Chargers GM fought misguided war of wills
So A.J. Smith made it official Wednesday: He won't back down to Vincent Jackson(notes), and he won't back off from his ambitious trade demands. The San Diego Chargers' strong-willed general manager stared down an unhappy wide receiver and several potential suitors, most notably the wideout-needy Minnesota Vikings, and won.
If GMs got game balls, Smith undoubtedly would present himself with one, then open a nice bottle of cabernet and treat himself to a steak dinner.
Except I believe Smith, like Jackson and the Vikings and football fans who like watching the best players take the field on Sundays, was a loser, too, in this nuclear winter of a contract dispute. In showing Jackson who's boss – and demonstrating his unyielding nature to numerous other NFL franchises – Smith negatively impacted his football team in ways both obvious and intangible.
A deadline passed Wednesday that makes it highly unlikely Jackson will play football in 2010, a situation exacerbated by Smith's decision to take full advantage of an arcane set of rules pertaining to the uncapped year (and triggered by the owners' decision to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement). I won't bore you with the details, other than to say that the earliest Jackson will now be allowed to play is Week 7.
Most likely, he'll play in Week Never. That's partly because he wanted more money than the Chargers wanted to pay, but mostly because Smith was trying to prove a point, even if it costs his team points on the football field.
If Smith were, say, Bill Belichick, I'd be more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt. If you've won multiple Super Bowls, you can afford to drive a hard bargain, consequences be damned. No one can question your commitment to competing for a championship; people like Belichick, Bill Polian and Bill Parcells have earned the right to flex.
Smith has never won a title, which makes the stinging nickname "Lord of No Rings" so apropos. Created by North County (Calif.) Times columnist Jay Paris and cited Wednesday in public comments by Jackson's agents, the derisive moniker speaks to a belief that Smith values his own power more than giving his team the best chance to win.
That sounds harsh, and I tried to give Smith the benefit of the doubt back in July when he explained his philosophy to me while discussing his conviction that Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) – a pair of Pro Bowl players and restricted free agents rebuffed in their efforts to obtain long-term deals – would not play again for the team.
"We're losing a left tackle and a wide receiver," Smith said. "I want our team to know they're gone."
The Chargers know that neither player is on the roster or is likely to return this season, if ever. And now Chargers fans know that Smith would rather stick it to Jackson than take a second-round draft pick – and probably a fourth- or fifth-rounder as well – from a team willing to satisfy the receiver financially.
According to reports by Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole and others, Smith remained obstinate in trade discussions with teams interested in dealing for Jackson right up to Wednesday afternoon's deadline, insisting upon second- and third-round draft picks. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, as I suggested he do several weeks ago, made a push to acquire Jackson. Minnesota worked out contract terms with Jackson's agents on a one-year deal worth roughly $6 million, with an option for a second year at approximately $10 million that the club could have chosen to exercise in December.
The Vikings gradually increased their offer to a second-round pick and a conditional pick believed to be as high as a fifth-rounder but were unwilling to meet Smith's price. According to reports, numerous other teams, including the St. Louis Rams, Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks, also conducted trade talks with the Chargers. One team, after talking money with Jackson's agents, decided not to contact San Diego because of an unwillingness to deal with Smith.
"Multiple teams have told me that they can't get a deal done with A.J. and some of the teams have referred to A.J. as 'The Lord of No Rings,'" Schwartz told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Smith is a smart, accomplished talent evaluator who likely has a strong enough sense of self to laugh off such digs, and I don't question his conviction. But I don't think, in this case, that playing hardball was the smoothest move.
Yes, he has sent a signal to players and their agents that he's no pushover – that if you mess with him, you'll lose.
Similarly, he has successfully convinced many of his peers that he can't be bullied in trade discussions. In this case, Smith did not negotiate so much as set a price and give teams the option of meeting it.
If the object is to win tests of will, Smith is a smashing success.
If the object is to win championships, now and in the future, he's doing his franchise a disservice. The Vikings, to their credit, proved to their fans they were going after a ring in 2010 – within reason – by trying to get a deal done with the best wideout on the market. The Chargers went looking for a sucker willing to do things on Smith's terms – either Jackson taking a below-market, one-year deal or a team giving up two picks in the first three rounds for a player San Diego clearly doesn't value at that level – and shrugged their shoulders when no one bit.
To be sure, the rules were in Smith's favor this time, and he milked them for all they were worth. The Lord of No Rings lorded it over Jackson and McNeill and their agents, and that was his prerogative.
But there will come a time when other players, and perhaps other teams, have the leverage in their favor and can put the squeeze on Smith. When that happens, be it a player under contract maneuvering for a new deal in a way that negatively impacts the franchise or a fellow GM who refuses to do business with the Chargers because he finds Smith's tactics so distasteful, I don't want to hear any whining from him or his supporters.
For example, sources say Jackson's agents will attempt to get back at Smith by making sure their receiver, once he ends up with a new team next spring (or later, depending upon the uncertain labor landscape), has an inordinately low base salary for 2011 – which would likely reduce the compensatory pick the Chargers would receive for losing Jackson from a potential third-rounder to a sixth- or seventh-round selection.
That's what happens when a war turns nuclear – the bombs keep coming, and everybody loses. It's a shame, and if Smith is looking for someone to blame, he should take a long look in the mirror.