If there's one thing the Chargers haven't lacked for the last few years, it's controversy. Recently, that controversy has centered around General Manager AJ Smith. Fans both love him for building a consistent winner, and loathe him for his perceived faults as a negotiator and, thus far, failure to build a Super Bowl winner.
Thinking about this, I asked myself one question: Just how good have the Chargers been in the AJ Smith era? We think we've had these great teams and should have done something special with them, and blame coaches and the front office when something goes wrong. But how true is this? After the jump, I'll explore the San Diego teams from 2003 - present, as well as other winning teams over that same time period to find out just what the truth really is. For those who are unfamiliar, I'll be using Football Outsiders' DVOA to measure and compare the teams. Explanations of these stats can be found here.
As we know, AJ Smith took over the Chargers in the 2003 off-season, shortly after the death of Chargers GM and longtime mentor John Butler. Even though he was technically in charge during the 2003 draft and subsequent season, it's generally accepted that AJ largely acted according to Butler's plan for the season. So it's not really fair to call 2003 one of AJ's years, but he was the GM and technically it occurred under his watch, so we'll include it in our investigation
Let's start by looking at the overall DVOA numbers for the Chargers, from 2003 to present:
As a reminder, DVOA is rate stat that measures defense-adjusted value over average ("DVOA"), on a per-play basis. So a positive number is good, and a negative number is bad. Numbers over 10% can be considered "good", over 20% "very good", and over 30% "dominant". I made up these last categories, but they pretty much fit with our subjective perceptions. For example, all the greatest teams of the decade, the 2002 Buccaneers, 2004 Steelers and Patriots, 2005 Colts, and 2007 Patriots have had DVOAs of over 30%.
When we look at the Chargers' numbers over the last eight years, we see a bunch of good teams, one terrible team, and a couple very good teams. The fact of the matter is that the Chargers have never really had a dominant team in the current era. The closest they came was 2006 (14-2!), but even that team wasn't good enough to overcome its own mistakes. Their average, over that entire time period, was about 15.8%.
Let's make a comparison. Here are the overall DVOA numbers from the Colts, Patriots, Steelers, and Eagles in the same time period, with averages at the end:
What's the point of all this? The Chargers just haven't been that good compared to most of these teams. Each one has been on average better over the last eight years, each one has had at least one season of "dominance", and each has had at least one Super Bowl appearance. Their eight year averages all cross into the "very good" category, while the Chargers' is squarely in the "good" category.
It's also relevant because if we look at each of the teams the Chargers has lost to in the playoffs, the Chargers had been the worse team. In 2004, the Jets' 27.5% overall DVOA beats that of the Chargers by nearly 10%. In 2006, the Chargers were better than the Patriots but not by much (29.1% vs. 27.1%), and the Patriots actually had a higher weighted DVOA heading into that game. In 2007, the Patriots outclassed the Chargers by almost 35%. In 2008, the Steelers were better than the Patriots by about 12%, and in 2009 the Jets were better than the Chargers by 3.5% (16.9% vs. 13.4%).
My ultimate conclusion is this: the Chargers just haven't been as great as we'd like to think they were. They've been good, a couple times very good, but never dominant enough to overcome their mistakes and outclass their opponents in the post-season. If they want to win the Super Bowl, they need to finally figure out how to have all three phases of the team working at the same time, or be so incredibly dominant in one category that it makes up for deficiencies elsewhere, like the 2010 Patriots.
The blame for this ultimately lies with AJ Smith. People can rail about the coaching staff and Norv Turner, but the Chargers have actually been pretty consistent under Norv, and the one thing powering the team, the passing offense, has been consistently dominant.
AJ has done a mostly good job as a GM, but he needs to do better. I know that he has a philosophy that he follows and has faith in, but he should probably consider trying something different. He needs to do better with player personnel, in both the draft and free agency. If he doesn't, it seems likely the Chargers will find themselves in a similar position going forward has they have been in the past--good, not great, and home in January.