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Despite Big Year, Chargers GM Remains Irked by E. Manning's Trade Request

Discussion in 'San Diego Chargers Hall of Champions' started by robdog, Dec 26, 2006.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

    Jun 29, 2009
    Source: <a target="_blank" href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/25/AR2006122500550.html">Washington Post</a>

    <img width="310" height="206" alt="General Manager A. J. Smith works the phone, with coach Marty Schottenheimer passing in background." title="General Manager A. J. Smith works the phone, with coach Marty Schottenheimer passing in background." src="http://photos.signonsandiego.com/gallery1.5/albums/Chargers-Minicamp/JBchargerprac257885x12.jpg" />

    By Les Carpenter

    SAN DIEGO -- Vindication becomes him.

    With a late autumn sunset filling his office window, San Diego Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith sits at his desk in a flower-print shirt and lets the flaxen light surround him until everything on this day, in the most wonderful season, seems bathed in gold. He stares contentedly into the glow, then lets a smile dance at the edge of his lips.

    "It's nice when you do a deal and everybody's happy," he says.

    He doesn't bother to mask the sarcasm.

    In the spring of 2004, while holding the top pick in the NFL draft, Smith was rejected by the obvious first choice: quarterback Eli Manning. This happened when Smith called to inquire about the quarterback's interest in being selected first. Someone in Manning's party -- which included his agent, Tom Condon; his father, Archie, a former star with the New Orleans Saints; and brother Peyton, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts -- told Smith, "Don't consider us."

    Two years later, Smith has not forgotten this command. Even with his team having clinched the AFC West Division title and with three of the players ultimately acquired from the New York Giants in exchange for Manning headed to the Pro Bowl, Smith still acts as if he had been run over by the entire Manning family.

    He repeats those words "don't consider us," in a gravelly voice, then shakes his head.

    All available evidence says he got the best of the draft-day deal that sent Manning to his chosen team, the Giants, in exchange for quarterback Philip Rivers (taken with the fourth pick by New York), a third-round pick in 2004 and the Giants' first and fifth choices in 2005. Manning, who comes into FedEx Field for the regular season finale against the Washington Redskins on Saturday night, has taken much of the blame for the Giants' collapse this year and has been derided as a poor decision-maker who is unable to lead.

    Meanwhile, Smith began rebuilding the Chargers with the draft picks that came for Manning. He used the third-round selection in 2004 to choose place kicker Nate Kaeding. Then, with last year's first-round selection, he drafted former Maryland linebacker-defensive end Shawne Merriman, who has blossomed into one of the most dominant defensive players in the league. The fifth-round choice was traded to Tampa Bay for former Gonzaga High player Roman Oben, who started last year at left tackle for the Chargers but has been hampered since then by injuries.

    It might be one of the most lopsided trades of all time: Three players headed to this year's Pro Bowl -- Rivers, Merriman and Kaeding -- for a quarterback who has been routinely booed by his home fans.

    And no one seems to be enjoying this more than Smith. At the time of the trade, he was ridiculed as nothing more than a scout who got his job because he happened to be in the right place as an assistant general manager in San Diego when his friend and mentor, John Butler, died in 2003. Now he is getting his first taste of widespread respect as an NFL executive. He does not hide the scars of the mockery well.

    "People say, 'How do you feel about it?' " Smith says of the trade. "I just say 'I'm very happy with it. And [the Giants] are very happy with it. And Tom Condon is very happy with it. And Archie Manning and Olivia [Manning] and Cooper [Manning] and Peyton and Eli, they're all happy. We're all happy people. I'm just glad that we're all happy. It's nice to have everybody happy."

    Told this, Archie Manning sighs into the phone from his New Orleans office. "I'm not going to go there," he says.

    "Hey, listen," he continues, "the Chargers are having a great year. What happened years ago is done."

    Archie Manning has taken these calls a lot about Eli over the last two years. Lately it seems his phone rings several times a week with reporters on the line wondering how Eli will handle his latest failures. The father tries to be patient, but he reads the papers, he hears what is being said and he hates it. His youngest son has been in the NFL for less than three years, has only been a starter for about two.

    Yes, Eli has had his struggles and Archie dies with each interception, each screaming headline in the New York tabloids. But he also thinks this: Eli has an ability to tune such things out. He rarely gets pulled into discussions about the trade and why he didn't want to play in San Diego. Archie marvels at his boy's skill at blocking the noise around him. He believes it will serve him well in a place like New York.

