Veterans’ holdouts stand to hurt Rivers

SAN DIEGO – The hesitation is slight yet noticeable. And since San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith is almost never caught without something to say on subjects germane to his team, the moment is telling.

As the saying goes in journalism, Smith can fill a notebook. But at this moment, Smith is taken ever-so-slightly aback.

Rivers must get accustomed to changes on offense.
(Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire)

The question is about the philosophy of Smith’s mentor, Colts president Bill Polian. Polian has spared no effort to keep quarterback Peyton Manning(notes) surrounded with talent. In the 12 seasons since taking Manning with the No. 1 overall pick in 1998, Polian has used six of 12 first-round picks on offensive skill position players: tight end Dallas Clark(notes), wide receivers Reggie Wayne(notes) and Anthony Gonzalez(notes), and running backs Edgerrin James(notes), Joseph Addai(notes) and Donald Brown(notes).

Polian’s thinking, much like other great football minds such as the late Bill Walsh and recently Bill Belichick, is obvious: You don’t put a great quarterback out there and not help him.

Thus, the question becomes: What are the Chargers really thinking with this hard-line approach toward holdouts Marcus McNeill(notes), the team’s starting left tackle, and Vincent Jackson(notes), its top wide receiver? In a league that has increasingly moved toward the passing game, Smith and the Chargers are at odds with their lead protector and best deep threat for quarterback Philip Rivers(notes). The same Rivers the Chargers gave a reported six-year, $92 million contract to less than a year ago. That deal included $38.7 million guaranteed. That’s a hefty investment that needs to be protected.

Or as Chargers owner Dean Spanos knows from his family’s fortune in real estate development: you don’t put cheap walls in a luxury building.

“It is really critical. If you have an outstanding quarterback, you do everything you can to keep him upright,” said Smith, who has compared Rivers to Hall of Famer Dan Marino on many occasions. “There’s no question about that. So you do the best you can in your talent evaluations and you go from there. You hope that your quarterback is pretty bright and has a sense of what’s out there, so that when things are imperfect or the matchups on the line aren’t good, he makes the adjustment. He has to be smart, have a quick release and have a feel for things.”

“If you can keep your linemen healthy and keep a unit together for a long period of time, it’s all part of winning. If you have deficiencies or you have conflict like we have now, you do the best you can.”

Downstairs from Smith’s office, Rivers voices the company line. As the son of a coach, Rivers has a respect for authority, so he’s not going to whine. He wants McNeill and Jackson in camp, but he’s not begging and he’s certainly not going to get involved when it comes to other people’s money.

“Sure, I talk to those guys and tell them, ‘Man, I want you here, we need you.’ But I also know this is a business and they have to handle it the way they feel is right,” Rivers said, straddling the precipice between team-first and alienating an individual.

Like any football player worth his salt, Rivers believes the Chargers can survive and even thrive without those guys.

“We’ll change things around a little, get other people involved,” Rivers said, confidently.

One such person is rookie running back Ryan Mathews(notes), who signed with the franchise Sunday.

Still, for coach Norv Turner, much of the responsibility falls on Rivers.

“That’s absolutely the case that you want to help him out, but great players also make other players around them great,” Turner said.

True, but the Chargers are playing a tough game at a time when they should be the class of the AFC West. They went 13-3 last season and should have made the conference title game if not for Nate Kaeding(notes) playing the role of the man who couldn’t kick straight.

However, without McNeill and Jackson, a pair of players who have physical and personal issues to go with their talent, the Chargers could turn the AFC West into a race.

That was pretty obvious during practice Friday when the offense managed only one throw deeper than 20 yards to a receiver who wasn’t straddling the sideline. Sadly, if not prophetically, that one throw between the numbers was a toss that slipped from Rivers’ hand. Wobbling wounded into the middle of the field, yards from any receiver, the throw was nearly picked off.

“As I was throwing, I was trying to stop because I wasn’t sure I could throw it that far,” Rivers said, laughing lightly.

Stuff like that happens, but it should be noted that of all Rivers’ immense talent, pure arm strength doesn’t rank very high. He’s a great deep thrower because he has a fantastic understanding of timing and he’s amazingly accurate, even from distance.

But if you’re looking for the right arm of Adonis, Rivers doesn’t have it.

That’s what makes the combo of McNeill and Jackson even more important. That little bit of time that a good left tackle can buy and the strength Jackson has to overwhelm defensive backs is the perfect complement to what Rivers tries to do. Without them, it’s easy to see that the Chargers could get blitzed into oblivion.

How long will Rivers’ smile last?
(Denis Poroy/AP Photo)

Having those complementary parts can’t be underestimated. In the late 1990s, former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson miscalculated the need for consistency at wide receiver for quarterback Dan Marino and wasted the last three decent years of Marino’s career.

By contrast, Bill Walsh was aggressive in putting the right pieces around Joe Montana following the 49ers winning their first title during the ’81 season with Freddie Solomon, Dwight Clark, Earl Cooper and Amos Lawrence. Over the years, Walsh got Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig and a series of competent tight ends.

In 2006, Belichick borrowed a chapter from Johnson’s Miami book, letting wide receiver David Givens(notes) go in free agency and trading Deion Branch(notes) on the eve of the season. While the Patriots got to the AFC championship game against Indianapolis – thanks, as San Diego fans will remember, in large part to Marty Schottenheimer’s bad strategic decisions and Marlon McCree’s(notes) failure to just fall down – they came up short because of poor receiver play.

By the 2007 offseason, Belichick reversed field and adopted the Walsh/Polian philosophy. He traded for Randy Moss(notes) and Wes Welker(notes), and signed Donte’ Stallworth(notes). The result was that the Patriots were a miracle catch away from perfection.

Now, the Chargers are playing the hard-line approach. Smith has a perfectly logical reason. He has established a way of doing business. To alter it would leave him open to the piranha-like behavior of agents.

“When you do that, everybody starts to say, ‘Well, you did this in 2004 or you did this in 2008’ and all of a sudden you have chaos on your football team,” Smith said.

Smith is not wrong. Consistency is critical in managing people.

That said, taking that stand can sometimes be costly in the interim – particularly for Rivers.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Aug 1, 2010