SAN DIEGO – A blast from the not-too-distant past came barreling through the home team's defensive front and into the secondary. By the time Michael Turner had been tackled for the 31st time Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, the San Diego Chargers' season was history.
Boos showered the half-filled stadium as Turner's 14-yard gain allowed the visiting Atlanta Falcons to close out a 22-16 victory. It was an outcome that, once and for all, disabused the football world of the false notion that the Chargers are an elite team caught in what Vincent Chase and his "Entourage" homies would describe as "a bit of a rough patch."
No more waiting for this talented team to flip a switch and duplicate last season's stirring run to the AFC championship game. No more scoping the schedule to see how San Diego might overtake the inconsistent Denver Broncos in the dubious AFC West.
While the Falcons (8-4) remain immersed in a potential playoff drive that nobody outside of their locker room saw coming, the Chargers (4-8) have nothing left to play for unless you consider Thursday's battle for second place against the Oakland Raiders to be gripping theater.
Or as the disgusted superstar that Turner spent his first four NFL seasons backing up put it an hour after Sunday's game as he walked through the Qualcomm parking lot: "Everybody's got to play for his job, pure and simple. That's how I look at it."
Thank you, LaDainian Tomlinson, for that bit of harsh reality.
And while the struggling halfback was too polite publicly to question the job status of coach Norv Turner, it's clear that everybody associated with this train wreck is a legitimate target for scrutiny.
To that end, I'm going over Turner's head and shining the floodlight on general manager A.J. Smith, who suddenly seems like much less of a genius than he did a few months ago, when some of us were putting "Chargers" and "Super Bowl" in the same sentence.
How has Smith's leadership approach helped create this mess? Here's a four-pronged rundown:
• He's smart, but perhaps not as smart as he thinks
Smith has deservedly received credit for assembling a roster that included 11 Pro Bowlers after the 2006 season (when the Chargers had a league-best 14-2 regular season record) and eight more last year. He has made his share of stellar draft selections in the early (Philip Rivers, acquired in a trade for Eli Manning; Shawne Merriman) and later rounds (Marcus McNeill, Nick Hardwick, Shaun Phillips, Michael Turner) since taking charge of the front office in 2003.
But Smith, perhaps caught up in his prior success, has also made some questionable moves recently, from taking wideout Craig (Buster) Davis in the first round of the '07 draft to trading up for second-rounders Eric Weddle ('07) and Jacob Hester ('08). Last season's trade of an '08 second-rounder to the Miami Dolphins for Chris Chambers doesn't look so crafty considering the supposed No. 1 wideout's poor production this year – 26 catches for 357 yards, including just one reception for two yards on Sunday.
• He has been too quick to sign unproven players to contract extensions
Smith has received much praise for locking up core players long before they're eligible for free agency. But upon closer inspection, some of those deals may have been premature and ill-advised.
Among the examples cited by critics: Pass-rushing linebacker Jyles Tucker, who had played in just six regular season games coming into '08, signed a five-year extension before the season and has struggled as a replacement for the injured Merriman. Inside linebacker Matt Wilhelm, who agreed to a five-year extension in December 2006, lost his starting job five games into the '08 campaign. Inside linebacker Stephen Cooper, who got a five-year extension before the '06 season, missed the first four games of this year after being suspended for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy (he reportedly tested positive for a banned stimulant). Defensive end Luis Castillo signed a lucrative, five-year extension in July, though he had missed six games in each of the previous two seasons with ankle injuries. Strong safety Clinton Hart signed a five-year extension this past April and, like the others, has been far from dominant.
In retrospect, it's easy to view these moves as self-serving: By making commitments to these players, Smith was perpetuating the notion that he had drafted shrewdly.
More important, some Chargers players believe that the widespread financial security in the locker room – and particularly on the defensive side of the ball – caused the team to lose some of its competitive edge. Whereas teams like the Titans typically refrain from offering extensions to young, productive players until their rookie contracts are near or at their end, Smith's approach does not allow for the same degree of uncertainty.
