|Will Lightning strike twice?||10.10.08 at 1:10 pm ET|
The San Diego Chargers have been here before.
They stand a disappointing 2-3 on the season, one year after starting 1-3 and rebounding to win the AFC West and make it to the AFC title game, only to lose to the team they’re playing this weekend at Qualcomm Stadium. Will they have what it takes to turn the trick again? It will be tougher, that’s for sure. They have lost perennial pro bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman to knee surgery. Their defense has yet to gel and is giving up points at an alarming rate. And, oh yeah, perennial MVP candidate and star running back LaDainain Tomlinson has been battling a toe ailment since the season began.
Chargers general manager A.J. Smith was a part-time scout with the Patriots from 1978-80. He is originally from Warwick, Rhode Island and played wide receiver for the semi-pro Attleboro Kings of the Eastern Football League.
I had the chance to talk one-on-one with Smith, the man who has built the Chargers into a perennial AFC power. His comments on what was learned from Gillette Stadium last January and about injuries are eerily telling of what is tormenting the team this season.
The following is an excerpt from the interview that will appear this month in San Diego Sport magazine:
How has Philip Rivers matured as a quarterback, physically and mentally?
“To me, I just think he’s a great student of the game, studies the game year-round and has got all the physical tools to be successful. No one’s going to compare him with Steve Young or Fran Tarkenton regarding his scrambling ability but he does have a knack of moving in the pocket at the right moment with his eyes down field. Really, a great feel for pocket pressure.”
“He has always reminded me of Dan Marino because of all my years, 14 years in Buffalo watching Dan Marino with the Dolphins, regarding his quick release like Dan had and Marino’s ability to shuffle and avoid in the pocket. He’s always had that quality and, of course, Dan Marino didn’t have any 40-yard time and neither does Philip. I really, really like him. I think he’s grown as a leader by his performance and also his interaction with his teammates. We’re really, really pleased with him.”
“With him, we always knew that he was a great competitor and a tough guy. We’ve known that throughout his career here. But in particular, to put on the line what he did, and because he is the quarterback and makes it go, was unbelievable through the process.”
“We knew it while it was happening, but when the season ended is really when it took on a life of its own within our organization and moved throughout the country. There’s a little bond going on with this guy. He’s almost like the defensive linemen and offensive linemen by nature but he is the quarterback.
What has the team learned about toughness from its performance in New England last January?
“We went into Foxboro with the walking wounded against one of the best teams of all-time on their turf and we fought to the bitter end before coming up a little short. I believe now that they really think they have the capabilities of beating outstanding Super Bowl-type teams, teams like the New England Patriots and the week before the Indianapolis Colts, defending Super Bowl champions in their house. You’ve got to be talented and perform well but you also must be strong mentally and tough-minded to accomplish great things. I think we gained experience during that tough playoff run. There’s no question in my mind.”
What keeps LaDainain Tomlinson ticking?
“I’ve talked to him about that. We know this, everybody, all organizations, their goal is to build a team to win a championship. And all the players dream about this, as well as GMs and coaches. All that he’s accomplished and people now saying he’s a hall of famer that’s now playing, there’s only one thing that he wants, like the rest of us. He’s a great player, a future Hall of Famer and he wants to be the very best. His goal is to get that ring. He is doing everything he possibly can to help this football team make that happen. There’s nothing more he can do. He’s a great talent and a great competitor. The guy trains and thinks football all year long and a lot of our guys feed off that. The way he practices. If you’ve ever been to practice to see him in practice take a ball, either simulate a move or not, and burst down the field 50 yards and come back time and time again is unbelievable to see. We’re a very, very fortunate team to have him in our backfield, no question about that.”
What will it take for the Chargers to reach the next level?
“We’ve been growing and growing toward this. It takes three things to make a championship happen. It’s being good, being lucky and being injury-free. Those three things are what I consider to be the winning formula. We will continue to work hard here and work to be consistent in all three phases of the game, offense, defense and special teams. I do think we’re balanced in those areas. I do believe we have the talent to make a real hard run at the Super Bowl. I really do. I think we’re confident going in. We’ll all find that out in about six months. Being good, we’re working on that. Being lucky, Marv Levy used to tell me, ‘You want to be lucky, make your own luck with good hard play.’”
“But the injury-free is the one that torments me the most and all of us because you have no control over it and it can affect you tremendously in your quest to win a world championship. Case in point, last year we got hurt with superstars at the wrong time and there was nothing we could do about that. We did the best we could. But that’s over with. I hope we can keep our guys healthy and work hard because it will obviously help us achieve our goals.”
How has Norv Turner gained the confidence of the team and how has the team has embraced his philosophies?
“I’m a big believer in Norv Turner and pretty much on record for that over the years. And then I was in a position to bring him in here as our head coach. Coach Turner’s professionalism and leadership really grew as the season moved along last year (2007). He took the team through an early, very difficult four-game stretch in which we were 1-3. A change was made and he never blinked. He is a very steady and confident guy. His message is always direct and very brief. When the winning started for us, when it turned, the players started to see for themselves.
How does the organization deal with expectations?
“We break it down this way. Everybody wants to win a Super Bowl but how are you going to make it happen? First of all, you have to have ownership with full support and they have to back you with your plan and be there. I’ve got that here with (owner) Dean Spanos. He’s always been there. He said, ‘What do you need to win, what do you need to be successful? Just tell me, and I’ll be there.’ And he has. The second phase is to get the best players you can by any means, and that means thought the trades, drafting, street free agents, unrestricted signings, any way and get them quickly because time is of the essence to prove you’re heading in the right direction. And the third thing for me was to find yourself an outstanding, smart head coach that can operate under extreme pressure, a coach that can manage a game and make the critical decisions with sound judgment that’s going to enhance the team’s chance to be successful. To me, that was imperative for us. Norv Turner is the right guy at the right time. And No. 4 is win enough games to get the playoffs. Win your division is what we all want to do because you get a free bid to the tournament. But if you fall short because you’re in a battle, make sure you’re in line to get a wild card. Case in point, and I made this point to the team, the New York Giants. They did not win the division, Dallas did with 13 wins. New York fought down the stretch to get into the playoffs and they did and the rest is history. The fifth part for me is you want a playoff-caliber team each and every year. Keep going to postseason, if you do, maybe one of those years will be special one when our team will achieve its goal.”
“Our players know the plan. When I think back five years ago, we were the worst team in the league with the worst players and we had no future. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time. We’re very, very proud of that but we have accomplished nothing. We haven’t won anything yet. But we’re moving in that direction.”
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