Schottenheimer might be getting set up to fail


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Jan 22, 2006
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Schottenheimer might be getting set up to fail

February 21, 2006

A.J. Smith is a buttoned-down guy who prefers beach attire. His closet is long on Hawaiian shirts and short on formality.

So when the Chargers general manager appeared for yesterday's media conference wearing French cuffs, lace-up shoes and – here's a real rarity – socks, his clothes suggested a particularly serious tone.

“We're moving in a different direction,” Smith said, solemnly, in disclosing the imminent release of safety Jerry Wilson.

“We are going in another direction,” Smith said, somberly, of the departure of tackle Courtney VanBuren.

Drew Brees? The Chargers quarterback appears to be headed in another direction, too – the smart money is on east – but Smith has not yet invoked his favorite euphemism for, “Here's your hat. What's your hurry?”

Officially, Smith still wants Brees back with the Bolts. Officially, negotiations are ongoing. Officially, the door will remain propped open until Brees walks out to sign with someone else.

Unofficially, however, the Philip Rivers Era is at hand.

Even discounting the typical negotiating ploys, the dollar divide between the Chargers and Brees is wide enough to turn a battleship. With Brees recovering from shoulder surgery and Smith leery of guaranteeing him a large salary, the odds against a deal getting done are so long now that the GM has started to entertain hypothetical questions instead of evading them.

“If Philip is the quarterback and Drew is not here, I would hope that the football team that we have would be solid on defense, maybe just get a little better,” he said. “I'd hope the offense would be able to prosper and the running back, (that we'd) shore up that line and have that punter maintain his excellence and have that kicker we have maintain his excellence. We'd have a pretty good football team and maybe that young guy, with some bumps in the road, could maintain a bit and help us progress. That would be my dream because we know that they don't just come in and light it up.”

The history of unproven quarterbacks is a cautionary tale. For every brilliant beginning there are numerous busts, precocious college passers who are unable to adapt to the speed and the precision of the professional game. Carson Palmer's rapid success with the Cincinnati Bengals follows that franchise's epic failures with David Klingler and Akili Smith. Simply put, young quarterbacks are a crapshoot.

Among the distinctions shared by Steve Bartkowski, Jeff George and Tim Couch is that all of them were once the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft and that none of them has a prayer at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thus Philip Rivers could become another Dan Fouts or he could prove a reprise of Ryan Leaf, and there's no way of knowing now in which direction he's headed. Until a pro quarterback competes in a game of consequence, it's all conjecture. Typically, it takes several seasons before all of the questions can be answered conclusively.

What this means for Chargers fans, most likely, is another detour on the labyrinthine road to the Super Bowl. What it means for Marty Schottenheimer may be a dead end.

The relationship between a general manager and an inherited head coach is invariably tricky and often combative. Though Smith and Schottenheimer have tried to keep their conflicts quiet, the tension between them recently escalated to a point at which Chargers President Dean Spanos felt obligated to intervene.

Yet in declining to designate Brees as the Chargers' “franchise” or “transition” player, and in devising contract proposals Brees deems undoable, Smith has effectively steered the organization toward the quarterback he personally selected and imperiled the coach he didn't choose.

If Smith was openly “disappointed” by the Chargers' 9-7 season and found four home losses “unacceptable,” what standard must Schottenheimer reach in 2006 to keep his job?

Answer: Probably playoffs, possibly deep in the playoffs.

Would he not deserve some allowances for a novice quarterback?

Answer: Evidently not.

When asked yesterday if his expectations would be as high with Rivers at the controls, Smith replied, “I have to say yes because I think our football team is very, very good. . . . If the team gets better and we happen to have a change (at quarterback), maybe someone else with some talent would be able to take advantage of a team that's growing.”

When asked if Philip Rivers should have seen more action in one-sided games, Smith said that was Schottenheimer's decision, then acknowledged that he had made comments to ownership that he did not wish to share in a public forum.

From here, it sounds as if the Smith/Schottenheimer rift is only growing deeper, almost as if the coach is being set up to fail.

“I'm not really involved in the negotiating part of it,” Schottenheimer said last night. “My hope would be that we'd find a way to reach an agreement (with Brees). Both parties have expressed an interest in doing so.”

Like any coach, Schottenheimer's primary concern is with his players, not his team's payroll. He wants Drew Brees back because Brees makes his team better – regardless of which quarterback wins the starting job.

Smith's job is to set the price tags and to live with the consequences.

“We have a dollar sign,” Smith said. “They have a dollar sign. If it comes together, we'll make an announcement. If not . . . then Drew will be playing for someone else and we'll move forward with our lives.”

The movement at the moment is in different directions.
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