It's so easy to rip Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, isn't it? Someone always needs to get the blame, right?
It's easier than you think, and it's not just because the Chargers look about as uninspired as any 5-4 team in recent history, which would be OK if a group of players that produced the best record in the league in '06 and fed the most Pro Bowlers to Hawaii were anything other than, oh, completely intact. And it's not just because Smith couldn't patch up his relationship with Marty Schottenheimer, a coach he loathed and mocked to friends.
Smith made it easy all by himself. He sat in his office in August, and while discussing his team's prospects for 2007, he brought up the fact that struggling sometimes is good for a team. That being the best regular-season team isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"Do your history," he said then. "Do me a favor, and go back 10 years. Tell me what home-field advantage has done for the world champion."
The answer? Not much. Only three of the past 10 world champs were the No. 1 seed: the '03 Patriots, '99 Rams and '98 Broncos.
Smith smacked the table for emphasis. He was excited. He'd seen what his team had done with home field: blew a fourth-quarter lead to the Patriots in last season's playoffs. See, this was a test, a challenge. And Smith loves challenges. Loves being aggressive. Loves taking risks. Those challenges and risks are why San Diego has the roster it has, but also why it has the coaching staff it has.
As crazy as this sounds, it was obvious on that August day that, deep down, Smith wanted the Chargers to struggle a little this year. He wanted them to be tested and wanted to see how they'd react. "We really haven't done anything yet with our talent," he said.
Now, of course, they've done less. Philip Rivers' passer rating is down 14 points from '06. LaDainian Tomlinson is averaging a yard less per carry than last season. A defense that led the league in sacks is tied for 16th. The players, according to a Yahoo! report, don't seem to respect their coaching staff. And according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, several Chargers missed curfew Saturday night.
Smith, the consummate gambler, is ultimately responsible. He is, after all, the one who asked for permission from Chargers owner Dean Spanos to attempt to win a Super Bowl "by all means."
"I'm just like the players," Smith said. "I'm just like the coach. I have no idea how long I'm going to be the general manager. None."
In bringing in coach Norv Turner, Smith thought he was bringing in a guru who could elevate Rivers' play. Now, who knows what to think of Turner? Rivers looks lost with him, while a few hundred miles north, Alex Smith looks lost without him. And on the other side of the ball, San Diego's defense, nasty a year ago, got gutted up by the one-dimensional Vikings.
So 2007 looks like Tomlinson's admitted nightmare -- a wasted year, right? There's no way the Chargers, especially with a talented roster and a suspect coaching staff, are going to make a dent in the playoffs, right?
Just like the Steelers couldn't in 2005, when they were 7-5 after 12 games and Ben Roethlisberger seemed incapable of doing anything right except handing off?
Just like the Bucs couldn't in 2002, when they faced a team that owned them -- the Eagles -- and had to close down the Vet with, uh, Brad Johnson calling signals?
Just like the Ravens couldn't in 2000, when they were a wild card and had an offense that ... wait. Did the 2000 Ravens even have an offense?
See, you don't have to be great through nine games to win the Super Bowl. As poorly as the Chargers have played, they still are first in their division, still are by far the most talented team out west, still could go on a roll and finish 10-6 or even 11-5. And considering how beat up Indianapolis is, last Sunday's lucky win over the Colts could mean the Chargers end up as a No. 3 seed behind New England and Pittsburgh. That was what the eventual-champion Colts were last year, which means a home game -- and a chance.
"That's what you want," Smith said. "I don't care what your numbers are. You can have 15 wins and get a bid. You could have nine and get a bid. Just get to the tournament, hopefully be healthy, re-focus and get after it."
Could happen. But that getting after it better come soon.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.