Smith holds ground despite unhappiness

Michael Silver

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Along with an eye for talent that ranks among the best in his profession, San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has relied upon an iron fist in forging his professional identity. Though Smith's autocratic style has made him unpopular with various players, agents and at least one Internet columnist, the man deserves credit for ruling with conviction and without apology.

That's why I found it a bit surreal when, during a discussion Monday night about unsigned standouts Marcus McNeill(notes) and Vincent Jackson(notes), Smith suddenly started sounding like a dude in serious need of a Snickers bar.

"It hurts," Smith said. "It hurts when you don't have your players. How are you going to win a championship without your left tackle and your wideout? I'm sick about it. I don't know what to do. I don't know how anybody could be more upset about this than me."

Actually, I do, and his name is Philip Rivers(notes). Two years removed from reconstructive knee surgery, the Chargers' Pro Bowl quarterback could be staring at a starring role in a horror-tinged remake of "The Blind Side." Coach Norv Turner, who did such a brilliant job of play-calling in leading San Diego to victories in its final 11 regular season games last season, can't be too thrilled, either.

If McNeill, a massive left tackle, and Jackson, a supersized wideout who's been the subject of trade speculation and reportedly will be suspended for three games, follow through on implied threats to skip the first 10 games of the 2010 season, a whole lot of Chargers fans may be upset as well.

This has been a tumultuous offseason in America's Finest City, beginning with last January's abrupt playoff exit at the hands of the New York Jets at Qualcomm Stadium. The Chargers, winners of four consecutive AFC West titles, haven't gotten much good news since. Future Hall of Fame tailback LaDainian Tomlinson was released in February and eventually signed with the New York Jets; veteran defensive tackle Jamal Williams(notes) signed with the rival Denver Broncos after being released in a cost-cutting move; and three other players with Pro Bowl experience – restricted free agents McNeill, Jackson and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes) – have stayed away from offseason activities while declining to sign the tenders offered by the team.

Of the three, only Merriman seems likely to report to training camp later this month, not that he's a happy camper.

"You can throw me in the same situation [as Jackson and McNeill]," Merriman said Monday. "I've been on the trading block the last year and a half, and I'm tired of hearing it. I was on the trading block Week 3 last year, 11½ months after full knee reconstruction. I'm sitting there like, 'Huh? What did I do to deserve this?'

"I feel personally [A.J. and I] have good communication. Everybody knows, and I've put that out there, that I want to be there. But my thing is, I want to play football and not worry about, 'Is this gonna happen?' and not turn around and hear my name on the trading block every five minutes. I mean, who wants to do that? Who wants to come to work everyday and have teammates asking if you're gonna be there?"

While I respect Smith's football knowledge and understand his desire to show people who's boss, I wonder whether his charged public reactions to business disputes can be counterproductive. Several Chargers players have voiced similar concerns. As one veteran told me recently, "He gets too emotional and too tied up in making his points, and when emotions run wild anything can happen. I don't see other GMs talking the way he's talking. It creates confusion."

During our hour-long conversation Monday night, Smith defended his managerial philosophy while explaining his rationale in taking such a tough stance with McNeill and Jackson. Some players and their agents, he reasoned, will always be unhappy about their contracts, and it's his job to anticipate potential stalemates and come up with contingency plans. He believes in staying true to his principles, even if it seems to hurt his team's short-term prospects, and in exhibiting a consistent pattern of behavior.

When he believes a player has overplayed his hand, Smith doesn't hesitate to flex his power – and thanks to the uncertain labor situation, this is the most power he has possessed during his seven-year tenure in San Diego. Because the owners exercised a clause allowing them to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players' Association following the 2010 season, eliminating the salary cap for the final year of the deal, the threshold for unrestricted free agency increased from four to six years of experience. Thus players like McNeill, Jackson and Merriman who otherwise would have been free to negotiate with any team after their contracts expired were stuck with restricted free-agent status.

Meanwhile, given the prospect of a lockout following the 2010 campaign, owners such as the Chargers' Dean Spanos have resisted doling out long-term contracts.

