(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
I'm constantly amazed by the amount of San Diego Chargers fans that continue to complain about A.J. Smith and want him fired. Beyond the ridiculous notion that Joe Everyman would make a better GM than Mr. Smith, there are still some very intelligent fans that think that Larry English and Buster Davis should've equaled a swift kick out the door for A.J. Those people are very wrong.
Don't get me wrong. Despite the fact that I've defended the Larry English pick, and the Buster Davis pick, I think they were poor selections in hindsight. Or maybe not. Maybe David Chao is just horribly incompetent and gets to keep his job. Whoops, we've gotten off-topic.
Most GMs aren't very successful in their first go-around. That's something that people often forget, that this is A.J. Smith's first time being a General Manager. Granted, he's nearly held the position for a decade, but we shouldn't forget that this is still somewhat of a learning experience for A.J. Just because he's made a mistake or two gambling on broken-down horses in the past doesn't mean he won't learn from those mistakes and avoid doing it again.
Now, let's get to the real reason A.J. doesn't deserve your criticism....
I've been called an A.J. Smith apologist. I don't think I am, but I do think that he and I have a similar viewpoint on the NFL. Build a solid, sturdy team that can remain solid and sturdy. Stay near the top of the division, make the playoffs as much as possible, and at least once you should catch fire at the end of the year and carry it into the playoffs. This is how the Giants have won their last two Super Bowls.
Fans are more short-sighted than that. They want to gamble everything, every year, because they think that will win them a Super Bowl. They don't want to look at the teams that actually act that way (Redskins and Raiders, and the Eagles in 2011) because it disproves their point.
Winning the Super Bowl is based off of so much luck and chance, putting all your eggs in one year is foolish. The only way to play is build a team that is a yearly playoff contender, that's the only way to increase your odds. It's a numbers game.
That being said, I'd rather judge teams on how often they're able to avoid the basement of their division rather than how often they're able to win it. Want to know the last time the Chargers finished last in the AFC West? That's right, it was 2002. The last year before A.J. Smith took over as General Manger.
Since 2003 (nine seasons), the Chargers have finished in last place zero times and in first place five times. That, to me, seems "elite". For a first-time GM to do that, while missing big time on two first-round picks, seems impossible. The amount of things he does right, outside of those two first-round picks, must be astounding to maintain that level of consistency.
So, how many other teams can claim that they haven't been in last place over that time span? Three, actually. I asked Twitter to respond to me with which four teams (not letting on that one was the Chargers) had avoided the basement since 2003 and a grand total of zero people got it right.
The correct answer is the Chargers, Patriots, Steelers and Seahawks. That's not bad company to have, although the Seahawks make it by virtue of being in the worst division in football for most of that time period. Still, not bad. Imagine what A.J. Smith can do when he learns his lesson about his training staff and/or picking injury-prone players in the first round.
Update: Reader maestro876 points out that NFL.com's standings are different than pro-football-reference.com's standings. I was going based off of PFR's. If you use NFL.com's, the Cowboys should also be included on the list. Oh, and they say that the Chargers technically finished last in 2003.
No matter, though, because A.J. took over mere weeks before the draft in 2003. That was hardly even his team! (Fine, maybe I'm a little bit of an A.J. Smith apologist. Can you blame me for not wanting a really terrible GM just because our fanbase is made up of people with expectations that are too high?)