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The question is not whether San Diego Chargers president Dean Spanos should fire Marty Schottenheimer when the two finally meet on Tuesday or Wednesday. The real question is: Who do you hire to replace Schottenheimer?

On Sunday, as players, coaches and fans were reeling from the AFC divisional playoff loss to the Patriots, Spanos and general manager A.J. Smith were already discussing the options. They spent more than two hours talking, according to a team source.

There is no question that Smith, who has an icy relationship with Schottenheimer, wants a change.

Smith told Yahoo! Sports reporter Charles Robinson in an article that ran in November that he didn't have the answer to whether a playoff berth was enough to secure Schottenheimer's job. He also added that he believed the Chargers had the roster to advance in the playoffs and compete for a Super Bowl.

So if the Schottenheimer era in San Diego is over after five years, a 47-33 regular season mark and two playoff losses, where do the Chargers turn next?

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron might not be the sexy choice, but he is the best fit. Higher-profile candidates could emerge, but San Diego is better off with the lesser known assistant.

The Chargers, AFC West champions two of the past three seasons, clearly have the personnel to contend for a Super Bowl title. Cameron, trusted by the players, would help to retain a sense of continuity if he's promoted. However, the instinct in this situation is to lure the popular choice and there are some obvious options.

Everyone will wonder if recently resigned Steelers coach Bill Cowher can be coaxed into succeeding his good friend. In addition, Spanos has been good friends with former Cowboys and Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson for years and earlier tried to talk Johnson into going from one ocean view to another. The reality is both of those men are long shots.

Cowher has told everyone who will listen that he's done for at least a year and the Steelers will likely ask a pretty penny to let Cowher out of the final year of his contract if he changes his mind.

As for Johnson, he was cooked back in 1998 when Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga talked him into one more year. Johnson then spent most of his final days in 1999 as coach day-trading stocks rather than taking stock of his team.

Perhaps the idea of playing another royal flush like he had in Dallas could be of interest to Johnson, but it's doubtful despite his wonderfully perceptive remark about the New England-San Diego game during the FOX pre-game show Sunday.

Essentially, when everyone else was saying that Schottenheimer needed to make sure he didn't fall prey to his conservative, "Marty-ball" tendencies, Johnson said Sunday was the perfect time for Schottenheimer to revert to form. The Chargers were simply the better team and they were playing at home. This was the equivalent of having a hand locked up at the poker table. As Johnson figured, there was no reason to gamble.

The truly pitiful part for Schottenheimer, now 5-13 in the postseason, is that such issues were all he really had to worry about this season. By his admission, Schottenheimer had relinquished control of the play calling on both sides of the ball, entrusting Cameron and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. That left Schottenheimer to consider the big picture, the strategic thinking. On Sunday, when Johnson was calling for Schottenheimer to make obvious choices, Schottenheimer gambled unnecessarily.

That left San Diego, a team loaded with nine Pro Bowlers and absurd depth in the salary-cap era, to consider a bunch of ugly questions that all teams hate:

How do you dump a very good coach who just doesn't happen to be great?

Do you make a splash with the next head coach, like Tampa Bay did with the hiring of Jon Gruden in 2002? Or do you play it more conservative and go with one of your own?

How do you keep an angry public thinking positively at such a critical time?

The Chargers are in desperate need of a new stadium if they are going to stay in San Diego. Anaheim, Calif., is beckoning, but Spanos, who lives in posh La Jolla, and is deep into the San Diego social scene, doesn't want to leave town. Spanos needs the momentum that usually comes only with playoff victories and Super Bowl runs.

Now, however, about the only thing that might appease the disappointed masses is sacrificing a coach.

Oh, and finding a really good one to replace him.

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