Once again, a lesson was learned in San Diego, and the lesson is this: Don't mess with A.J. Smith. When the Chargers general manager wants something he usually gets it.
This time he wanted a restructured deal for star running back LaDainian Tomlinson, a contract that would give the club the necessary cap relief for 2010-11 so it could handle upcoming negotiations with linebacker Shawne Merriman, quarterback Philip Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates and cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
|Charger fans should be pleased with A.J. Smith's ability to restructure L.T.'s contract. (US Presswire)|
Of course, it wasn't without anguish and alleged threats and feelings getting hurt, but so what? All is well that ends well, and this one ended with the team and player shaking hands on a new deal. Yet taking on Tomlinson and asking him to rework a contract that would have paid him $24 million the next three years somehow made Smith a villain, and I'm not sure why.
He needed to re-do a big contract. Tomlinson was the logical guy. So Smith approached him, setting off a chain of events that portrayed him as the Ebenezer Scrooge of GMs. People said he was crazy, insensitive and mean. Now, they simply call him arrogant because he had the temerity to ask ... no, demand ... that the team's star player, maybe the most decorated player in the history of the franchise, restructure his contract to make its life easier in the coming years.
I mean, how dare he? Well, I'm sorry, but if I'm a Chargers fan, I'm glad he did.
Smith's job depends on the success of the team he runs, and the team he runs has been to the playoffs four of the past five years. Of course, Tomlinson is the primary reason why. No running back has been more productive the last five years, but it's not the last five years that are Smith's concern. It's the next three, with 2010 looming as an uncapped season and 2011 as a potential lockout.
Smith has a raft of star players to accommodate then, and he will try to accommodate as many as he can. And that's where Tomlinson comes in. Smith has two plans for those years -- B and C, as he calls them -- and he knows what he must do to make them work. One of his first goals was get Tomlinson to reduce his cap numbers for those years to open the door for others and minimize the risks of losing them to free agency.
So he sought a renegotiation and got what he sought. What's the problem?
Yeah, OK, he screwed up when he mocked a Tomlinson statement on his website. Smith admitted it, and he apologized. People assumed team president Dean Spanos took him to the woodshed and demanded the mea culpa, but they were wrong. Smith simply woke up one morning, read what he said in the paper and realized it looked worse than it sounded.
And it sounded pretty, well, insensitive.
So he apologized, moved forward and now has a settlement with Tomlinson that will allow the Chargers to move to the next step -- which is to seek a long-term deal for running back Darren Sproles, the club's franchise player, and pursue renegotiations with its core of star players. Sounds good to me. Yet Smith's critics won't let it go, reminding him that it took a lot of anguish -- and maybe some hard feelings -- to get to where the Chargers are now.
Well, big deal. It happens. That's why they call it a business. Smith did what he had to do, and he did it. He hammered out a deal that was as good for the team as it is for the player. And let's be honest here for a minute, people: While Tomlinson is the heart and soul of the franchise, he's also a descending star. Yeah, I know he was hurt last year, but he turns 30 in June, and his numbers decreased the last two seasons.
Where he ran for 28 touchdowns in 2006, he ran for 15 in 2007 and 11 in 2008. Where he averaged 5.2 yards a carry in '06, he averaged 4.7 in '07 and 3.8 in '08. Where he averaged 113.4 yards rushing per game in '06, he was down to 92.1 in '07 and 69.4 in '08. I don't have to draw you a picture. He's not the same player, and I want to meet the person who argues Tomlinson gets better, not worse, with age.
This is a back who has carried 2,657 times, exceeding 312 carries in all but one of his eight NFL seasons, and that one year was the last year. Granted, the Chargers offensive line wasn't all that terrific last season. But neither was Tomlinson, and it sure looks as if his career is declining -- which it usually does for most big-time running backs around the age of 30.
Tomlinson had three years left on his original deal, with salaries of $8 million in 2010 and $9.275 million in 2011. And while he deserves to be compensated, he doesn't deserve to be compensated more if he's producing less. Smith understood that because it is his job, and the problem he had was not communicating that to Tomlinson as much as it was communicating it to the public.
"L.T. knows how I feel about him," Smith said. "He knows this is a business. He knows that a general manager's job is difficult and that it must deal with all sorts of things. He knows my personality and knows I have nothing against him. He also knows what it's like to be criticized when people came after him after he was hurt against New England [in the 2007 AFC Championship Game] and couldn't play. He's been through this as well. We're fine."
Tomlinson also should've known what Smith -- and the Chargers -- were doing here. They're preparing for 2010-11 so they're not caught with cost overruns; so they don't have to do what, say, Baltimore did in 2002 when it shook down the roster to clear cap space and was forced to endure a 7-9 season.
There was a feeling that if Tomlinson and the team hadn't reached an agreement that the Chargers might have traded him or outright released him, but subscribers either don't understand Smith or the club he runs. The problem was not 2009. It was the last two years of Tomlinson's contract. Smith wasn't seeking relief for now. He was seeking relief for the years when he expects a spate of big contracts.
So Tomlinson wasn't in danger of getting cut this year. Though Smith didn't come out and say it, my guess is that if the two sides hadn't reached a deal on a new contract he would've called off the search, had Tomlinson play this season, then tried the whole thing a year from now.
As for the trade talk, Smith said he never considered peddling Tomlinson ... nor would he, unless Tomlinson asked. And Tomlinson never asked, he said.
"The only thing I'm extremely happy about," Smith said," is that we wanted him to be here badly, and he wanted to be here badly. And that has happened. He knows this wasn't about '09, as people have focused on; it was about the last couple of years [of his contract]. Everything moved forward with Tom Condon [Tomlinson's agent] and L.T., and now everything's terrific."
In short, A.J. Smith got what was best for his team. What is so wrong with that?