Dear Dean Spanos,
Hello. You probably don't know who I am. My name is John Gennaro and I run a blog/community dedicated to San Diego Chargers news and analysis. We've never actually met, but I half-heartedly waved at you from across the room at a party once and you may have seen that before turning back to your conversation.
I understand that this season has been tough for you. Many fans of the team that you own and operate are unhappy with the choices you've made, especially over the last 12 months. That's all right. I have enough perspective to realize that owners are not infallible. You're allowed a few mistakes. What is important is learning from those mistakes, and also learning from the successes of your peers, as you go forward in trying to fix this broken organization.
Now, despite having never actually talked with you, I've talked with a few people that know you very well about how you might proceed in the coming months and years. There are those that believe that you, and your siblings, will sell the team to the highest bidder when your father, Alex, passes away. I doubt that's a decision that you've made, I don't consider you to be so morbid, but I don't deny that it's an option that you've at least considered. Others think that your number one goal is to get a brand new stadium in San Diego and use it as the backdrop of a perennial championship contending team. Nobody that knows you has ever come out and said that you hope to hold onto the team while moving it to Los Angeles, and so I have no reason to believe that's the case.
I'm assuming you're familiar with John Moores. The former owner of the San Diego Padres had a rollercoaster of a tenure in this town, but he did leave a legacy because of how hard he fought to get Petco Park built in downtown San Diego. That's a tremendous ballpark the Padres have there, and it has been crucial in the (easy and profitable) sale of the franchise. Twice, actually. I could see how a new stadium would only work to benefit you, as someone who might want to sell the team or as someone that might want to build the team into a dominant NFL franchise.
Building value into the team means building value into the fanbase. That's not an easy thing to do, especially when your fanbase looks like this:
That's an empty stadium at a game that was blacked out in your local area. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, the only home games that haven't been blacked out this season have been the two that were on national television (thanks for all the mass ticket purchasing, sponsors!) and the home opener. Your fanbase could not have less value right now than what they currently do. They're somehow both angry and apathetic. They hate the Head Coach, the assistant coaches, the General Manager, the team doctor, the head of security, you, any family member you've ever had, the stadium your team plays in and most of the players on the team.
You're probably sitting there, asking yourself "Who the hell do I go hire?" Well, there's plenty of people out there with opinions and theories. Some are good, some are great, some are awful. The thing that you have to keep in mind when you're looking for a new Head Coach and a new General Manager is that you need to build value in your team and your fanbase (for the sake of a new stadium, future profit, or both), that means taking an exciting risk with a possible huge payoff.
Let's get back to John Moores. I came to San Diego in 1998 and immediately saw what was going on. The team had traded for Kevin Brown, arguably the best pitcher in the game at that point, in the offseason. They also picked up Randy Myers late in the season, eating millions of dollars for a pitcher that they didn't really want, just to keep him off of other contending franchises. They picked up Jim Leyritz just to be a pinch hitter when the team was already looking like one of the best in the league. They were spending lots and lots of money, even when it seemed unnecessary, in the name of winning.
Now, spending tons of money and throwing away millions just to block players from going to other teams is not a wise long-term strategy unless you're the Yankees. Just ask the Dallas Cowboys. However, the Padres' spending did lead to short-term success, an exciting run through the playoffs that got the city of San Diego very excited. Everyone was going to games or watching the games, and they were constantly seeing the large "VOTE YES ON PROP C" banner that Moores had put on the outfield wall. The value was built, in the team and the fans, and the excitement was there. This is how Petco Park got completed and it's not a bad plan for getting a new Chargers stadium either.
Now, the Chargers are in a slightly different spot than the Padres were. That Padres team was already good and had a good Manager and GM that they weren't replacing. Still, the idea remains the same: Do whatever it takes to excite the fanbase. Your stadium or the billions you could make from selling the team will come following after.
So, where to start? Well, fire Norv and AJ. Not at the end of the season, not tomorrow, today. Get a head start on the Head Coaching search. Get on the phones first, knock on those doors first, and sell them on the idea before they start talking to the Chiefs, Panthers, and Eagles.
As for whether to start with a new GM or new Head Coach, I'd start by filling Smith's shoes first. Possibly with someone that has the ability (and will) to get rid of some of the not-so-visible issues (Paging Doctor David Chao). Someone that takes a different stance to the draft than A.J. Smith did. Someone that immerses himself in the college football game, traveling around and seeing prospects with his own two eyes. Also, someone that is a little bit more open and honest with the fans. That would get them excited.
The Head Coach is equally important, though. The lesson that the NFL seems to be teaching is that the way to building a better organization is to hire a coach you believe in and then keep him as long as possible, which means riding out the occasional rough patch with him. This is a lesson that Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones have just recently learned, and it really shouldn't be that difficult considering how patient you've been with Norv Turner. Just remember when you're hiring a new Head Coach that if the prospect of his future is exciting enough, you'll accomplish your goal (exciting the fanbase) even without a playoff run.
Personally? I'd look to grab someone like Kyle Shanahan. He's creative, he's immersed himself in the game, and it would take an incredible level of failure before fans would believe that he'd be any less successful than his father has been with the Broncos and Redskins. Immediately show how dedicated you are to him with some sort of long-term contract (longer than 3 years). Talk about following the example of teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have had 3 Head Coaches since 1968, and do just that.
Fans will get excited. They'll believe they're watching "the kid" grow into one of the league's best Head Coaches and top offensive minds (which me may or may not already be). They'll give him time to fix Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews. Even a minimal amount of success will start a groundswell that count result in a vote being passed in November. Although you could possibly get similar groundswell with David Shaw or Chip Kelly, but they wouldn't have the last name to lean back on for immediate respect.
Do you remember saying this last year?
"The easiest thing in the world is to start over. Who the hell do I go hire? Blow the whole thing up? We're a pretty good team but we have to make the right moves. We've fallen. It could have been our draft picks or our free-agent moves. But we have a good core, and I don't care what anybody says. I'm not afraid to make changes. If I thought it was warranted, I would do it. We have a good foundation here."
Well, yeah, it's time to blow the whole thing up. Whether or not the core is good is almost irrelevant. If it's good, it's being misused horribly. If it's bad, it needs to be replaced. It's not the core that the fans are angry about, though, it's everything around the core. If you believe that Rivers, Antonio Gates, Ryan Mathews, Donald Butler, Eric Weddle and this defensive line are something to build around, that's fine. We're on board. But everything else around them should be blown up and replaced with something fresh, new and exciting. That would get us to buy tickets. That would get us to vote 'yes'. And a move that copies the Steelers, widely thought of as the best organization in the league? That would get us excited about Dean Spanos, the Owner.
Warmest regards and apologies for the length,
John Michael Gennaro