Asked Sunday whether he believes some of his teammates haven't displayed the same intensity since cashing in, Tomlinson said, "I don't know. I worry about myself. That's a question that other guys have got to answer."
• He underestimated the value of at least two stars
The first, and most obvious, of those players is Merriman. The three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher underwent season-ending knee surgery after just one game in '08. The Chargers wanted Merriman to have the surgery after last season, and concerns about his durability and commitment to football caused Smith to balk at giving him a lucrative contract extension. But it turns out Merriman, whose rookie deal expires after '09, was more important to San Diego's defense than management realized, as evidenced by the way this season has played out.
Phillips, the bookend pass rusher who thrived opposite Merriman, had a chance to emerge from his self-purported anonymity as "The Other Guy" and become an elite player. But Phillips, who signed a six-year contract extension before the '07 season, has recorded just four sacks in '08 and has struggled to hold the point of attack on outside running plays. The same goes for Tucker, the cumulative effect being that standout defensive tackle Jamal Williams has been forced to cover more range than in past years.
Further, with the pass rush having fallen off, the secondary has been less effective, with cornerback Antonio Cromartie (a Pro Bowl selection who led the NFL in interceptions last season) getting repeatedly exposed in coverage.
Another player Smith didn't try to sign to a big contract was Michael Turner, the physical halfback who provided an effective counterpunch to the electrifying Tomlinson and filled in brilliantly when LT was injured during the '07 playoffs. Turner, an unrestricted free agent, signed a six-year, $35-million deal with the Falcons in March. After his 31-carry, 120-yard effort on Sunday, he is third in the NFL with 1,208 rushing yards – a total that is especially significant given Tomlinson's injury issues and apparent lack of explosion in his eighth season, which may be a sign of LT's inevitable decline.
Asked after Sunday's game if he would have considered staying in San Diego as Tomlinson's backup if offered a deal similar to the one he got from the Falcons, Turner replied, "That's a tough question. If it came down to that, I'd have really had to think about it. I was very open-minded, and I wasn't rushing into any decision."
• He hired a coach who changed the Chargers' personality
When team president Dean Spanos, citing a "dysfunctional" dynamic between Smith and Marty Schottenheimer, fired the coach in February 2007 following a 14-2 regular season, the GM made a decision that would irrevocably change the culture of the organization.
Norv Turner, a renowned play-caller who had been fired after previous head coaching stints with the Washington Redskins and Raiders, took a team known for its physical, hard-nosed and aggressive play on both sides of the ball and reshaped it in his own image.
New defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, fired and replaced by Ron Rivera in late October 2007, scaled back the blitz-happy approach of predecessor Wade Phillips. Under Turner, the Chargers' offense became more dependent on formation shifts and calls designed to out-scheme opposing defenses, rather than lining up and overpowering them. The focus shifted from Tomlinson, who in 2006 set an NFL record with 31 touchdowns, to Rivers, who developed into one of the league's more productive passers.
Even as the Chargers were winning their first two playoff games since 1995, including last January's stirring road upset of the defending champion Indianapolis Colts, some San Diego players were concerned about the team's inability to get the tough yards on short-yardage runs. That complaint has intensified in '08 as the Chargers, with Turner gone and Tomlinson's numbers down, have struggled to blow opponents off the ball.
"They've lost their identity," Baltimore Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal, who played for the Chargers from 2003-07 before being waived last winter, said late Sunday night. "All the players who put together those great seasons are still there, but they're not having the same results. Under Marty, the mentality was win, lose or draw we're coming at you, with runs, play-action and leads and draws. Now they are a passive, finesse team."
Neal, who remains close with Tomlinson, spoke by phone with his former teammate after Sunday's game. "He's going to keep playing hard, but he's frustrated," Neal said. "Trust me, this guy's got a lot left, and if you put him in the right situation he can still thrive. But when you take the power out of one guy's hands and yet people say that he's on the decline, it's wrong."
