SAN DIEGO – The picture sat behind a desk, near a giant glass wall of an office that overlooked a practice field. A man donning slicked silver hair and a Hawaiian shirt turned to the photo and studied it. It was the simplest of pictures, really. Just two men sitting in a golf cart. On one side, former San Diego Chargers general manager John Butler was captured slumping over the wheel of the cart. And at his right side in the photo, A.J. Smith – the protégé and successor to Butler – stared into the distance through glasses seemingly borrowed from a 1950s chemistry professor.
"We spent all of our careers in golf carts," he said, chuckling and shaking his head. "A lot of discussions and decisions were made in that thing."
"I think John would be proud."
There's a hint of vulnerability in the statement, which is unique. Of all the things Smith is prone to being called in NFL circles – shrewd, blunt, egotistical, cheap, stubborn and even brilliant – vulnerable is rarely an adjective that comes up. But Butler is his soft spot. As well he should be.
"I miss him," Smith said.
It's been a few years since that picture was taken. At the time, Butler was San Diego's general manager and Smith was the team's director of pro personnel. Those were their official titles, anyway. In spirit, they were little more than two kids holed up in a tree house, spending their days scheming to rebuild the Chargers. Five years after they put the plan in motion together, Smith is fine-tuning it on his own, having watched Butler succumb to cancer in April of 2003.
But there is rarely a day that passes when Smith doesn't think about his mentor or what he'd think of all this. Smith shrugs off the sudden celebration of his team, but his sly smile suggests pleasure at how the Chargers, once the dregs of the NFL, have become the league's Super Bowl favorite. And how the plan he and Butler hatched to build a sustained contender, like the Bills of the early- to mid-1990s, has come to fruition. And of course, how LaDainian Tomlinson – once considered the wrong end of a trade that gift-wrapped Michael Vick for the Falcons – has become one of the best running backs in league history.
"The dream was to try to build a championship team in San Diego," Smith said. "He's not around, so it kind of got passed on to me. And I'm doing the best I can."
PASSING OF THE TORCH
Even now, Smith vividly remembers that dreadful phone call in the spring of 2003. His friend of 21 years was in the final throes of a battle with lung cancer. Smith had lost his father to it in 1972, so he knew what to expect. But it hardly cushioned the experience of once again watching it slowly rob him of a career confidant, this time a man who he'd met in 1982 while working for the USFL's Chicago Blitz.
Butler, on the other hand, remained businesslike even though the outlook had become bleak. In his own way, he began trying to prepare A.J. for what he hoped would be a seamless succession if he didn't beat the cancer. Like every good general manager, Butler forced himself to think about what would happen to his team tomorrow even as the illness took hold over time, and his daily discussions with his protégé whittled from hours to mere minutes. Then, one day in February, Butler was forced to check into the hospital for what he knew might be the last time.
Not long after, he called for Smith. He wanted to talk. Alone.
The topic was the one Smith had avoided for months – transition. Butler wanted to ready Smith to take the team over. And yet, every time he would bring it up, Smith would brush the talk off.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Smith said.
Finally, in the private meeting that Butler requested in the hospital, he grasped his friend by the arm, to command his attention.
"We're at the bridge," he said.
It's an important moment, because what happened next has a lot to do with where the Chargers are now. Butler told Smith that, more than likely, this was going to be his team. And that he was going to have to shape it in his vision. No more nights burning the midnight oil together. No more wondering by Smith what it would be like if he was off running his own team. This would be his. And it would be up to him to use everything he'd gleaned from so many great minds over the years – not only Butler, but guys like former Buffalo coach and current Bills GM Marv Levy, former Bills GM Bill Polian (now of the Indianapolis Colts) and football icon George Allen.
"You know, A.J. doesn't show a lot, but I think he did take that [talk] hard," Levy said.
Added Polian, "It was very emotional. A.J. was the closest guy to John. They'd been together for a long time."
"John and I spent five days sitting in the stands at the Senior Bowl in 2001," Smith remembered. "We were 1-15 [the season before] and John had just been hired as the GM and he had brought me over from Buffalo. It was a total rebuilding process going on. And we were going to build it brick by brick. And the first brick we saw at that Senior Bowl was LaDainian Tomlinson."
At the time, they thought of Tomlinson as their Thurman Thomas. That he's become so much more and negated all the criticism for passing on Vick is simply another testament to the vision that helped turn around the Chargers.
But in a way, that's where Smith has distinguished himself from Butler. Because it's been the seeds planted around Tomlinson – and Smith's uncanny ability to cull the right talent at the right time – that has delivered San Diego from underneath a black cloud that nearly devoured the franchise in 2004.
Keeping in mind that the quarterback position is center of the NFL universe, no team in league history has pulled off what the Chargers did in a five-year span. Consider that San Diego rebounded from parting ways with a former first-rounder (Ryan Leaf), passing on one perceived all-world quarterback (Vick), traded away a second "once-in-a-decade" quarterback (Eli Manning), and then let a Pro Bowler leave via free agency (Drew Brees). And yet, the Chargers lived – and thrived – to tell about it.
