Monday, November 27, 2006

The Charmed Life of the San Diego Chargers

Maybe it's just good karma going their way after the Ryan Leaf draft pick in 1998 went so horribly wrong and shackled them for several years. More likely, it's shrewd and forward-thinking decision-makers. Whatever it is, the San Diego Chargers are at 9-2 after today's win against the Raiders, and hardly has there been a week when it has been more evident the genius of their general manager A.J. Smith and his predecssor, the late John Butler, in putting this formidable team together.

The story starts in 2001, when Smith, then the assistant to Butler, and the Chargers had the top pick in the draft in hand. They seemed to be poised to take Michael Vick, the once-in-a-lifetime, make you do a double-take quarterback out of Virginia Tech. He was supposed to be the quarterback who would usher in a new era of NFL offense, changing the way the game was played. He was a slam-dunk choice, kind of like Reggie Bush was supposed to be in the 2006 draft. Of course, the Chargers defied convential wisdom and passed on Vick, trading the pick to the Falcons, and gaining the opportunity to draft TCU RB LaDainian Tomlinson at #4 overall and Purdue QB Drew Brees with the first pick in the second round. While everyone agreed that they got a couple of good players, the Chargers were lambasted for passing on a chance that they would never have again. At the time, people labeled it an overly-cautious move by the Chargers, who were still smarting from the Leaf debacle just a few years earlier.

Turns out Butler and Smith knew what they were doing. Fast forward 5 years later, and Drew Brees gave the Chargers two Pro Bowl caliber seasons before moving on to New Orleans, where he now leads the NFL in passing yards and is on the short list of MVP candidates. And wouldn't you know it, the leading MVP candidate in the league this year is that other 2001 Chargers draft pick, LaDainian Tomlinson. LT is on pace to break the single-season touchdown record this year, and with a couple more good years, can legitimately be considered among the greatest running backs in NFL history.

Vick on the other hand, who had success earlier in his career, leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game two years ago, has fallen on tough times. His raw athletic talent is still very much there and something to behold. However, he constantly faces questions about his quarterbacking ability in the pocket, and seems to be playing in an offensive system ill-suited to his talents. Today, his Falcons were beaten handily by Brees' Saints, a game that was capped off by Vick giving some Atlanta fans the finger as he stomped into the locker room.

Part 2 of the assemblage of the Chargers happened in 2004, when again, the Chargers had the top pick in the draft. When Eli Manning made it clear that he would not suit up for San Diego, the Chargers were able to swap Manning to the Giants for NC State QB Philip Rivers, in addition to the 2005 draft pick that would materialize as DE Shawne Merriman. Who's laughing now? Rivers, who has had to endure questions about his ability as an NFL QB because of his awkward throwing motion, has thrived in his first year as starter, while Manning is looking shakier by the week as the Giants continued their recent slide with a shocking 24-21 come-from-behind loss to the Titans, a loss that was due in no small part to Manning's critical interception late in the game with the score tied. Meanwhile, Merriman is in the midst of a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but before he was busted, he was looking like a prime candidate for league Defensive Player of the Year.

And wouldn't it be ironic and quite a jab to the Manning family if San Diego was able to overtake Indianapolis and their QB, Peyton Manning, and reach the Super Bowl this year? Who would have thought that the team that drafted Ryan Leaf might reach a Super Bowl before a Peyton Manning-led team did? Very interesting indeed....

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