The A.J. Smith era started with a bang: One year after he took over as general manager of the San Diego Chargers in 2003, Smith drafted Eli Manning with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft before trading him for Philip Rivers and picks that turned into linebacker Shawne Merriman and kicker Nate Kaeding.
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The amount of talent that Smith assembled in his early years was incredible. There's a strong argument to be made that he had the best two-year draft run of any GM of the last decade in 2004 and 2005: Rivers, Kaeding, Merriman, running back Michael Turner, center Nick Hardwick, linebacker Shaun Phillips, defensive tackle Luis Castillo, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and running back Darren Sproles. That's an insane run.
Smith just couldn't keep the ball rolling. His first-round pick of Buster Davis in 2007 was the turning point. The Smith run was the most successful run in Chargers history, but it will be remembered for unfulfilled expectations.
Smith's tenure truly began its slow decline when he fired Marty Schottenheimer and looked for a coach who wouldn't challenge him: Norv Turner. Rarely has a coach shown such an obvious regression year after year. Turner won two playoff games in his first season, one in his second and lost in the wild-card round in his third year. The Chargers won't make the playoffs for the third consecutive season in 2012. Turner's win total will decline for the third consecutive year, barring a four-game winning streak, and he's reportedly on the outs, too.
It's easy to crush Smith now, and his polarizing personality rubs people the wrong way, but his teams went 84-52 over the last nine years. That record is why we suspect we haven't heard the last of Smith in the NFL.
The amount of talent Smith assembled in San Diego ultimately made the Chargers' shortcomings and long, slow decline all the more frustrating.