have been a PR nightmare for the team and now if he is let go after this year, the backlash will be much weaker.  However…

Franchising Sproles is completely idiotic to me. This is a very good player, one you want to be on the team.  But this is not a $6.6 million guy, and despite his eye-raising performances, no team was going to dump genuine starter’s pay on him. 

Now you overpay him this year and have to play the free agent game again with him next year. Where’s the benefit?

 

Olshansky Allowed to Leave Via Free Agency  

This guy was not really progressing, however if you are going to let your starting DE walk, at least find yourself a depth guy to replace him. 

This move was dumb because they let him go with no real replacement aside from a project third rounder that should need at least two years of development. 

 

Signed Kevin Burnett  

Not a bad rotation guy, but this was a 2008 weak link and it would have been nice to see a bit more attention.

(The foolish what-if-er in me wonders about that second round '09 pick lost in the name of Jacob Hester, and trading up for a certain USC alum snagged in the early second, but I’ll try to avoid theory crafting). 

As it stands the team gets some points for addressing a need, but it's very vanilla as the only signee .

 

Chargers Don’t Sign Jermaine Phillips 

This is the only other guy they really publicly took a long look at.  While sitting on the IR is not a ringing endorsement for the guy, a broken thumb is not a nagging "this guy is injury prone" type of thing.

And while safety was the absolute weakest single position on the Chargers in ’08, they allowed him to sign elsewhere figuring they’d be fine with what they had ("what they had" in his spot has already been cut five games in). 

So now the team’s banking on a fifth rounder to develop into their starting strong safety.  Ellison has some potential, but this team’s secondary looks a lot different with a genuine starter at safety. 

 

Now that a lot of names and numbers have been thrown out here what does it all mean? 

Essentially it boils down to a team that was built by the end of 2005, and has been content to rest on its laurels (we lost because X was injured, we were one or two bounces away from winning, etc.) since then. 

What this has resulted in is a team with an excellent core that keeps fraying at the edges because there is utterly no depth.  This leaves a team with great potential but highly vulnerable to:

1. A big injury (Merriman last year, Jamal Williams this year)

2. A player underperforming (Cromartie both years, Merriman this year)

With no depth you have no one who can step up when any issues present themselves; i.e. the team is poorly equipped to deal with any real form of adversity. 

Very few teams can go a full 16 games plus playoffs without any of those issues, so the odds are a top heavy glass house of a team will fall below expectations more often than not. 

You cannot expect to have a pro bowl nose tackle go down and have a near equal backup step smoothly into his cleats.  But you can be aware you have a 33-year-old 350-pounder with balky knees, and have some plan in place for his missing time beyond scrambling for a waiver-wire undersized guy picked up and slapped into place after the fact.

 

Final Verdict

To boil this oversized rant down, I think Norv is the focal point of scrutiny, but the reality is that A.J. Smith has a lot to do with the underwhelming Chargers of the last year and a half. 

The further and further he gets from the John Butler era, the weaker his personnel decisions have appeared. He has essentially kept a team on the verge rather than taken the next step because he has been stubbornly adherent to the formula he decided to go with

Without taking any adaptive steps this team is now slowly stepping down from "on the cusp" to "middle of the road."

 

Coda

His build almost entirely from within technique (there is a difference between draft-centric and almost exclusively via the draft. A.J. leans closer to exclusivity then centricity ) and overall formula brings to mind another team, the Ron Wolf Packers

Both have tried to stay very narrowly focused on the draft.  Both have gone with a "draft who we like most over drafting to a need" for the most part.  Both looked on the verge of the Superbowl around 2007. 

Both have a great quarterback and a defense that has performed below expectations the last year and a half. Both have lost their biggest divisional game thus far. 

Take the luxury of a Lions game away from the Packers and I think these two teams look exceedingly similar. They've both had their GM’s bacon saved by some solid QB play.

 

While unrelated, I’ll tack this on as part of the coda that it is a head coach's place to call out lackadaisical play and try to light that fire.

Was Smith right in his assessment of the Chargers when he criticized? Yes of course.  Was it his place to call them out? No. 

His need to be the top dog has put a coach there willing to step back and let the GM make the fiery statements, which can breed a resentment you won’t necessarily get when it's either kept in house or addressed by the guy roaming the sidelines day in and day out with the players. 

While not a personnel decision I still call it a bad move on A.J.’s side.

As this has already stretched about twice as long as I expected I’ll move the final thought process, “what the offseason should look like” onto its own article as a companion piece .


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