"Our position now with the labor unrest is we're going to shut it down and take it slow," Smith said. "We're on hold right now. We're not the lone ranger, but we're on hold. It's not forever. I don't know when we will or when we won't [start giving out contract extensions]. There is a long list of players in line for them. It's the longest I've ever seen."

Jackson led the Chargers with 1,167 receiving yards in 2009.
(Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Smith's list is absolutely written out in order of importance, but he wouldn't reveal to me where players like McNeill, Jackson and Merriman rank. He did, however, take me through his thought process that led to his public declaration that the team had "lost" McNeill and Jackson after the two players declined to accept their respective one-year tender offers for approximately $3.2 million by the June 15 deadline he imposed.

At that point, as promised, Smith exercised his prerogative to reduce those tender offers to $600,000 (110 percent of their 2009 base salaries) apiece. Predictably, neither McNeill nor Jackson jumped at the opportunity. Under the terms of the CBA, each player can stay away until the 11th game of the 2010 season and still receive credit for a year of service toward unrestricted free agency.

Smith quickly signed a pair of veteran castoffs, tackle Tra Thomas(notes) and wideout Josh Reed(notes), to reinforce his message that the two disgruntled starters were essentially dead to him. I told Smith I thought his comments were a bit extreme – after all, veiled threats and feisty rhetoric are part of the negotiation process, and disputes such as these are often worked out via compromises behind the scenes.

"I don't know why it was 'extreme,' " he protested, " 'cause I was being honest. We're not signing anyone right now. We're taking our time. Those players would like long-term contracts. What we decided to do, which we thought was fair, was say, 'Play for $3.2 million, and let's see what happens at the end of the year with us.' That was rejected. We told them, 'On the 15th we're gonna bring that down to $600,000.' Their agents told me, 'Now we're not coming in for a considerable length of time.' When they say [through their agents], 'You're not going to see us,' I take them for their word.

"My head is spinning. I'm trying to replace them. I think we've got a good football team. We're losing a left tackle and a wide receiver, I want our team to know they're gone. Talk about it now, process it while you're on vacation, get it out of the way. But they're not coming back, and we have to move on. If those players change their mind, I'll deal with it then."

While I think Smith is being a bit of a drama queen, I don't question the sincerity of his position. Remember, this is the man who set an ultimatum for Antonio Gates(notes) to report to training camp in the summer of 2005, and when the star tight end showed up a day after the deadline, Smith delivered on his threat to keep Gates out of the regular season opener – more than two weeks after the fact. The Chargers lost 28-24 to the Dallas Cowboys, failing to convert on four potential touchdown passes down the stretch with their top red-zone threat watching in street clothes.

To Smith, however, the defeat was offset by a greater victory: He was letting his players and their agents know that he's in charge and won't back down.

"I try very hard to be consistent," Smith said, "because if you're not consistent, they don't understand where you're coming from. I can't change their opinions, but this is the way I am. So when you tell me you're unhappy, I hear you, and I take you for your word. When I tell you I can't give you a long-term contract, but I want you to take $3.2 million and help the Chargers win a championship, I would suggest that agents and other people do some research on me and see if there's a pattern, a history, as to [what will happen next]. I think an agent could say there's a high percentage of how things are going to be."

Merriman, whose tender wasn't subject to a June 15 reduction similar to those experienced by McNeill and Jackson, seems to have accepted this can't-fight-city-hall premise.

"We've got to see what happens," Merriman said. "My guess is I'm going to be ready to play football. I know we plan on being successful this year. My plan is to have my ass ready when that time comes and come out and be the leader of the defense and try to win a championship. To be honest, I think everything is going to work out for the best. It always has. You run into some speed bumps along the way, but it always works out."

Once one of the NFL's up-and-coming stars, the three-time Pro Bowl selection now faces an uncertain NFL future. Merriman, who had a league-high 39½ sacks from 2005-07, tore the posterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee late in the '07 season and valiantly played through the injury. After struggling in the '08 opener, Merriman had season-ending surgery, and the Chargers' defense noticeably suffered. He had just four sacks and 36 tackles last year, albeit in a scheme less likely to produce big numbers for him than the one he enjoyed under former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Merriman had fewer opportunities to celebrate after making a play last season.
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Merriman is counting on a time-honored axiom – that players typically showed a marked improvement their second season back from severe knee injuries – as he pushes for a lucrative deal in San Diego or elsewhere.

