Time for Spanos to ‘flex’ on Smith

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As the acerbic and autocratic general manager of the San Diego Chargers, A.J. Smith is a man consumed by his own power.

Sometimes Smith gets to flex, like he did on the night nearly two years ago when the coach he detested, Marty Schottenheimer, was fired by Chargers CEO Dean Spanos after having led San Diego to a 14-2 record. From that point on, the Chargers were Smith’s show, and he made sure everybody knew it.

On Wednesday, however, Smith disrespected the wrong dude.

Photo Smith, left, at Chargers training camp in July 2007.
(Lenny Ignelzi/AP Photo)

Responding to a relatively benign statement by LaDainian Tomlinson on the star halfback’s website that he has “NO intentions of leaving San Diego,” Smith brazenly mocked the most beloved player in franchise history.

Mimicking LT’s quote almost word for word, Smith told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “My first reaction was we both have similar feelings. I have no intentions of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my GM career started and where I’d like it to end. I also have nothing but love and the utmost respect for this team, the players and the Spanos family. I have absolutely no control over how long I will be with the Chargers.

“As for now, I am the Chargers’ GM, and I have major decisions to ponder for the organization now and in the future. My recommendation to Dean Spanos will be what’s in the best interest of the team – both short and long term. That’s my job. That’s what Dean hired me to do.”

To which I say: Did Spanos also hire Smith to be the most pompous blowhard in the Western Hemisphere?

Make no mistake: Deciding whether Tomlinson will remain with the Chargers, at least privately, is part of Smith’s job. Snidely tweaking LT in public, whether it’s an attempt to bait him into asking for a trade or simply a glimpse into Smith’s power-mad psyche, is part of the reason his job should be in jeopardy.

It leads you to believe that A.J. stands for Antagonistic Jerk.

Certainly, the debate about Tomlinson’s future with the Chargers is a legitimate one. His 2009 cap figure is $8.8 million, and at the start of next season he’ll be 30, an age when premier running backs typically start to decline. Given his drop-off in production and recent propensity for injuries, it’s fair to ask whether that process has already begun.

LT’s numbers were down in 2008, partly because of a nagging toe injury, and also because the Chargers, under Norv Turner, have moved away from the power-running attack favored by Schottenheimer. He has been restricted in each of the past two postseasons because of a knee sprain and groin tear, respectively.

Further impacting the decision is the fact that San Diego, which allowed halfback Michael Turner to leave via free agency a year ago, only to watch him emerge as an MVP candidate for the Atlanta Falcons, seems to have another potential star in scatback Darren Sproles, whose contract is also about to expire.

The franchise could decide to ask Tomlinson, who has three years left on his contract, to take a pay cut. Or it could try to trade him. If those efforts fail, the Chargers may decide that cutting the future Hall of Famer after eight seasons is the best option.

Personally, that’s not an option I would choose, but I can understand its logic. However, embarrassing and antagonizing the halfback who was voted the NFL’s co-Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2006 – the same season he was voted the league’s MVP after rushing for 1,815 yards and scoring a record 31 touchdowns – is deplorable.

It’s also a strategy that is liable to backfire.

Because of Tomlinson’s commendable comportment as a player and his impeccable off-the-field conduct, he is revered by a fan base that isn’t likely to respond positively to Smith’s diss. For supporters of a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl and has played for the Lombardi Trophy only once, LT’s accomplishments and classy reputation serve as an immense source of pride.

Tomlinson is similarly popular in the locker room, and his recent attempts to play through a painful groin injury – he even ran for a touchdown in the team’s first-round playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts before giving way to Sproles, who came through with the game of his life – have only enhanced his status.

You have to give respect to get respect, and how much respect do you think Smith’s players have for him right now? If he can treat someone of LT’s stature this rudely, it stands to reason, the rest of them have a pretty good idea of what might await them when they become the least bit expendable.

Smith’s attitude, undoubtedly, is something along the lines of, I’m the boss. Who cares?

The thing is, his boss should care. In this economy, Spanos doesn’t have the luxury of not caring.

