Former San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith addressed his failures with the team by saying “Looking back, I would say we needed more cowbell.” According to utsandiego.com columnist Kevin Acee, this was a reference to a Saturday Night Live skit. Smith’s comments about more cowbell probably meant that San Diego needed something extra, on and off the field, during his 10 years as general manager.
San Diego had a losing record two times in Smith’s 10 seasons as GM; however, they did not make the playoffs in his final three seasons, after making it five times in six years between 2004 and 2009.
In Acee’s article, Smith sarcastically said “I should have never stopped making our picks from Mel Kiper‘s Big Board.”
The head coach has a voice when making decisions in the NFL Draft, but the general manager can override him. In Smith’s first draft as GM, San Diego chose cornerback Sammy Davis over CB Nnamdi Asomugha. Davis never made a Pro Bowl in his three seasons with San Diego while Asomugha was a four-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler with the Oakland Raiders.
San Diego traded Eli Manning to the New York Giants for Philip Rivers in the 2004 Draft. Manning is a two-time Super Bowl MVP with two Super Bowl titles, while Rivers has never been to a Super Bowl. In Smith’s defense of this decision, Manning did not want to play for San Diego, which led to the trade for Rivers.
It is difficult to blame Smith for not taking Clay Matthews in the 2009 Draft before he was chosen by the Green Bay Packers. San Diego chose Larry English with the 16th pick and Matthews went 26th to Green Bay.
English was converted to outside linebacker, but they probably planned on using him at defensive end before Shawne Merriman drastically declined due to injuries. Merriman missed 15 of the 16 games in 2008, but was an All-Pro LB from 2005-2007, so San Diego thought that he would bounce back after his season ending injury.
Shaun Phillips was one of their best pass rushers because he averaged nine sacks from 2006-2008, and made a Pro Bowl in 2010 when he had 11 sacks. San Diego had Merriman and Phillips, so choosing Matthews made little to no sense at the time.
There are about 20 positions to choose from in an NFL Draft. I believe this is why the decisions that should be questioned the most are the ones in which guys are passed on for other guys at the same position. It is fair to criticize a GM or coach when the same position is chosen ahead of a guy who ends up being better, as long as the picks were within five to 10 spots of each other.
Many of San Diego’s first round picks suffered injuries during Smith’s tenure, but unless they showed signs of injury before the draft, it is difficult to blame him.