SAN DIEGO – General manager A.J. Smith moves quickly across the practice field at the San Diego Chargers' facility. After he meets a reporter for an unsolicited conversation, he talks at an enthusiastic pace about a myriad of football subjects, ignoring a half-dozen phone calls over at least 45 minutes.
Smith, who quickly has become one of the league's top talent evaluators, is one happy man. He is in control of a football team for the first time in his career. And while Smith tempers much of what he says about the Chargers by saying that the team really hasn't accomplished much in the NFL's high-level definition of achievement, he is thinking big.
"I want this team to go on a run," Smith said three times over the course of the conversation.
"We have a young group of players here, and we have a lot of guys signed to long-term contracts," Smith said. "So that's what we're hoping."
The Chargers have talent to do just that. In the raw sense of physical gift, there isn't a team as talented and deep as San Diego. There isn't one even that is close. The New England Patriots are the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl, and there is little question that the Patriots have both track record and football acumen on their side. Likewise, the champion Indianapolis Colts have plenty of talent and experience.
But the Chargers have what every coach wants first and foremost – physical skill. From NFL MVP running back LaDainian Tomlinson to linebacker Shawne Merriman, the offense and the defense are loaded. They are the type of players who defy conventional X's and O's.
The Chargers also are a contented lot. While there is dutiful respect paid for departed coach Marty Schottenheimer and coordinators Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips, there is no whining about the trio having moved on.
"Marty was great and the guys here love him, but we have to move on from that," Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams said as he sat in his usual spot in the Chargers' locker room, parked in a leather lounger watching whatever game was on the TV.
There's the take of defensive end Igor Olshansky on new defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell.
"We're running the same system, but (Cottrell) is already putting in some new stuff that I think is really going to help us," Olshansky said. "I think there were times we got a little stale, and this is going to help us."
That's no disrespect to Phillips. Rather, it's the athletic arrogance that goes with greatness. The truly talented believe coaches are interchangeable. To an extent, they're correct.
"What we really missed last year from losing that first playoff game was dealing with the emotions, the tension, the adrenaline that goes with playing in that type of game," Smith said. "The key every year is to get in the playoffs and learn to handle that stuff so that you can come back to what it really is, another game."
Smith can't fix the experience part right now, and he is frustrated with the team's two one-and-done efforts in the playoffs the past three years. But he thinks he solved a critical part when the Chargers dumped Schottenheimer, hired Norv Turner and brought in Cottrell.
Smith brings up the word "continuity" when talking about Turner and Cottrell, which is a slightly bizarre take on the situation. Before Schottenheimer was pushed out, the Chargers lost Cameron, the offensive coordinator, to Miami and Phillips, the defensive coordinator, to Dallas.
Smith lost his top three coaches and he is claiming continuity as an asset?
Like with his talk of making a "run," Smith is looking at the situation from a broader perspective. He is talking about running the same systems on offense and defense. To that end, Turner is running the same offense he taught Cameron back in the mid-1990s when they were in Washington.
On defense, Cottrell is running the same 3-4 system that Phillips used before him and that Cottrell ran under Phillips when the two were together in Buffalo.
"What I didn't want this team to go through was changing a defensive or offensive system," Smith said. "We're at a point where the players are comfortable with what we do. Teaching them something new was only going to set them back."
Keeping Schottenheimer likely would have done just that. As Schottenheimer searched for a replacement for Phillips, he focused on getting brother Kurt from Green Bay over Smith wanting Cottrell.
That was the last straw in a three-year run of growing dysfunction between Schottenheimer and Smith. Over that time, it became more and more apparent to Smith that Schottenheimer was not the man to finish the job for the Chargers.
"The way I have put it, and this is all I'm going to say, is that Marty Schottenheimer and I were galaxies apart on how to a win a championship," Smith said, repeating "galaxies" for emphasis.
Sure, Schottenheimer's 200 career wins, his Churchill-esque pregame speeches and his combination of bespectacled teacher look and macho attitude played well to the media and the locker room.
Still, there was a fatal flaw for Schottenheimer and it went beyond his overly conservative style on offense. That perception changed last year when the Chargers led the NFL in points scored (492).
Rather, Schottenheimer's flaw is that in the face of difficulty he often panicked. In the 1997 playoffs, his Kansas City Chiefs lost a home playoff game to rival Denver. In the final three minutes, the Chiefs let the game slip away in a frenetic mess of discombobulation. Yeah, that's redundant, but you had to be there.
Last season, Schottenheimer showed the same trait again. In the playoff loss to New England, the Chargers faced a fourth-and-10 situation from the Patriots' 30-yard line. The logical choices were to either try a field goal or punt. When Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding told Schottenheimer the wind was bad for a field goal, punting seemed the next logical step.
Instead, he had the Chargers go for it. The Patriots sacked quarterback Philip Rivers so easily that it was embarrassing, and New England gladly took the gift of field position.
Smith doesn't say much about that situation. He doesn't have to. The frustration shows on his face.
"I studied everything about Marty," said Smith, who also gave Schottenheimer plenty of chances to succeed during their four years together. "I know his tendencies. I talked to tons of people who know him and worked with him."
Smith stops there, the message as loud and clear as it is implicit. Smith doesn't need to run with the point.
No, he'd rather have his team go on the run.