Photo Tomlinson was pretty much relegated to the sidelines during the playoffs.
(Tom E. Puskar/AP Photo)

The Chargers are a franchise stuck in an unfavorable stadium situation, and there is plenty of tension between the team and the city of San Diego, which recently filed a $170,000 breach of contract suit against the organization. The Chargers managed to sell out Qualcomm Stadium for their playoff game against the Colts, but up until three days before the game they were no sure bet to avoid an embarrassing local blackout.

Working over the face of the franchise isn’t the best way to win over the paying customers – especially given the dubious credentials of the perpetrator. While Smith has shown an aptitude for evaluating personnel, he’s also the guy who, arguably, has overseen a franchise on the decline. The Chargers followed that 14-2 season in ’06 with a 10-6 effort in ’07 and this year’s 8-8 mark. Playoff upsets of the Colts in each of the past two years took some of the sting out of that disturbing pattern, but the bottom line is that San Diego was an unsuccessful onside kick recovery away from missing out on the ’08 postseason.

Again, Smith has made some shrewd draft picks and free-agent signings, but it’s not like we’re talking about the second coming of Bill Walsh. The longtime scout was promoted to general manager in 2003 after the death of his boss and mentor, John Butler, and he carries himself like a man who is football royalty.

In reality, as a pair of writers who regularly cover the Chargers (North County Times columnist Jay Paris and Bernie Wilson of the Associated Press) have dubbed him, Smith is “The Lord of No Rings.”

We saw this season that Smith seems to have undervalued All-Pro outside linebacker Shawne Merriman (currently the sixth-highest paid player on the defense, and not happy about it). Even his most conspicuous success, the ’04 draft-day trade for quarterback Philip Rivers, comes with a caveat: Smith allowed Drew Brees, now a perennial Pro Bowl performer for the Saints, to bolt via free agency, getting zero compensation in return.

As I wrote back in December, Smith has been too quick to sign unproven players to contract extensions, a self-serving tendency that may have chipped away at the team’s collective competitive drive.

If I’m Spanos, a genial and reasonable man, I’d use this opportunity to take a hard look at where things are with the franchise. And even if I were to conclude that Smith is an excellent talent-evaluator, I’d still view him as an atrocious manager.

It’s not like Smith is the only guy who can effectively judge football players. If Spanos wants a guy who knows personnel and has a concept of how to treat people – and how to represent the franchise with dignity – there are plenty of ways he could go. There are men who meet that description inside the franchise (player personnel director Jimmy Raye, senior executive Randy Mueller) and outside of it (Cardinals player personnel director Steve Keim, Falcons player personnel director Les Snead, just to name two great candidates off the top of my head).

Two years ago, when Schottenheimer and Smith were no longer on speaking terms and the franchise was reeling from a playoff defeat to the Patriots, Spanos stepped in to restore order. Flummoxed after both of Schottenheimer’s coordinators (Wade Phillips and Cam Cameron) were hired away as head coaches, and put off by Marty’s desire to bring in his brother, Kurt, as Phillips’ replacement, Spanos made the tough call to get rid of a coach who’d just produced the best regular season in franchise history and was 35-13 over three years.

In a statement released by the team after the firing, Spanos was remarkably blunt, stating, “In the plainest possible language, we have a dysfunctional situation here. Today I am resolving that situation once and for all …”

Now Smith is involved in another situation that, because of his inability to shut his pie hole, is rapidly degenerating toward dysfunction. Gee, what seems to be the common denominator here?

It doesn’t matter anymore what the smart football decision is, for this has become a battle of egos playing out in the public realm, and only one of the principals has been smart enough to keep a lid on his emotions.

At a tenuous time for the franchise, it’s A.J. vs. LT that has the fans buzzing. By trying to prove he’s more powerful than Tomlinson, to the point of humiliation, Smith is tarnishing the Chargers brand.

Because of that, Spanos should assess the damage Smith is causing, summon him to his office and flex his power.

