In 2003, AJ Smith was chosen as the General Manager for the San Diego Chargers and promptly built a team that, from 2004 to 2009 won as many division titles (5) as the league leading Colts and Patriots did during that period, and won more regular season games than all but three teams during those years. Things went south after that though, with three more years of bad drafting, inactivity in the trade market, and an over reliance on free agency. He was ultimately fired, along with Head Coach Norv Turner, at the end of the 2012 season (and hired by the Redskins).
This piece is an exploration of what went wrong for Smith in San Diego and what his son, Kyle Smith, the Redskins new Vice President of Player Personnel, might do to avoid having a similar fate befall him in DC.
Starting with a Splash
When Smith became the Chargers’ GM in 2003, after the death of previous GM John Butler, he inherited a miserable team, one that had gone 14-34 in the previous 3 seasons (Kyle inherited a Redskins team that has gone 17-31 over its prior 3), and that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1995.
In the 2004 draft though, he made his mark early. Ole Miss product, Eli Manning was the consensus #1 pick in the draft, and the Chargers, having just finished 4-12, had that #1 pick. The Chargers had planned on re-building their team around Manning, but it was reported that Eli’s father, former NFL QB, Archie Manning, had a strong preference for Eli landing in NY with the Giants (who had the #4 pick). Despite Manning’s stated objection to being drafted by the Chargers, Smith took him #1 overall, without any apparent escape plan in place.
At #2, the Raiders picked Robert Gallery (T), with the Cardinals subsequently selecting Larry Fitzgerald (WR). The Giants came on the clock with Ben Roethlisberger as their QB of choice (given that Eli was already off the board), but they knew that Philip Rivers was the second choice of the Chargers, and that he would have more cache with Smith if they were able to orchestrate a trade.
Giants’ GM Ernie Accorsi selected Rivers, and promptly pulled off a trade that sent Rivers and the Giants’ 2004 3rd round pick, 2005 first round pick, and 2005 5th round pick to San Diego for Eli Manning. AJ Smith would say of the trade back that kicked off his career with the Chargers:
“[The trade] was the most satisfying moment for me in my career and I really mean that. I would say that if I was ever fortunate to win a Super Bowl, I’m sure it would’ve trumped that, but I don’t know that. I gotta tell you there was a lot of highs and lows in the business, but that moment was the greatest high for me as an executive for an organization.”
Over the next year, Smith was able to turn the picks that accompanied Rivers into All Pro kicker Nate Kaeding, All Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman, and tackle Roman Oben, laying the foundation for an unprecedented period of Chargers’ success.
A Costly Miscalculation
While Smith did pull off the blockbuster Manning-Rivers trade back - which accrued the team significant draft capital for the coming years - that move has to be put in important context: It was deemed necessary by virtue of a tremendous failure to recognize the QB talent the Chargers already had in house - future HOFer Drew Brees - who had been selected as the first pick in the second round of the 2001 draft. (Imagine if the Chargers had traded back with the Giants only to take the player selected #5 - Sean Taylor (S) - instead of Rivers, and fielded a team captained by Brees on the offense and Taylor on the defense for years to come.)
Despite drafting Rivers in 2004, Brees started 15 games that year, leading the team to a 12-4 record. Subsequently, the Chargers franchise tagged Brees in 2005, and started him all 16 games, and he lead the team to a 9-7 record. In a bizarre twist, with Rivers still in the wings, the Chargers offered Brees a heavily incentive-laden 5-year contract after the 2005 season. Brees passed up that offer, signed with the Saints, and the rest is history.
AJ’s Draft Evolution
In 2004, Smith had 11 draft picks, and used them create the Chargers’ core for the next half decade plus. In addition to Rivers and Kaeding, that draft produced center Nick Hardwick, who would start with the team for a decade, DE Shaun Phillips, who would collect 81.5 sacks over his career, and starting tackle Shane Olivea. In 2005, the Chargers only had 7 draft picks, but made them count, taking Merriman, Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson, and Darren Sproles. In 2006, they had 8 picks and hit on All Pro CB Antonio Cromartie and tackles Marcus McNeil and Jeromey Clary.
Things dropped off fairly precipitously from there, however:
2007 - 6 picks - Only hit on safety, Eric Weddle. [traded up, lost 3rd rounder, 5th rounder, and 2008 3rd rounder]
2008 - 5 picks - Missed on all of them. [traded away 2nd pick for Chris Chambers (WR)]
2009 - 8 picks - Bombed on virtually all but G Louis Vasquez.
2010 - 6 picks - Very little production other than Ryan Matthews (RB). [traded up, lost 2nd rounder]
2011 - 8 picks - DT Corey Liuget was the only player to make it to a second contract with the team.
2012 - 7 picks - Only hit on DE Melvin Ingram. [traded up, lost a 6th rounder]
The ‘Lord of No Rings’
As the Chargers stalled around 2010, and Smith grew more imperious and withdrawn, the local, San Diego media crowned him the “Lord of No Rings.” A number of his actions during this period are actually remarkably reminiscent of Bruce Allen’s tenure in Washington - with the notable fact that Bruce’s teams were far less successful during the regular season.