Barring a stunning December development – the Broncos (7-5), after Sunday's road upset of the Jets, hold a three-game lead in the division with four to play – the Chargers will have an entire offseason to ponder what went wrong, and Smith will have some big decisions to make.
In the meantime, as Rivers noted in the Qualcomm parking lot as darkness fell Sunday evening, the four games that remain will be telling.
"I don't think I could sit here and give you a sentence or paragraph that would sum up what went wrong – and believe me, I'm a guy that likes to talk," Rivers said. "It's complicated, and I really don't know the answer. I know I want to play better, and I hope 53 guys feel the same way.
"When things are going well, it's easy to talk about how great the chemistry is. But when you're 4-8, you find out how guys are as men – who's going to fight and claw and suck it up. It won't be fun coming in [Monday] now that we're out of it. Mathematically, [making the playoffs] can happen, but realistically it's tough to think that it will. So from a team character standpoint, we're going to find out a lot about ourselves in these last four games."
In the process – and, significantly, in the months that follow – we'll continue to learn more about Smith. Whether he's a genius, a destructive force or something in between remains to be seen.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• If the New York Giants were ever set up for a letdown, Sunday was the day: Revenge game against a desperate divisional rival honoring its slain star, all while dealing with the drama surrounding Plaxico Burress and his accidental shooting at a New York City nightclub – and pondering the potential legal entanglements that might ensue. So what happened? After the Redskins honored Sean Taylor by adding the late safety to its Ring of Fame before the game, the Giants beat them more soundly than they had in the season opener, this time by a 23-7 score. At 11-1, New York has already won more games than it did in the '07 regular season, becoming only the fifth defending Super Bowl champion to exceed its victory total from the previous year. In holding the 'Skins' Clinton Portis to 22 rushing yards, including a key fourth-and-1 stop with 11 minutes left in the game, the Giants, despite the absence of defensive tackle Fred Robbins, reinforced their defensive might. And despite Burress' absence, Eli Manning threw for a season-high 305 yards, including 239 in the first half. I know other quarterbacks have more impressive numbers than Manning – and I would still argue his big brother, Peyton, is the league's best active passer (given Tom Brady's injury) – but isn't it time we start giving Eli some MVP consideration? Meanwhile, given all he stands to lose from his recklessness, Burress is the frontrunner for Morning Rush's TOP (Truly Oblivious Player) Dog Award.
• So you think you have the Broncos all figured out? Yeah, sure you do. Here's what this playoff-bound team did in November: Lost at home to the Dolphins, pulled out a wild road victory at Cleveland, upset the Falcons in Atlanta, got blown out at home by the Raiders and, on Sunday, ended the Jets' five-game winning streak at chilly, rainy Giants Stadium by a 34-17 score. Another stealth MVP candidate, Jay Cutler, had a monster game (27-of-43, 357 yards, two TDs, one interception) that set him apart from John Elway in one way: Elway, one of the greatest players in football history, absolutely hated throwing a wet ball. Conversely Cutler, coach Mike Shanahan told reporters, "embraced throwing in the rain. He likes it. There is nothing that seems to bother him. Some guys it bothers, others it doesn't." Like the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals, Denver, despite its inferior divisional competition and choppy campaign, has an offense explosive enough to make it a potentially dangerous playoff team.