Whatever the team decides to do with Tomlinson, giving Smith a swift and severe attitude adjustment is absolutely in the best interest of the Chargers.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Emboldened by Plaxico Burress’ comments last year in Arizona, the Cardinals and Steelers will be blessedly non-boring in pre-Super Bowl XLIII interview sessions. … Dissatisfied with the recent trend of editors dispatching reporters to do stories on the reporting of Media Day, I will contemplate taking it one step further and doing a column on the reporters filing those “Wow it’s a crazy scene out here” articles. … Even if the Panthers further appease Julius Peppers by hiring a new coordinator who installs a 3-4 defense, the star pass rusher will still force his way out of Carolina.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Tampa Bay, for nine days of being Super in every single way. Look, times are tough, parties are disappearing and corporate cash is hard to come by for the athletes and other beautiful people, so I’m counting on you Steelers and Cardinals fans to come strong and provide some energy. And if anyone needs to get ahold of me, I’ll be everywhere, all the time.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Bill Parcells’ decision whether to exercise his opt-out clause with new Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is, as he insists, “not about money.”

2. The Colts have made a seamless transition from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell.

3. In an effort to prove his manhood to Lions beat writers, former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli scattered patrons at a Mobile, Ala., bar by emerging from a restroom and vowing to “do Mike Singletary one better”.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

If you’re one of the many people, including NFL players and blood relatives, who’ve been forwarding that email about “Kurtis and Brenda” and their romantic first meeting at an Iowa supermarket, you might want to replace the myth with the real story of Kurt and Brenda Warner’s courtship, which can be found in Kurt’s autobiography, “All Things Possible.” (Hint: They met in a bar, though that doesn’t make their journey any less touching.) Take it from me – I co-authored it. And buy it for the financial benefit of me and the wife I met at a, um, supermarket in Berkeley.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Our 44th President, and the Detroit Lions25th head coach. Each newly installed leader faces a daunting challenge – and has the intelligence, drive and swagger to meet it.

THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Cal junior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson goes by “Lexi,” but after what she did last Sunday – scoring 37 points at Haas Pavilion to lead the eighth-ranked Golden Bears to a thrilling, 57-54 victory over 11th-ranked Stanford in front of 10,126 utterly mesmerized fans – I’ll heretofore refer to the Oakland native as Alexis Gray-Awesome. On Thursday conference-leading Cal improved to 6-0 in the Pac-10 with a 77-72 victory at Oregon State, with Ashley Walker (20 points), Gray-Awesome (19) and Natasha Vital (18) leading the way. At Haas the Golden Bear men couldn’t shake Beavers coach Craig Robinson’s post-inaugural magic, losing 69-65 to the brother-in-law-in-chief to fall out of a tie for first in the Pac-10. And those of you who’ve been reading me for awhile are well aware of my affinity for Cal softball, which takes its No. 13 preseason ranking into a very promising season that begins at the Cathedral City Kickoff in Palm Springs, Calif. five days after Super Sunday. Fear not – I’ll be keeping you posted with alarming frequency.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

KJ skunk Obama

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

Reading took a small step backward in its quest for promotion with a 2-0 defeat at Swansea last Saturday. The Royals managed just one shot on goal against the Swans, with Jason Scotland (just before halftime) and Andrea Orlandi (89th minute) providing the scoring. Now comes Telltale Tuesday: Still second in the Football League Championship table with 54 points, the Royals return home to Madejski Stadium to face league-leading Wolverhampton, a team they defeated 3-0 on the road in late September. With right back Liam Rosenior serving a suspension after being sent off against Swansea for a pair of yellow cards, manager Steve Coppell plans to turn to 19-year-old Julian Kelly, who’ll be making his first start in a league game. Gulp.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

“Mike, I think I’m one of many fans that have gone back and forth on the Warner bandwagon in part because of overexposure. But your piece this week was a great slice of the man off the field: not preachy, damning, or glorifying. I’m on the wagon, again, and love these behind-the-scenes looks at NFLers. Keep it up.”

TJ
Norwalk, Ohio

Glad to hear that you are back on the wagon. Coincidentally, come Super Bowl week, the term “on the wagon” will not be in my vocabulary as I attack Tampa’s nightlife for all it’s worth. Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.


“What a wonderful example of the Christian character of Kurt Warner, throwing up in his wife’s face all the material things she has due to his NFL career as opposed to had he continued to stock shelves at Hy-Vee. This story has jumped the shark, as has Warner’s phoniness. And your jock sniffing.”