"I liken it to a quote I used to tell our players from Martin Luther King," Levy said. "It was something like 'You do some things because it's good politics. You do some things because it's the popular thing to do. You do some things because it's the right thing to do. And if No. 1 and No. 2 ever conflict with No. 3, then you just do the right thing.' That's what you have to do in this job. No matter what, some of the decisions you make aren't going to be popular."
The final decisions regarding Manning and Brees certainly weren't popular at the time. The Manning fiasco in particular has left Smith with a lasting scar. One he says has faded over time, but that "will always be there."
"Less and less and less? Yes," Smith said. "Less now than then? Yes. But it is always there. It's etched in history."
Despite the fact that it appears he fleeced the New York Giants in the deal for Manning, it doesn't take much to get Smith rolling downhill on the subject. While the Giants got the player general manager Ernie Accorsi wanted as the centerpiece of his franchise, San Diego got a treasure trove in return. Specifically, Philip Rivers and three draft picks that became a dominant linebacker (Shawne Merriman), a franchise kicker (Nate Kaeding) and a veteran who started and played left tackle at a near Pro Bowl level for two seasons (Roman Oben).
So why the friction almost three years later? Not surprisingly, it's something that has its roots in Smith taking over for Butler. At the time that the 2004 NFL draft was rounding into form, Eli Manning and his father, Archie, indicated the Ole Miss star had no interest in playing for San Diego. Not only did the family not want any part of San Diego as a franchise, Smith walked away feeling like Archie Manning and his entire clan of NFL blue-bloods had taken a shot at his reputation. And if there was one thing Smith learned from his father – a hard-living travel engineer for a trucking company – it was to never let someone trample on your name or hard work.
"Archie Manning never said it publicly, but my information was that it was because I was a scout and that I was incapable of even handling anything as a general manager and so forth," Smith said. "And that was amongst other things. [Archie's opinion was] the players were terrible and it was the worst team in the National Football League and it would probably remain so."
Smith found the situation embarrassing, but instead of unraveling he used the situation as motivation.
Listening to the breakdown now, it's no shock what Smith did next. He analyzed what was going on, determined that he wasn't going to be held hostage, and then called his staff together at 8 a.m. one morning and told them they were drafting Manning no matter what the kid wanted. And as Smith expected, the second Manning was off the board, the Giants were panicking, and offering a boatload in a trade.
What nobody knew then: Smith actually had fallen in love with Rivers, who had been reared in one-time N.C. State offensive coordinator Norm Chow's pro-style offense, and had the overt leadership abilities that Manning seemed to lack. In fact, Smith liked Rivers more than the third quarterback taken in that draft – some guy named Ben Roethlisberger. Since choosing Manning and dealing him, the Chargers are 32-13, albeit thanks in large part to the fortunate rebirth by Brees, who allowed Rivers to eventually ease into his current role.
"A.J. did exactly the right thing," Polian said. "That's the toughest situation you can have, and he did exactly the right thing for his team, and his team is prospering because of it."
PIECES IN PLACE
Not only prospering, but thriving. The Chargers have arguably the deepest team in the NFL, in large part because of drafts that have been more boom than bust. Indeed, some of the talent fell into Smith's lap. Like tight end Antonio Gates, who was invited to work out by 19 NFL teams after his college basketball career ended at Kent State. In what was a fortunate stroke for the Chargers, Gates chose to work out with them first, and that was all she wrote.
As for the rest of the roster, the positive results have been a little more scientific. Simply put, Smith has been a master at culling top-tier talent. There have been the occasional top-notch trades (wide receiver Keenan McCardell) or free agent signings (safety Marlon McCree). And drafts that have boomed on both first-round gambles (defensive lineman Luis Castillo and cornerback Antonio Cromartie) and middle-round scores (running back Michael Turner, punter Mike Scifres, and linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Shaun Phillips). Add that to striking it rich on the traditional high draft picks (Rivers and Merriman), and Smith looks like one of the league's best talent evaluators. Even his perceived misses have brought dividends: from the aforementioned Manning ordeal to letting Brees go in free agency (which should provide a compensatory third-round pick from the NFL in the upcoming draft).
"We're deep all over the place," said Gates. "You have to give [A.J.] credit for that. Just look at the defense. It seems like every time someone has gone down this year, there has been someone right there to step in and pick it up. People didn't think we could go 4-0 when Shawne was suspended. But we had guys slide right in and we didn't miss a beat."
As for how the story ends, who knows? The Chargers, at 11-2, are closing in on the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but they've had a couple of bumps along the way.
His breakdowns with Marty Schottenheimer led to a pow-wow with ownership last offseason, in which both were essentially told to shut their yaps. Then there has been the litany of police-related incidents with players over the last 12 months, a problem Smith says is going to be addressed with some undisclosed roster moves this offseason (Steve Foley and Terrence Kiel are likely on their way out). And he's had some bumpy contract issues with plenty of players, including Edwards, Gates, Brees and others – issues that have given Smith somewhat of a cheapskate label in the agent community.
And yet, here he sits, arguably at the top of his profession, carrying and flourishing with the plan and values that he and John Butler put into place years ago. The crowning achievement of a championship is still far off. After being in Buffalo and seeing teams come brutally close and fall short, he knows that much. So every day, the best emotion Smith can muster is cautious optimism, and the feeling that the mentor in that cherished photograph would be proud of how far he's come.