Smith insists he wants a similar outcome, saying, "That is what you heard for many years in our business: One year removed there's a significant difference. That's exactly what I'm hoping, and that's exactly what Shawne's hoping. We're going to find that out. He needs to play. As far as I'm concerned, I expect to see him the first day of camp."

I asked Smith if he believes Merriman is still an elite player. "I have no idea," the GM replied. "I don't think he should be judged an elite player now. His value is frozen in time, and everybody is waiting to see what we have. That's a pretty significant injury. Sometimes people come back. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they come part of the way back. This [season] is huge for him."

Merriman's potential comeback, along with the possible extended absences of McNeill and Jackson, are among the juicy subplots as the Chargers seek their first Super Bowl ring in 2010. For all of San Diego's success since Smith became the GM in 2003, he readily acknowledges that he has fallen short of his primary goal.

"We haven't won a world championship yet," he said. "We have not been able to get it done. We cannot crack it. If you've not hit it yet, and now you have all these obstacles, it's not fun at all. The bottom line is we're all passing through here – the players are, and I am, too. I don't know when Dean Spanos will knock on my door and not want me anymore. How do you know that? So all I can do is stay true to my philosophy."

As Smith said this, I wondered: Was he being a drama queen, or was he bluntly stating the facts as he perceives them?

Quite possibly, he was doing both of those things.

TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)

Surely you aren't serious in stating that neither "[Tom] Brady or [Robert] Kraft" questioned your article. Like Brady and Kraft are going to comment on your dribble.

John Oakman
Boston

Wow, we have a lot to discuss. First of all, since I tend to communicate directly with both the quarterback and the owner, I have a decent sense of their respective reactions to the column in question. Secondly, I believe the word you're searching for is "drivel"; if Brady were to comment on my dribble, he'd probably say something like, "Dude, with handles like that, you must go through a keyboard a week. Now pass me the rock and get out of the way." Third, I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

Dude! Mohamed Massaquoi(notes) (Cleveland Browns WR) is the next big thing! As soon as I saw this dude on the field, I knew it! keep it eye on him and be sure to remember where you heard it first!

S Hatton
Hebron, Md.

If Massaquoi blows up in 2010, I'll be calling you Dionne Warwick while reminding readers that you heard it here first, as I (prematurely) saw fantasy value in the young wideout last November.

Hello, Michael. It's unfortunate that the rumors of Texas and several other Big 12 teams moving to the Pac-10 didn't pan out. I would have enjoyed seeing my 'Horns thrash the Bears on a routine basis. Take care.

Dave Moore
Pasadena, Calif.

Instead you'll get to see your Horns thrash their foes in the mighty "Big 12," or whatever's left of it. Texas had a chance to step up to the big time, and it settled for a fat TV deal and being a big fish in a shrinking pond. Good luck with that.

Dear Mr. Silver, In regards to Colorado joining the Pac-10 (12?): I hope the folks of Boulder show you and the good folks of Cal much more respect than was ever shown to the folks of Nebraska. Each year, I hear horror stories about the Huskers and their Big Red faithful were treated while visiting Boulder (ex. having batteries and cups of urine flung at them). Anyway, best of luck to Cal in the new Pac-10/12. Maybe someday we will see Cal and Nebraska playing in the Rose Bowl for the national title.

Corey
Lincoln, Neb.

We'd be honored to play a program as storied as Nebraska – but, in reality, we'd happily endure batteries, bodily fluids and numerous other indignities while crawling to Pasadena to play the Louisiana Cougars if roses were involved.

First of all, I really enjoy your column and I love the way you handle the jackasses who stupidly attempt to slam you. A question for you: How do you think the Raiders will fare this season? Mr. (Al) Davis has assembled, in my humble opinion, a top 10 (maybe even a top 5) defense. With the addition of Jason Campbell(notes), the QB position is immensely improved over (JaMarcus) Russell and should allow for the D to get more rest, while putting points on the board. I can even see a playoff run here!