Pat Whalen
Orland Hills, Ill. (via Philadelphia)

OK, Mr. (or Mrs.) Grumpy – thanks for simultaneously taking Warner’s words literally while injecting yours with sarcasm. Let me guess: You’re a tad upset about the NFC championship game’s outcome? Sorry about that.


“Am I the only one sensing the jealousy and envy that you have towards Brenda? Admit it, you wanted to be the one sharing the love seat with Kurt.”

Frank Ender
Tampa, Fla.

I’ve known Kurt for almost a decade now. How do you know we haven’t shared a love seat before?


“The Kurt Warner article after the NFC tile game. … Best you’ve ever written. A true classic! Thanks.”

Dennis McMahan
Rochester, Mich.

Thanks for the praise, and for what it’s worth, here’s the first Kurt Warner story I ever wrote.


“Come on man! Why in the hell do you have to assume that the lawn burning incident at Donovan McNabb’s house was racially motivated? Simple comments like yours not only ignite racial propaganda but encourages it. You are a complete idiot! It was actually nice to see all of the negative comments directed at you and your ridiculous statement. What those individuals did was wrong, but your statement was far worse. You should make a public apology to the people who read your racial report and to the McNabb family for your careless comments!”

Billy Morris
Augusta, Ga.

A public apology? For what? I didn’t say the vandalism (which I later learned was committed by adults, making it far more asinine) was racially motivated. I said that it’s tough to imagine that anyone over the age of eight doesn’t understand that burning something on the lawn of a house occupied by African-Americans carries deeper social overtones that are highly disturbing, and I completely stand by that. It is fact. Crosses were burned on the lawns of African-Americans by menacing racists for years, and it’s virtually impossible that any African-American wouldn’t view such an act through that prism, at least on a visceral level. I know for a fact that the McNabb family has absolutely no problem with my reporting of this story or my stance on the issue. I certainly agree that many people who aren’t African-Americans would be upset by having something burnt onto their lawn, but that’s not the point. Instead of flipping out when an incident such as this is examined through a racial context, you and the others who wrote in with similar objections should have the courage to face this great nation’s regrettable history in this area.


“Wow! Talk about your irresponsible journalism. The lies you posted about what supposedly happened to Donovan McNabb’s lawn is one of the most incredible pieces of BS I have ever seen. How come you’re the only one in the universe who knows about this? Not one word in any Arizona paper or any of the Philly-area newspapers. Nothing across the ticker at any relevant TV station. No police report. You’re beneath contempt.”

Bruce Miller
San Lorenzo, Calif.

Wherever I am, I’d say I’m still staring down at you, given that the story was substantiated by law enforcement authorities. The reason you hadn’t heard about it through other sources, at the time, is that I’m the one who broke the story. Don’t look so stunned. That’s what I do. Now kindly stop disgracing the great city of San Lorenzo, which produced my awesome assistant sports editor during my time at the Daily Californian.


“Not a McNabb fan … what you are missing: five NFC title games in eight years is the function of the system and a great defense – not McNabb … in two of those years [A.J.] Feeley and [Jeff] Garcia were in charge for half of the wins … he came back for the title games and choked as usual in big games – he actually threw up with the game on the line and a whole lot of time left in his Super Bowl … Arizona game typical: early on, can’t beat the nerves, plays awful … down a bunch, opponent backs off a bit and takes less chances, McNabb relaxes with more time and hits receivers in the middle with defenders playing loose in the zones … game gets close, will be won or lost on either team’s final possession and all about the poise of the quarterback … Warner steps up to the challenge and drives for 8 points … McNabb coughs of his breakfast and runs out of downs … again … the guy can’t do it … been living off 3-yard passes and long gains after the catch and running up stats after games were won or lost … no history of driving for wins in the clutch … it is what it is … “

Ira Udell
Boca Raton, Fla.

