Join Date: Feb 2007
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foundry earns the respect of Chargers GM
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
A.J. Smith is a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. The Chargers general manager won't be waving a Terrible Towel this particular Sunday, but no matter what happens in today's divisional playoff game, it won't stop him from admiring the organization.
More specifically, how it goes about minding its business.
Smith constantly studies NFL teams but doesn't always come away singing hosannas. There are those he believes have no chance of winning.
The Steelers, Patriots and Colts are the GM's organizational role models. They not only make the playoffs most years, which is his No. 1 priority and something he spends most of his waking hours working toward, but they do it on their terms.
And A.J. Smith, like him or not, is a man who does things on his terms. If he screws up, he moves on.
When he looks at the Steelers, he sees a diamond-hard franchise set in its ways for many years. He isn't talking about the great Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s, when free agency and salary caps didn't exist. What the Steelers did then, keeping all those Hall of Famers around, couldn't happen Sunday. They wouldn't try.
But since 1993, the dawn of NFL free agency, no franchise has been more consistent than Pittsburgh – or achieved it in such a diversified manner. Over that span, the Steelers have gone 160-95-1, with just three losing seasons. They have been to the playoffs 11 times.
And “Just get to the playoffs” is Smith's motto. Since he took over Chargers football operations in 2003, the team has won four AFC West titles and last January reached the AFC Championship Game. What happened this year may have been profanityfilterprofanityfilterprofanityfilterprofa nityfiltereyed, but he'll gladly take his team reaching the postseason after a 4-8 start.
“On to Pittsburgh,” he says, knowing what lies in store Sunday at The Confluence, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet to form the mighty Ohio.
“I've studied the Steelers quite a bit,” he says, “particularly the way they handle their unrestricted free agents who are about to go on the market. I've always admired the way they've handled it. Even though they've been ridiculed, they've let players go.
“Yet they continue to move forward, plugging in players for those who have left. Go back and count the number of players they've lost, then look at the players they've added and how they continue to win. To them, criticism is water off a duck's back, and some outstanding players who have helped them win have moved on.”
Although he's been successful, molding a moribund franchise into an annual playoff contender, Smith has been criticized for allowing good players to walk through the free-agency doors. Drew Brees walked. So did Michael Turner. Stars.
But, if you look back, you'd see Smith drafted quarterback Philip Rivers because Brees had not been good. When Brees blossomed, there was no way the team could afford two top quarterbacks. Same with Turner. LaDainian Tomlinson was the tailback. Turner demanded plenty. He had to leave.
“My philosophy and approach are the same (as Pittsburgh's),” Smith says. “We'd love to have the player. If our offer is acceptable to the player and his agent, everybody's happy. If they go somewhere else, you're disappointed, because they're your players, but good luck to you.”
From there, Smith says: “Let's get into the hot topic, Darren Sproles.”
Sproles, Tomlinson's tiny backup and one of The League's best return specialists, came up large in last Saturday's AFC wild-card game against Indianapolis and no doubt will be relied on quite a bit Sunday. But Sproles is free to walk after this season, and his value has done nothing but rise in recent weeks.
“He's an unrestricted free agent and we'd love to have him,” Smith says. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. My understanding is he'd like to be here, too, but this is a business to all of us. We will give him a contract offer – with years – we hope he accepts.
“If not, he'll go to the market to see what other teams are interested and his agent will make a recommendation to his player. Hypothetically, say six teams are interested. Darren and his agent would make the best deal for him and his family. I can tell you right now, we'd be one of the six.”
Is it possible Smith could pin a franchise tag on Sproles and bring him back for at least a year? It would earn the little guy a whole lot of money, but Smith would have some of his valued insurance behind LT.
“Yes,” he says, “within our system, that's a possibility.”
Tomlinson is not close to being a free agent, but there has been speculation that LT may not be a Chargers player next season.
“I have no idea about LT or anyone else on this team at this time,” Smith says. “We'll know by mid-February. When the season ends, we will step back for three weeks, reflect and build a new team.
“You have to build it like Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis. Look at them. They have a ton of players with playoff experience.”
And so do the Chargers. Which is why they are where they are, at The Confluence.
And I guess after todays win AJ Smith has many more reasons to want to copy the ways of the Pittsburgh Steelers.