• Early in the second quarter of Minnesota's pivotal NFC North clash with the Chicago Bears Sunday night, Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte threw an incomplete pass on third-and-goal and, a full second after releasing it, got crushed from behind by Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. The obvious late hit wasn't called, and Frerotte lay face down on the Metrodome turf. NBC announcers Al Michaels and John Madden wondered whether Frerotte might have been faking an injury in an effort to draw a call; he wasn't. "I was fuzzy," Frerotte said later via text message. "I didn't even see that one coming. It was so late." The Vikes were down 7-0 at the time, and the play served as a convenient metaphor for Frerotte's 15-year career – and for Minnesota's '08 season. He later followed up a dramatic goal-line stand by throwing a 99-yard touchdown pass to ex-Bears wideout Bernard Berrian, a memorable moment in the Vikings' 34-14 victory. With a five-game winning streak at the Metrodome, Minnesota (7-5) leads Chicago (6-6) and Green Bay (5-7) in the race for the division title, and its great players (Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen) are starting to take over the way their fans hoped they would at the start of the season. As for all of those people who wanted coach Brad Childress fired after the Vikes' shaky start – perhaps we should let the man's third year play out before we rush to judgment. It could extend well into January.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• After years of abject dominance by the Patriots, the AFC East has been refreshingly competitive this season – and, on Sunday, we learned how overrated it is. The division-leading Jets (8-4), heralded by many experts as a conference favorite after their impressive road victory at Tennessee the previous week, looked decidedly second-tier in losing at home to the Broncos. As bad as the AFC West has been in '08, that division has been a disaster for the Jets, who previously lost to the Chargers and Raiders and were fortunate to gut out a 28-24 victory over the Chiefs in late October. The Patriots (7-5) got smacked around at home by the Steelers, whose 33-10 victory confirmed that they are the team most likely to challenge the Titans for AFC supremacy. Given a chance to get back into the mix against a team that had lost seven of its past eight games, the Bills (6-6) wasted Marshawn Lynch's 134 rushing yards on 16 carries and lost at home to the 49ers by a 10-3 score. Eccch. In allowing San Francisco to become the first West Coast team to win in the Eastern time zone this season, Buffalo managed to put together two scoreless drives of 15 plays or more. With remaining games against all three division rivals, the Bills aren't dead yet – but they might as well be. It was left to the Dolphins (7-5) to defend what was left of the division's honor, and Miami did, barely: Its 16-12 victory over the lowly Rams wasn't secure until Andre Goodman intercepted a Marc Bulger pass at the Dolphins' 5 with 35 seconds remaining.
• If the Packers miss the playoffs – and that seems like the way things are headed, given their 5-7 record and two-game deficit in the NFC North – they'll likely look back on Sunday's 35-31 defeat to the Panthers as the game that summed up their flawed season. Moving the ball consistently with a hot quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) in a blessedly cold environment (snowy Lambeau Field), the Pack had second-and-goal at the Carolina 1 in a 28-all game with three minutes remaining and couldn't finish the job. First the Panthers stuffed a pair of Brandon Jackson runs (Ryan Grant left with a hand injury in the second quarter), forcing Green Bay to kick a go-ahead field goal. Then star wideout Steve Smith won a mano a mano clash against shutdown corner Charles Woodson, leaping to catch a 54-yard Jake Delhomme pass that set up DeAngelo Williams' game-winning touchdown run. I give the Panthers a ton of credit for finding a way to win this game. But I remain baffled that the Packers continue to underachieve – and no, it can't all be explained by Brett Favre's absence, despite what some people really, really, really want us to believe.
• I'm not sure that Lane Kiffin is a great choice to lead the Tennessee Volunteers, but I do know he'll have a much better chance of succeeding there if reports are true that his father, longtime Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, comes to Knoxville in a similar capacity. I'm also convinced that if reports are true that the Bucs' owners, the Glazer brothers, plan to keep the 68-year-old Kiffin from leaving Tampa by forcing him to adhere to his contract terms, it will be a ridiculous move by an otherwise first-rate management team. Monte Kiffin has been exceptionally loyal during his 13 seasons with the franchise, turning down an offer to become the 49ers' head coach following the '02 season, and given the unique circumstance he deserves a chance to make a graceful exit. On Sunday night I ran the scenario by longtime Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, now an NFL Network and Showtime analyst, and asked him whether he believed the Glazers would actually try to block Kiffin from joining his son. "I'm gonna tell you this," Sapp said. "In my nine years in Tampa, I watched them tell Tony Dungy he wouldn't be fired, and then he was. I watched them tell [defensive line coach] Rod Marinelli he could leave [to become Herm Edwards' defensive coordinator with the Jets], and then he couldn't. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are owned by some pretty shrewd [expletives], and if Monte ain't got a way out, they're not gonna let him out."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How I can drink a glass of wine and half a beer over several hours on Thanksgiving, eat like Augustus Gloop from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and wake up the next day feeling like a complete and worthless wreck. Is there such a thing as a tryptophan hangover? If so, I had one on Friday in a big way. Burp.