In exactly the same way that Bruce failed to sign and/or trade Kirk Cousins and Brandon Scherff, Smith dawdled on how to handle the contracts of Vincent Jackson, their Pro Bowl WR, and Marcus McNeill, their Pro Bowl tackle. Eventually, McNeill was resigned, and then promptly retired, while Jackson was franchise tagged and ultimately signed by the Buccaneers.
In another eerie similarity, Smith eventually got into a power struggle with his head coach, Marty Schottenheimer, and owner Dean Spanos came down on Smith’s side. Communication was so poor between Smith and Schottenheimer that when the split came, Marty had no idea why he had been fired, because the GM refused to talk with him about it.
When Schottenheimer was replaced, it was with Norv Turner - recognized as a talented OC, but generally considered a lackluster head coach. There was a strong sense that Turner was hired as Smith’s “Yes” Man, with Smith going so far as to force a defensive coordinator <shudders>, Ted Cotrell, on Turner. Turner’s likely preference for that spot? Ron Rivera.
AJ Smith, like his son, Kyle, started out as a scout, eventually ascending to Director of Pro Personnel for the Bills during their Super Bowl runs. As a scout elevated to GM, it’s easy to envision how he could have become enamored with his own talent evaluation prowess. And indeed, that apparently happened to Smith, beginning around 2007 (see above), where he selected draft bust Craig Davis (WR), in the first round, well above the rank given to him by any of other draft talent evaluators.
Even their trade up to select the talented Eric Weddle (S) in the second round (#37) - widely considered a third round pick by others - cost the Chargers their second rounder (#62), third rounder, fifth rounder, and 2008 third rounder. Subsequent drafts were characterized by Smith taking players in the early rounds sooner than they were rated, and evidently doing so without the input of his coaches. This was capped off by the overdrafting of Ryan Matthews in the first round of the 2010 draft via a trade up with the Dolphins that basically cost the Chargers their second round pick that year.
What Can Kyle Learn from His Father’s Experience?
The AJ Smith story is a decidedly mixed bag. He enjoyed great success as a scout and personnel guy for the Buffalo Bills during one of the most incredible runs in NFL history. He was promoted at 53 to GM of the Chargers. He parlayed Eli Manning into a bounty of picks that allowed him to build the foundation for a consistent winner in San Diego. But eventually, things went off the rails and he was fired. Why?
From what I can gather, there are several important lessons from AJ Smith’s career arc with the Chargers. Lessons his son, Kyle, would be wise to keep in mind in his new role.
- When it comes to the draft, never underestimate the value of trading back early - AJ called the trade back for Philip Rivers “the most satisfying moment of his career,” and for good reason: It allowed him jump start the Chargers and set them on a path of consistent success. That first draft, Smith would have 11 picks. He would never have more than 8 in any draft during the rest of his time in San Diego. (The Redskins had 10 picks in 2019).
- Don’t become overly enamored with your own skill at drafting - I would guess that, particularly as a former scout, it is very easy to become overconfident in one’s own ability to spot talent, particularly after a strong draft or two. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, I love the Ravens’ GM, Eric DeCosta’s, take on this topic:
We look at the draft as, in some respects, a luck-driven process. The more picks you have, the more chances you have to get a good player. When we look at teams that draft well, it’s not necessarily that they’re drafting better than anybody else. It seems to be that they have more picks. There’s definitely a correlation between the amount of picks and drafting good players.
I suspect what happened to the senior Smith was that he absolutely crushed the 2004 draft (where he had about 4 more picks than he would during an average draft over the next 8 years), drafted well in 2005 & 2006, and then began to overestimate his own abilities. He started trading up (and trading away high picks), often for players that others rated less highly than he did, and the Chargers’ talent pipeline dried up. Then they started losing.
If you think you can outpick the scouts on all 31 other teams, you’re probably wrong. Here’s hoping that the 2019 Redskins draft class - which was just named the NFL’s most productive group of rookies - doesn’t go to Kyle’s head.
3. Be decisive in dealing with your free agents - Making salary negotiations personal, trying to “win” negotiations with players for the sake of winning, and undervaluing your top talent are all poor looks for a GM and recipes for discontent. Don’t draw out signing talent that you want to keep. Conversely, don’t be afraid to trade away talent that you don’t want to, or likely won’t be able to, re-sign. Good players need to return value, either by being signed to a second contract, being traded for picks/players, or, as an option of last resort, being allowed to walk for a compensatory pick that can be realized. If they don’t return value, that is on you as GM.
4. Be collaborative - Kyle seems to be part of a strong management team with the Redskins, exemplified by Ron Rivera putting an emphasis on a collaborative culture. With Rivera, Jack Del Rio, Doug Williams, and his entire, established, scout team in the building, Kyle has a deep bench of talent evaluation prowess at his disposal. Do the opposite of what Bruce Allen would have done: Be humble, recognize your own shortcomings, share credit, and shoulder the blame for mistakes, when they inevitably happen.
Do you think that Kyle Smith can have a more successful front office run than his father did with the Chargers?
This poll is closed
Yes, if he follows his father’s model.
Yes, if he learns from his father’s experience and avoids his mistakes.
No, I don’t think he can be better than AJ.