Many will blame head coach Norv Turner for the San Diego Chargers' Monday night collapse against the Denver Broncos, and that's fair enough. Some will blame quarterback Philip Rivers, and that's more than fair. When you throw four interceptions and give up two fumbles, and three of those picks come in the fourth quarter, it makes your opponent's rebound from a 24-point deficit, as the Denver Broncos engineered in their 35-24 win, that much easier.
An equal share of blame could be set at the feet of the Chargers' defense, which makes sense -- no team scores 35 unanswered points in a second half, though it certainly looked at times like the Broncos were the only team on the field.
But if you want the root cause of the Chargers' decline, both in this game and over the last few years, you need look no further than the desk of executive vice-president and general manager A.J. Smith. Under Smith, who's been in charge of personnel for the team since 2003, the Chargers haven't made the playoffs since 2009, and the records have receded every year -- from 13-3 in 2009, to 9-7 in 2010, to 8-8 in 2011. San Diego stands at 3-3 after their loss to the Broncos, and they don't look like a team that will finish this year with a .500 record or better.
The answer to the obvious question -- why has this happened? -- can be found with just a cursory look at Smith's track record in the last few seasons. His last few drafts have provided little in terms of long-term elite talent, he's alienated many of the team's best free agents and veterans, and the inexplicable arrogance (it's only confidence if it works) in the face of his own questionable decisions defies logic at times.
When asked to explain the second-round choice of Michigan linebacker Jonas Mouton in the 2011 NFL draft despite the fact that most people had Mouton with a third-day grade, Smith was typically succinct.
"I'm told I can't find one person who thought the linebacker we took in the second round wasn't a fifth- or sixth-round guy," he told Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Well, I've found one guy. Me. He's a second-rounder here."
Sadly, Mouton had his first season wiped out by a shoulder injury, but he still hasn't started a single NFL game. Smith's frequent trade-ups in the draft so decimated the team's depth that in 2010, the Chargers posted the worst special teams DVOA (Football Outsiders' efficiency metric) since the 2000 Buffalo Bills. Special teams is about more than punters, kickers, and returners -- often, it's the best indicator of the talent residing on the bottom third of your roster.
In many ways, Smith's last few years with the Chargers seem similar to the decline and fall of the recent Indianapolis Colts empire. Like Smith, former Colts team president Bill Polian had a justified and legitimate reputation in the league based on the brilliant personnel work he'd done in the past. But a series of bad drafts, and the ultimate ideal that the man up top was more important than most of the guys on the field, set the Colts on the wrong path and closed their window before it had to be. The loss of Peyton Manning to injury was a killer, but the alarming lack of depth on the roster Polian had built really led to the Colts' demise. The 2008 New England Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady; the 2011 Colts went 2-14 without Manning.
Now, ask yourself -- how would the 2012 Chargers do without Rivers? The second half of this game showed us to a great degree. Another question -- where did Smith get his formerly impressive personnel acumen? With Polian, as the two men worked together to build the Buffalo Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s.
Like Polian, Smith used to have the personnel equivalent of a 95-mile-per-hour fastball with movement. And like Polian at the end, there's an increasing sense that Smith is trying to get by with junk these days.
"Well, that's obviously as tough as it gets," a disheveled Turner said after the game. "Right now, we're not able to put together a complete game. At halftime, we talked about the things we had to do in the second half -- who you're playing against, and their style of offense. You know they're going to make some plays. Obviously, the mistakes we made with the ball just added to their energy. The group we have together in the locker room -- they haven't been together for a long time, but they're a resilient group. A lot of people will say, 'How will these guys respond from this?' or 'These guys can't respond from this,' but I have a lot of faith in this group.
"There's a lot of things we have to get fixed before we can play a complete game. And if someone wants to look around and make this about somebody, make it about me. I've got a lot of faith in the guys playing for us."
Turner, who looked like someone had just stolen his car, isn't really at fault for all of this. In truth, he shouldn't be in this position, and he wouldn't be if Smith understood that malleability isn't the primary attribute one seeks in a head coach. You'll remember, of course, that Smith helped make the call to fire Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 record in 2006, the best mark in the franchise's long history. Smith and Schottenheimer had been at odds for years, in part because Schottenheimer dared to make recommendations regarding personnel.
But it was Turner who represented the Chargers after this Monday night disaster, and it was Turner to had to suffer the indignity of hearing a reporter ask him, flat-out, whether he should be fired.
"I don't think I'm going to respond to that," he said graciously. Many coaches would have ripped that reporter apart from the microphone in a verbal sense, and perhaps justifiably so. Norv just looked tired and resigned, with the full knowledge that the upcoming bye week could very well provide more of the same.
"Every loss hurts, regardless of negative plays, or bad plays, or how you lose," Rivers said. "When you lose it's rough, especially when you had such a big lead and so much was at stake for an early division game. Not the way we wanted to go into the bye week, and certainly not the way we wanted to perform, but [we're] 3-3, and you regroup, and you get ready to go."
Chargers fans, however, have a right to expect better football than they're getting, and Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young put a very sharp point on where the Chargers are at right now after the game.
"You try to throw the post. You throw a lazy flat for [a pick-six]. You get stripped twice for fumbles; one of them for six points. It's lazy football. It's not crisp, 'over-my-dead-body' football. And I think that's what you have to have in the NFL today to really go the distance."
Will Smith and Turner go the distance? Both men were given contract extensions in January of this year, despite predictable fan outrage at the idea.
"Obviously, I'm very sensitive to what the fans have to say," team president Dean Spanos said when the contracts were announced. "I've come to the conclusion that I can talk until I'm blue in the face that this is the right thing to do. But until we go out and win and change the course of where this team has been heading, get back into the playoffs and make a serious run for the Super Bowl, anything short of that isn't going to change their minds. We have to go out there next year and win."
"I am aware that the owner was not happy," Smith said at that time. "I was also aware that we've missed the playoffs two years in a row, which means two lost opportunities to chase the championship."
It might be three-and-out for Smith and his coach. Right now, it's hard to imagine any other outcome.