Doc
Fargo, N.D.

As much as I respect your journalistic critique, I'm afraid I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the Raiders' prospects. Yes, the addition of Campbell was a good move, and top pick Rolando McClain(notes) and others should improve the defense. But I still think the franchise is dysfunctional and the head coach is waaaaaay over his head.

Per the [Daunte] Culpepper column: Listening to him about sounding completely rah rah – I'm the most support-y type guy out there – is patently false. As a Lions fan, the best example was the Cleveland game that (Matthew) Stafford came back into the game and threw the winning touchdown. As Culpepper and Stanton (our 3rd string) were talking with the OC, Stafford came up to tell him he was okay and could go back in. Culpepper just turned and walked away. Even Stanton stayed since it was kind of the play of the game. He's a whiny prima donna that was only successful when he had Randy Moss(notes) to throw to. Look at his numbers after Moss left.

Mike
Kalamazoo, Mich.

You might want to re-read the column; it's a stretch to say that he portrays himself as "rah rah" or "support-y" (to the extent that anyone has ever used that term). He admits that he was frustrated by his lack of opportunity in Detroit, which is consistent with the massive supply of self-confidence he has possessed from the start. I think you're selling his pre-injury career short; his success was based on a lot more than Moss' talent. But I'm going to cut you a ton of slack, because anyone who has had to endure being a Lions fan in recent years must be very, very frustrated.

Good, Culpepper is done. His signing with Miami set their franchise back six years. (Drew) Brees anyone? Thank goodness for HENNE!!!

Brin
Location unknown

Chad Henne(notes)? I don't want to hear it, and neither does Osi Umenyiora(notes).

I couldn't help but laugh at George from New Hampshire's email. "Kraft has been proactive on contracts. [Vince] Wilfork, signing rookies early. 'Never tell anyone outside the family what you're thinking again!' – Vito Corleone." Now I don't remember the specifics, but I do know that Richard Seymour(notes) was a part of the Patriot "family" and after eight years was sent to the Raiders. Is that the equivalent of a mob hit? Also, Steve's opinion that any potential employer can ask questions that have no bearing on your job performance is slightly terrifying. Silver you are a gentleman and a scholar, write on.

Robert Norman
Waco, Texas

I think the Seymour trade was, in fact, equivalent to Fredo being sent to rural Nevada to run a brothel. But that's just me.

(Recently) the Pats held a 1-day executive fantasy camp of sorts to benefit their charitable organization, $3500/head. Brady was front and center, totally engaged, and the most visible of all the players. Hardly sounds like a disgruntled employee. … The observation told to me was "he could have done his part of the program and then gone home but he hung around all day."

Dr. Bombay
New York City

As tempted as I am to call you a quack, I have to admit that's some pretty brilliant deductive reasoning. You have provided further proof that Brady is a classy, kind-hearted individual whose professionalism overrides any sense of acrimony over his business dealings with his bosses. However, in terms of the growing sense of disconnect between the quarterback and the organization – believe it.

Mr. Silver, without a doubt I enjoy your articles more than any other columnist on yahoo. Continue the great articles. One thing I need to ask though: How in the world do you put up with the various idiots that send you emails? It's one thing for a person to disagree with some opinion you may have given, but it's completely bewildering to me that people write you and complain that your information was wrong (as if these people were standing near you when you talked with your sources), or that you are somehow being unfair to team X and player Y by reporting exactly what your sources told you. Unless you have a ton of email responses that you don't post in your columns, then I have no idea how you put up with the nonsense. Say it with me: People Are Stupid. In general this is true, but it seems you have a higher proportion of people than average who fall into this category.

Michael
San Diego

Either that, or I have a higher tolerance for indulging such critics in my columns than most (or all) of my peers. Whatever. I appreciate the praise, and I appreciate the rip jobs, too. As long as people are out there reading and forming opinions, far be it from me to complain.