2. What Raiders coach Tom Cable was thinking when he decided to run a fake field goal premised on the belief that kicker Sebastian Janikowski could waddle 18 yards for a first down. Really. Tied 3-3 in the second quarter of an eventual 20-13 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs at the Oakland Coliseum, Oakland lined up for a 43-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-10 and called for a trick play – nothing wrong with that line of thought. But expecting Janikowski, charitably listed at 250 pounds, to take a pitch from holder Shane Lechler at the 33 (eight yards behind the line of scrimmage) and get to the 15, even if all 11 Chiefs were totally fooled, is a leap of logic that was hard to fathom. The outcome was a brutal one – Lechler's lateral hit the ground, and Maurice Leggett scooped it up and raced 67 yards for a touchdown. To his credit, Oakland's best player, Nnamdi Asomugha, didn't even try to defend it when questioned by reporters afterward: "I didn't even see it. I just saw the guy running down the other way. We do that in practice all the time, but I never knew that it was a real thing that we were going to attempt. When they told me that's what happened, that it wasn't a blocked field goal, I was a little surprised. But Cable owned up to that. He said that that one was on him." Uh, yeah. Suddenly, inconceivably, the 76-yard field goal attempt Lane Kiffin called for in his Oakland swan song seems a little less crazy by comparison.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
OK, Roger Goodell, it's time for you to act in the best interest of the game and do what must be done: No more Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. After watching their embarrassing, 47-10 defeat to the Titans on Thursday, I simply can't take it anymore – and the rest of us shouldn't have to, either. I know, long-suffering Lions loyalists: Detroit hosting a Thanksgiving Day game is tradition, and it's one of the few things you have to look forward to given this franchise's bleak existence. And I'm sorry, but I don't care. I could list plenty of other traditions that fall by the wayside in the interest of progress and/or the common good, and some that simply are dictated by economics – most recently, the shift from Monday Night to Sunday Night Football as the NFL's prime-time centerpiece. But the bottom line in this case is that the needs of the majority (non-Lions fans) outweigh those of the minority (y'all). Granted, the 0-12 Lions are especially bad this year, but they're almost always lousy, and their owners recently groveled for a government bailout of their enormous automobile business, which doesn't exactly vouch for their competence. And Thanksgiving is too important of a football-viewing day to sacrifice to charitable concerns. Simply put, it's bad business. Exposing fans to the Lions, year after year, is the equivalent of a restaurant serving overly dry turkey and expecting customers to gulp it down with appreciation on an annual basis. What other major sports league would allow this to happen? Would the NBA subject you to, say, the Clippers every Christmas? Would the NCAA give you Duke football – or Penn State basketball – every Turkey Day? Of course not. So don't tell me the Lions have some sort of divine right to enjoy a Thanksgiving monopoly. How about next year we roll the dice with, say, Colts vs. Patriots? All in favor, say "Hell yeah!"
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"It was fun. We needed that one. We just landed. Better than most flights we have had."
– Text Sunday night from 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill after the team shuffled off from Buffalo
"Hell yeah he is as fast as me"
– Text Sunday night from Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney on whether he expected fellow lineman Robert Mathis to score after recovering a Derek Anderson fumble (forced by Freeney) early in the fourth quarter. (Mathis did, from 37 yards out, and the Colts won 10-6.)