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Smith can finally relax -- until next game

January 07, 2008|Kurt Streeter


He might not admit it, but you know that's what San Diego Chargers' General Manager A.J Smith uttered Sunday as the clock ticked down on his team's tough playoff win.

Whew! Finally! Or maybe something a bit less genteel.

This game was a referendum on Smith, one of the NFL's best general managers -- and perhaps its gutsiest.

If the Chargers had ended up on the short end of their wild-card game against banged-up Tennessee instead of winning as they did, 17-6, his team's faithful and long-suffering fans might have put Smith in a moving van and sent him to Baja for an early retirement.

Smith, you might remember, unceremoniously fired his head coach after the Chargers finished last season with a glorious 14-2 regular-season record and an inglorious loss in their first playoff game.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Chargers vs. Patriots: A column by Kurt Streeter in Monday's Sports section said that last year's divisional playoff game involving the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots ended in overtime. The game ended in regulation play.

The Chargers melted in that game against New England, coughing up a big second-half lead on their way to an overtime loss. It was ugly and painful. The players lost their composure, the coaches lost their good sense.

Marty Schottenheimer, Smith concluded after that loss, didn't have what it takes to take the Chargers to the next level.

So Smith tossed those 14 wins in the trash and hired Norv Turner, an offensive guru whose dismal records as the head coach in Washington and Oakland did nothing to inspire confidence. Chargers fans swallowed hard and went along for a rocky ride as their team sputtered to a 1-3 start and then marched through an up-and-down season that ended with six straight wins.

Was Smith's coaching change a good one? None of us would know until the playoffs. What's great about Smith is that he never backed away from this. He told anyone who would listen that this year's team would be better prepared as it began the playoffs. He didn't shy from the extra pressure he'd put on himself and his team. "We're trying to figure out how to win a world championship," Smith said in December. "The only way to do that is you've got to win your first game and move on to the second. . . . We've just got to figure out how to win a game."

Part of Smith's mission, winning that playoff game, was accomplished Sunday. And when comparing last year's dismal finish with the way the Chargers played in this win -- sloughing off a clunky start, making solid offensive adjustments at halftime, and keeping their heads -- the coaching change looks as if it may be paying the dividends that Smith had hoped.

"It was a hard-fought 60 minutes," Smith said when it was over. He stood in an equipment room in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium. "We stayed with it and had faith. . . . There was a lot to like today."

Not in the first half.

After Tennessee kicked a field goal on its opening drive, the Chargers' offense took to the turf and promptly went nowhere. A few minutes later, they had the ball again and it looked as if they were playing against a brick wall. The entire half was like this and at the end of it, as the Chargers ran off the field, behind 6-0, rain and boos pelted them.

The second half brought something different. The defense, of course, was still the same nasty group that had kept the score low in the first half. It was the offense that changed. Suddenly, seams opened up in the secondary and linemen held firm and Philip Rivers' passes hit their targets. Vincent Jackson caught a touchdown and piled up the yards -- he was on his way to 114 of them. Chris Chambers, the receiver Smith stole from Miami in a lopsided trade during the season, kept easing through the secondary with the ball in his hands. There was LaDainian Tomlinson blasting forward for tough gains inside and sweeping left and right for longer carries.

This was far from a pretty game. Prettiness is not to be found when roughneck teams such as these two get together. Add in the fact that both sides had hard feelings from the game they played last month -- a 23-17 Chargers overtime win -- and what unfolded was an old-fashioned brawl.

The Chargers won that brawl decisively in the second half. The offense put up 17 points, the Titans' defense never scored and A.J. Smith's move ended up looking pretty good.

In the locker room afterward, players spoke of how they felt better prepared going into this game than they had last year. More relaxed. More unified. More equipped to handle setbacks within a game.

Smith stood nearby. With the steely smile of a politician, he denied ever being overly worried about the outcome. But his voice was flat. It was the voice of a man who'd just been through plenty of tense moments.

"Coaching made a difference," he said, speaking admiringly of the adjustments his team had made at halftime. Turner, he said, had found a way to get the passing game going and a way to make Tomlinson look good.

"Coach Turner knows how to keep the ball in players' hands," Smith said. "He doesn't panic. You stay the course. You don't just say this is not a good day for the running game or the passing game so you abandon it. He knows how to manage a game. I feel good about that."

He should have felt good. His team had just won its first playoff game since the early years of the Clinton administration. But there's a long way to go. The Chargers still have not advanced any further than they did last season.

Sunday's game, remember, was a wild-card game, the victor playing its way into the divisional playoffs, which is exactly where San Diego stumbled last year.

Next week, the Chargers head to Indianapolis to face the Super Bowl champions. We'll see whether Turner can make his boss look good again. Time for another referendum.

Kurt Streeter can be reached at For previous columns by Streeter, go to

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