Listen to you channeling Bill Belichick: “It is what it is.” Like you know. Those gorgeous deep balls McNabb threw to Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson, among other great passes, are plays that very few quarterbacks can make. And when I say that, I’m talking about quarterbacks in the last 35 years, or since I started watching football. In a game that looked like a total lost cause a few minutes into the third quarter, he was flat-out heroic. I’m sorry, but if you’re an Eagles fan, you don’t deserve him.


“I don’t usually find myself in agreement with you, but you were totally spot-on in regards to the Pittsburgh PA operator. I couldn’t believe they were playing music with [Willis] McGahee knocked unconscious on the field, with no one knowing if he was paralyzed or not. I thought it was disgusting. Kudos for being the only writer I’ve seen mention this.”

Dave Joseph
San Francisco

Kudos for finding yourself in agreement with me. It’s a good place to be. Just ask my wife. (Actually, don’t ask my wife. Please.)


“Nice story line. I disagree with the premise that [Jon] Gruden’s familiarity with the team was the deciding factor. Barret Robbins (was that his name?), the Raiders O-line play-caller disappearing in Tijuana, Mexico, had more to do with the Raiders losing than [Warren] Sapp, [Jerry] Rice, or Gruden – an example of how to let your ‘teammates’ down. Barret Robbins plays that game, Al Davis gets another ring, Tim Brown and Jerry Rice have big games. But, that’s why they play the games right :-) Great story about Warner, and a great shot of [Matt] Leinert running over and giving Warner a hug after scoring the winning TD – that’s what being a team is about, I was happy to see that. Reminds me of [Tom] Brady slapping [Drew] Bledsoe on the pads after [Adam] Vinatieri’s winning kick in the first SB they won. You could see Brady say ‘We Won!’ The Pats would not have done it without Bledsoe stepping up in the AFC championship game in Pittsburg. Cheers.”

Andrew Audet
Cardiff, Calif.

Two things: Don’t go telling this to Warren Sapp, or he might do a heck of a lot more than slap you on the butt. Secondly, if you’re forgetting how brutal that beatdown was in San Diego, check out the game story I wrote on Super Bowl XXXVII for Sports Illustrated (one of 12, but who’s counting?).


“Yo, Silver. Do your research first! Whiz was not passed over for the Steelers head coaching job. He left for Arizona before there was a final coaching decision made in Pittsburgh. Everyone is making a story here when there isn’t one.”

Jan
Reading, Pa.

I did my research. In fact, I talked to Whisenhunt extensively throughout the process, and I was the one who broke the story on the Tomlin hiring. Let’s just say Whisenhunt didn’t get the proper body language from the Rooneys – not that there’s anything wrong with that; they hired a great one in Tomlin – before committing to the Cardinals.


“For the better part of this decade you have always picked the Cardinals. You can’t let the few die hard fans of the CHI/STL/AZ Cardinals, who have stuck with them through all of these losing seasons [decades] down. Change your pick now! Go Cardinals!”

Steve
Texas

I will take it under advisement. We have nine long days until kickoff.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Along with Hines Ward, who he’ll encounter in Tampa next week, Anquan Boldin is pretty much my favorite wide receiver. So I’m going to cut “Q” some slack for his bizarre behavior after the Cardinals’ NFC championship game victory over the Eagles and believe him when he says he’s not angry anymore. Besides, when I close my eyes, I hear him singing this updated version of Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy” to offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and it all starts to make sense.

Can we forget about the things I said when I was pissed?
I didn’t mean to call you that
I can’t remember what was said when you were screwing me
Please tell me

Please tell me why
You used a two tight-end set
With our season in the balance?
I blew off the confetti and then
I was gone … gone

It’s no surprise to me I am my own worst enemy,
Cuz I’m so mad that Fitz is making twice as much as me
I am a grown-ass man and frankly I don’t give a damn
Still learning

Please tell me why
I blew off those reporters
And I’m crying to my agent
I acted just like T.O. that night
I was wrong … wrong

Please tell me why
They’re callin’ me a jackass
When I played with facial fractures
I don’t even do pain meds – that’s right

It’s no surprise to me I am my own worst enemy
Cuz every now and then I need to yell at Todd Haley
Can we forget about the things I said when I was pissed
I didn’t mean to call you “Jack”