    Archie Manning also hates the idea that he meddles in his sons' careers. When they were in youth football, he stood on the sideline, away from the coaches. When they played in high school, he never went to practice and always sat on the last row of the bleachers on game days. The other parents would come up to him suggesting he should maybe call the team's plays, but he always shook his head "no." The thought of getting involved in one of his boys' games appalled him.

    The suggestion that he strong-armed the Chargers into trading Eli to a place that might be disastrous for his child offends him, he says. Which is why he is as sensitive to Smith's remarks about him as Smith seems to be about Eli's refusal to play in San Diego.

    "I think to this day A.J. thinks what he tells people about me," Archie says. "He said at the time that 'Archie Manning didn't want his son playing for the Chargers.' That's what a lot of people believe."

    It's a point Archie has gone to great lengths to refute. He says he tried to squelch the suggestion at the draft, right after Eli was traded to the Giants, but he fears that he was not successful. The story had already been blown out of proportion.

    The fact is, if he's right, Smith doesn't believe him. If the Chargers' general manager appears to be playing up the inequities of the trade, it's because he felt scorned by what happened. His anger is still raw.

    "It was humiliating and embarrassing. I don't understand why somebody would put themselves above the National Football League, above the system," he says at one point.

    "It's something that I will remember for as long as I'm in this game and as long as I'm out of this game or the day I retire," he says later in the interview. "It's etched in stone forever. There's no question about that."

    When he first heard Eli Manning didn't want to play for the Chargers, Smith said he began making calls to find out why. He phoned coaches, executives, players and even members of the media, eventually compiling a list of explanations. One was the perception that Smith was just a scout, another was that the Chargers were seen as one of the worst-run organizations in the league and were owned by the Spanos family, which has been embroiled in disputes with San Diego over a new stadium. But there were other things: The organization was in disarray, devoid of significant talent and the coach, Marty Schottenheimer, might soon lose his job.

    "It motivated me and the blood started to flow," Smith says. "This gives you more juice, no question, if you have any pride at all in yourself and what you're doing."

    Neither Archie Manning nor Eli Manning has offered a reason for why the Chargers seemed like a bad fit.

    "I don't want to go around talking about it," Archie says politely. "San Diego should be credited with the season they're having."

    And Smith seems to be enjoying every moment of his team's success. There have been problems in his locker room. One of his players was shot by police, another was arrested on the edge of the practice field and Merriman was suspended four games for testing positive for a steroid.

    But Smith has managed to build one of the most talented teams in the league, and the Manning trade was an important piece of the reconstruction.

    "I'm proud of the way we dealt with [Manning's refusal to play in San Diego] and I'm proud of the outcome because I think we did some very positive things to get good football players on our team and send someone packing who didn't want anything to do with us."

    Still, he can't resist one final shot.

    "The only ironic thing that I find to this day is when I find out it's a family decision and a family discussion with some outside people, meaning Tom Condon," he says, stretching out the words decision and discussion for effect. "And they gave all this information to Eli, this college student coming out of [Mississippi] and he weighs all this information, contemplates his future and wakes up and comes in in the morning and meets his family and Tom Condon and says, 'You know I've weighed all this information and I've made a decision. I just don't want to go to San Diego.' And I find the whole thing comical."

    Smith shakes his head again and mumbles.

    Eli Manning has said little about the trade other than to praise Rivers whenever asked. Ernie Accorsi, the Giants' general manager who became obsessed with Eli's ability after watching the player in college, also refuses to get into many discussions about the deal. Accorsi, who is retiring after this season, has limited his comments so as to not distract the Giants as they fight for a playoff spot.

    Other than to shoot down as "lore" a long-held story that his determination to get Eli Manning dates from his days as a young executive with the Colts who watched as John Elway refused to play for the team and did not want the next Elway to get away from him, Accorsi will say almost nothing.

    "I think Eli Manning is going to be a championship quarterback," Accorsi said in a brief e-mail. "Last year he won a division championship, this year we have struggled as a team. That has not changed my opinion of how good he will be before his career is over."

    Thus the strongest voice on this subject is Smith's. And the man who had been turned away in the days before the 2004 draft seems all too willing to shout.

    "It was simple," he says. "We were going to get what we wanted."

    It seems he did.

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