His summer fun in the sun vacation to Key West, Fla., over, A.J. Smith went back to work Tuesday morning, beginning the long, slow push of the rock back up the hill that the NFL season requires. And while I can't be 100 percent certain of it, I'm willing to bet the first thoughts that ran through his head once the Chargers general manager hit the lights in his office were mere echoes of the ones he's been having for most of the past two years now:
How can we beat those Patriots? What steps can we take to continue closing the gap between us and them, and have we done enough to ensure that a third consecutive San Diego season doesn't end with a loss to New England in the playoffs?
Call it an obsession, a fixation, or at the very least a more than understandable preoccupation. But from top to bottom as an organization, the Chargers have it for the Patriots, in spades. And why not? San Diego has gone a combined 27-9 (.750) the past two seasons, cruising to AFC West titles by five games in 2006 and four in 2007. But San Diego is 0-3 against the NFL's team of the decade in that span, losing twice to New England in the playoffs and once in a much-anticipated Week 2 Sunday night showdown last season.
For Smith's supremely talented team -- and the Chargers have what is widely considered the most impressive roster in the league -- the hated but always envied Pats remain the daunting road block that threatens to once again stand between San Diego and a potential Super Bowl season. Just as New England did last year, when the plucky but injury-addled Chargers became the Patriots' 18th and final victim, losing 21-12 in the AFC Championship Game in frosty Foxboro. No wonder every personnel move Smith makes these days is played out with one ultimate question in mind: How does this help us match up better with New England?
People in the know in San Diego say the quest to conquer the Patriots is all-consuming in Chargers-land, permeating things both large and small, and Smith didn't exactly try to disimbue me of the theory when I put it to him on the phone Tuesday afternoon. Instead he talked about some key lessons he learned long ago, working around a couple of legendary playoff-winning coaches in George Allen and Marv Levy.
"George used to say that in building a championship team you first look at your division, because that's the direct competition,'' Smith said. "That's who you've got to match up with. But then, if you're lucky enough to go to the playoffs, concentrate on the teams that win every year and what they do. Spend all your time focusing on them, because the rest of the teams will beat themselves. That's what he preached.''
And Smith practices what Allen preached, devouring any opportunity he gets to study New England's methods and practices that go into making up the vaunted Patriot Way. Last January, during the Chargers' three-game run through the AFC playoffs, Smith told his team's Web site that he couldn't read enough about the inner workings of New England's dynasty.
"For Christmas, I got 'The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Super Power' by Christopher Price,'' Smith said. "I've read all the books put out on the New England Patriots organization. There aren't trade secrets, but just general thoughts on why they've been successful.''
Smith amplified those imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery thoughts this week, admitting he gleans anything he can about Bill Belichick's team, which has made four Super Bowl trips and six playoff appearances in the past seven seasons. First-hand, second-hand, or otherwise. The two rivals face each other again this regular season, in Week 6 at San Diego.
"I study organization and I study trends,'' Smith said. "If it's clearly in front of your face, you need to look at it and learn from it. Doesn't that only make sense? Why would you study losers? What are you going to get out of that? If you study winners, you find out how they win and the roads they took to get there. You try to figure out what they're doing right.
"And eventually you find out it's players. It's always going to come back to players. And you have to get them by any means necessary. The draft. Unrestricted free agency. Supplemental draft. Trades. Arena League. Canada. Whatever means it takes.''
This is where the Chargers' Patriots envy gets pretty interesting, when you can start to identify the pattern of moves Smith has made in an attempt to check-mate some of New England's strengths. When San Diego selected Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason in the first round this year, sources within the organization say it was all about finding someone to cover dangerous Patriots slot receiver Wes Welker. Another part of the equation was it would allow gifted cover man Antonio Cromartie, the Chargers' Pro Bowl cornerback, to focus like a laser on New England's ultimate play-maker, receiver Randy Moss.
Last year, when Smith drew some heat for giving up four draft picks in order to move up 25 spots in the second round and select versatile Utah safety Eric Weddle, it was aimed at adding another talented piece to a Chargers secondary that suddenly had to counter a Patriots offense that was undergoing a major upgrade at receiver (Moss, Welker, Donte' Stallworth) in the spring of 2007. In the seventh round that year, San Diego took Florida linebacker Brandon Siler, who it believes is bound for stardom and the potential key role of negating the impact of tight end Benjamin Watson in the Patriots' attack.
Smith even swung a deal this year with the team he's chasing, giving up a fifth-rounder this year and a second-round pick next year to New England in order to take LSU's multi-purpose running back Jacob Hester in the third round. The idea was in part to give the Patriots defense, with its aging set of linebackers, another weapon to defend. And some would say the Chargers acquiring receiver Chris Chambers from Miami at last season's trading deadline was a move attempting to give the Bolts a play-making pass-catcher to help offset Moss's huge impact in New England.
"If you're doing your job, you're planning for the future two to three years ahead,'' Smith said. "We took Cason this year because I believe in three cornerbacks. Now we feel we have three corners and we can match up. You look at New England, and they're always doing what's in the best interest of their team. They wanted Welker and they gave up a lot for him. Why would they do that? Because they realized what he is. They felt he was worth it. I respect the way they operate from that standpoint.
"It's the kind of judgment call we made with Weddle, and with Hester we did it again. People say you can't give up the picks. I'm more worried about the player than the picks. What difference does it make if he cost this pick or that pick if you have a real conviction about the player and what he can do for your team?''
In many ways, the Chargers chasing the Patriots saga reminds me so much of the Red Sox-Yankees drama from earlier this decade. From the day Boston's new ownership team took over in 2002, the blueprint called for every personnel move to be judged against a backdrop of how much would it help the Red Sox level the playing field between themselves and New York. Eventually, Boston not only caught up to the so-called "Evil Empire,'' but supplanted the team that had been baseball's reigning dynasty, putting together its own multi-year championship run.
That's Smith's goal every waking moment, to get the Chargers on equal footing with the mighty Patriots, and then see if San Diego can capitalize on its Super Bowl window of opportunity. Starting with next week's opening of training camp, we'll begin finding out if Smith's 2008 Chargers have made up any ground on their familiar nemesis. We know this: the rest of the AFC West hasn't posed a threat to San Diego for a while now.
"I always say two go, one wins it, and the rest of us try to figure it out,'' said Smith, of the NFL's annual Super Bowl quest. "I think we're a good football team, a playoff-caliber team. But we haven't done anything yet this season. I like that we were in three playoff games last year, and we won two. We made some noise and moved forward.
"What you want is a team that keeps going back. Like the Patriots, the Colts and the Steelers. You want to always be knocking on that door. I'd like to see that for the San Diego Chargers. We want to have the opportunity to chase the world championship every year. I've fallen a little short there, but if you're there every year, and keep giving yourself a shot, maybe you can make that goal happen one of these years.''
From the vantage point of mid-July, the playoff season of January and another win-or-go-home showdown with New England seems a very long way off. But Smith and his Chargers can't afford to train their sights on anything else, and they know it. To get where they want to go, they have to get past the Patriots. If nothing else for San Diego in 2008, it'll make it easier than ever to define success or failure.