Pressure's on the guy in charge


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Jan 22, 2006
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Pressure's on the guy in charge

The Orange County Register

If you think the heat is bad everywhere else, check out the San Diego Chargers' front office.

As NFL teams prepare to open their sweltering training camps this week, nobody occupies a hotter seat than A.J. Smith, the club's contentious general manager.

He has a playoff-caliber team without a proven playoff-caliber quarterback.

That's kind of like opening the doors to Sea World only to discover Shamu, the popular killer whale, has decided to take the summer off.

Most GMs would be concerned. Smith doesn't seem to be. Sure, he has an inexperienced quarterback.

But it's his quarterback.

Philip Rivers is his guy. Smith personally picked him - ahead of Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger - in the first round of the 2004 draft.

Now, after two seasons of standing and observing, Rivers has to prove he can be as effective as Pro Bowl QB Drew Brees, whom Smith and the Chargers refused to re- sign.

"People have asked me 100 times how in the world I could make a decision like this," Smith said. "I don't worry about it. I just go with my instincts."

Those instincts will be judged with every game played during the 2006 season. San Diego should be a team on the rise. It has the planet's finest all-around running back in LaDanian Tomlinson. It has an All-Pro tight end in Antonio Gates. And it has the returning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in Shawne Merriman.

The Chargers have plenty of weapons on offense and a defense coordinator Wade Phillips has turned into one of the more effective units in the AFC.

But do they have a leader? They did with Brees. They don't really know yet if they will with Rivers.

"I think Philip is a very, very talented guy," Smith said. "I thought he, Eli (Manning) and Roethlisberger were all extremely talented coming out that year. Kind of reminded me of the '83 group with (Dan) Marino, (Jim) Kelly and those guys.

"To me, the important thing about Rivers is that he's a solid human being. I think character is as important as anything."

Norm Chow, the former USC offensive coordinator now with the Tennessee Titans, coached Rivers as a freshman at North Carolina State.

"I think the world of him," Chow said. "I've always thought he could be a fine NFL quarterback."

This is the year Rivers gets his chance.

"Now he has to get in there with the live bullets flying," Smith said. "He has to learn. I think he will."

Rarely has a GM's reputation been riding so much on one player's performance.

If Smith is feeling the pressure, he doesn't let on. He is an outspoken type who has endured a somewhat stormy relationship with Coach Marty Schottenheimer.

For most of the past two seasons, it generally had been accepted that Schottenheimer preferred Brees at the position while Smith wanted Rivers to play, at least some of the time.

So why, in the final, meaningless game of a disappointing 2005 season, was Brees still on the field, where he suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that not only required surgery but seriously endangered his future in San Diego?

"That was a coach's decision," Smith said curtly. "It falls into Marty's realm."

Smith acknowledged the injury "was a huge factor" in their decision to allow Brees to sign a lucrative free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints, leaving the Chargers with an untried kid as their new quarterback.

Schottenheimer is the NFL's winningest active coach but has not made it to a Super Bowl. After he failed to get the Chargers into the playoffs a year ago, the suspicion is he has to make it to the postseason this time or his job will be in jeopardy.

"Our relationship? It's solid," Smith said. "We both want to win. Let's leave it at that."

But what if they don't win?

"Marty will be evaluated at the end of the year like everyone else," Smith said.

If Rivers fails and the Chargers don't get to the January tournament again, you have to wonder if the GM might be under some fire himself.

Smith has heard all the speculation, but it hasn't stopped him from continuing to make bold moves

He gambled by trading for Rashaun Woods, a one-time All-American wide receiver from Oklahoma State who was a bust with the 49ers, then used his No.1 draft pick on Antonio Cromartie, who started only one game in his career for Florida State.

"I'm not afraid," Smith said. "If you always hit the ball down the middle of the fairway, if you never take a chance, you don't know how far you can get.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win."

The Chargers have taken some serious - here's that word again - heat for drafting Cromartie so high.

"People said it was a reach," Smith said. "They claimed he didn't play enough at Florida State. Well, he played enough for us."

With Smith watching as Rivers, Woods and Cromartie begin loosening up, the Chargers officially open camp Friday.

The early forecast calls for it to be hot in San Diego. Very hot.
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