Everyone around San Diego and the NFL knew the Marty Schottenheimer-A.J. Smith relationship was destined to explode. The Chargers had a ticking time bomb of discontent that finally blew up Monday night when the coach was fired.
Schottenheimer couldn't get along with general manager Smith and vice versa. Such problems exist in the NFL, but these situations are usually not as well publicized as this spat. Smith and Schottenheimer coexisted in the coach's first year in San Diego in 2002. In 2003, the relationship started to deteriorate. Schottenheimer made recommendations that year on personnel matters, and Smith disagreed. By 2005, Smith was working around Schottenheimer on personnel matters and even some coaching decisions. By March 2006, the two didn't speak.
Despite those problems, the Chargers went 14-2 last season with 15 players who were either selected to the Pro Bowl or named as alternates. Now, with 31 coaching staffs mostly filled and most organizations shifting their attention to free agency, Smith and the Chargers are scrambling to find a head coach and a staff.
According to sources, the final straw in Schottenheimer's surprise ending came down to how he was handling his coaching staff. The staff was being raided. Wade Phillips (Dallas Cowboys) and Cam Cameron (Miami Dolphins) were given head coaching jobs. Nothing could have been done to stop that. Teams can't block an assistant from interviewing for a head coaching job, but they can stop an assistant under contract from interviewing for a non-head coaching job.
The final conflict came down to whether to let assistants interview. Sources indicate Smith denied permission for tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski to interview for the Cleveland Browns' offensive coordinator job, but Schottenheimer felt it was a good opportunity and wanted to allow it. Schottenheimer also let linebackers coach Greg Manusky interview and accept the 49ers' defensive coordinator job. Against Smith's wishes, Schottenheimer let assistant strength and conditioning coach Matt Schiotz go with Cameron to Miami.
The Chargers were down five key assistants. After San Diego's playoff loss to the Patriots, Chargers owner Dean Spanos spent three days trying to decide whether to keep Schottenheimer, who was entering the final year of his contract. He offered him a one-year extension at $4.5 million. Schottenheimer wanted more security than that and said no. Spanos decided to stay with Schottenheimer, who has 200 regular-season wins, knowing he had one of the most talented coaching staffs in the NFL.
The landscape changed for Spanos after the departure of the five coaches, including two coordinators. Schottenheimer and Smith weren't going to get along. Without the assistants, Schottenheimer apparently wasn't as appealing to Spanos.
"When I decided to move ahead with Marty Schottenheimer in mid-January, I did so with the expectation that the core of his fine coaching staff would remain intact," Spanos said. "Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case and the process of dealing with these coaching changes convinced me that we simply could not move forward with such dysfunction between our head coach and general manager. In short, this entire process over the last month convinced me beyond any doubt that I had to act to change this untenable situation and create an environment where everyone at Charger Park would be pulling in the same direction and working at a championship level. I expect exactly that from our entire Charger organization in 2007."
While confirming he had no working relationship with Smith,
Schottenheimer seemed puzzled that Spanos made the coach take the
fall for his assistants leaving.
"That is absolutely unfair in my view," Schottenheimer told
The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We had no control
over two guys who became head coaches in this league. We gave two
guys an opportunity to be coordinators in this league. We've added
a couple of guys that people should be very pleased with. The
future coach will be very pleased as well."
Spanos has been through this before. General manager Bobby Beathard didn't get along with coach Bobby Ross after they went to a Super Bowl. It's a shame, but these things do happen.
Schottenheimer is one of the great turnaround coaches in the history of the league. He's been successful in every stop as a head coach. Smith has quickly proven to be one of the shrewdest personnel minds in the game. When Eli Manning balked at coming to San Diego, Spanos traded him to the Giants and ended up with three Pro Bowl players -- Shawne Merriman, Philip Rivers and Nate Kaeding.
Spanos tried to squeeze one more season out of this strained relationship. "In the plainest possible language, we have a dysfunctional situation here," Spanos said in his statement.
Cameron and Phillips, in Spanos' eyes, kept the dysfunctional ship sailing in the right direction. Their departures, along with the other assistants, changed the dynamics.
Cameron and Phillips would have been candidates to replace Schottenheimer had he been fired, but those options are gone.
Smith is putting a list together and must move quickly. No doubt, he will put in a call to Chicago to talk to Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. After that, the search will be wide open. Don't expect Bill Cowher's name to surface here. The former Steelers coach is one of Schottenheimer's best friends.
Spanos will pay Schottenheimer $4 million not to coach this year. It's not out of the question for him to surface in 2008 following a 2007 season that should have eight to 10 coaching changes.
The Chargers had been sitting on an uncertain powder keg. The loss of the assistants lit a fuse. Now, the Chargers are scrambling to repair the damage in the coaching offices.