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Smith's ego getting in the way of Chargers' path to the Super Bowl

SAN DIEGO -- A.J. Smith's second-floor office at the Chargers' training facility has wall-to-wall glass windows, tropical plants and colored M&Ms in a large glass jar on his desk. There are practice tapes and a playback machine on the shelving along one wall, and a large magnetic white board hanging from another.

Strategically placed throughout the room are picture frames with famous quotations inside. One is by Winston Churchill, another is by Maya Angelou. Sadly for Chargers fans there is nothing from poet and philosopher George Santayana, whose "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" seems appropriate in the wake of the San Diego general manager's handling of the contract impasse with left tackle Marcus McNeill and wideout Vincent Jackson.

For the second time in six seasons Smith appears poised to jeopardize a potentially promising season just to prove he's the alpha male. He calls it business, but from afar it looks like ego.

With no gun to his head, he set an arbitrary deadline of June 15 for McNeill and Jackson to sign their contract tenders as restricted free agents. When the players failed to do so, he reduced the offers from $3.2 million to just over $600,000 and said he would not raise them.

Yep, he showed that his was bigger than theirs. But in the process he also erased any incentive for the players to show up before training camp -- if at all. Why would two former Pro Bowlers, in their prime and seeking to cash in after outperforming their rookie contracts, risk serious injury and a big payday in 2011 for a 10 percent raise over the final year of their rookie deals?

Answer: They won't. At least people close to them say they won't. And please don't say it's to gain another accrued season. The Players Association is not going to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement that requires more than four years to reach unrestricted free agency, and Jackson and McNeill have already reached that standard..

In the meantime the Chargers' quest to reach the Super Bowl becomes that much harder. A return to the postseason seems a fait accompli considering they're the only team in the lowly AFC West to post a winning record in any of the previous three seasons and their non-conference schedule is against the equally awful NFC West. But what happens then?

In 2006 they finished 14-2 but lost their playoff opener at home under former coach Marty Schottenheimer. Last season they won 11 in a row and finished 13-3 under current coach Norv Turner but again lost their playoff opener at home. The schedule this season is set up for them to win 10, 12 or 14 games even without Jackson and McNeill. But I ask again: Then what?

Smith's tough-guy stance is nothing new. He did the same thing in 2005, when he suspended star tight end Antonio Gates for Week 1 against Dallas after Gates held out in training camp for a new deal. The sides ultimately came to terms before the opener, but Smith upheld the suspension anyway. San Diego lost 28-24 after failing to cross the goal line on four plays from inside the Cowboys 8-yard line in the final minute. The previous year Gates led all tight ends and tied for fifth in the league with 10 TD catches. Think he could have helped in that game, the outcome of which contributed to the Chargers missing the playoffs?

Those who cannot remember the past ...

The irony of the current situation is that it flies in the face of many of Smith's stated principles. Such as:

Identify core players and lock them up early in their careers. He did it with center Nick Hardwick, defensive end Luis Castillo and linebackers Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper, Jyles Tucker and Matt Wilhelm (since released) before their rookie deals were up. But not McNeill and Jackson. They were close to a deal with McNeill in 2008 before a neck injury caused them to push back from the table and McNeill to change agents. Jackson has had legal issues stemming from driving while intoxicated, but he has been a standout on the field and clearly is underpaid.

Stock the roster two- and three-deep at every position. No disrespect to LT Tra Thomas and WR Josh Reed, veterans who were brought in to provide depth, but they couldn't carry McNeill's or Jackson's shoulder pads at this point in their careers. Maybe Brandyn Dombrowski and Legedu Naanee will prove to be capable replacements -- as Smith says, we won't know until we see them under fire. Still, that's a tremendous roll of the dice after signing your franchise QB to a $92 million extension last year.

Plan two and three years down the road. Smith says the uncertain labor situation and possible work stoppage in 2011 is a major factor in the team's reluctance to fast-track contract negotiations. Still, he had to have known a potential lockout was coming. It was obvious the minute the owners opted out of the current deal in 2008, two years after signing it. And it didn't prevent the team from making Gates the highest-paid tight end in league history.

I get it that A.J. has a list of players he wants to sign to new deals, and that there's a pecking order of his choosing. What I don't understand is why he creates an adversarial environment when there isn't a need for it. There was no need to impose an arbitrary deadline on McNeill or Jackson, just as no one is preventing him from talking to the players today. It's about ego now, about proving that when we say something we mean it -- even if what we say could hurt the team.

I absolutely believe Smith wants to win a championship, but he's going to do it his way, which means sometimes placing his ego ahead of the team. He is not going to allow an agent or player to say they got the better of him, er, the Chargers while he's at the helm. That's fine if the goal is to hang your hat on division titles, but to win championships you need players. Bill Belichick is being reminded of that in New England.

Who knows, perhaps Smith is right. The man has an eye for talent, his last few drafts notwithstanding. Still, for all their talent the Chargers have been trending downward the past few years. They won two playoff games in Turner's first season, one in his second and none last year. Which might explain the Angelou quote behind Smith's desk. It reads: "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated."

That never-give-in attitude apparently applies to contract negotiations as well as football games.

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