A.J. Smith — architect of Philip Rivers-era Chargers — dies at 75

A.J. Smith oversaw one of the most successful eras in Chargers history. (Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images)
A.J. Smith oversaw one of the most successful eras in Chargers history. (Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images)

Former San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith — who oversaw one of the most successful eras in franchise history — died on Sunday at 75 years old.

His son and Atlanta Falcons assistant general manger Kyle Smith announced his death in a statement alongside the Falcons. Per the statement, Smith died following a seven-year battle with prostate cancer.

The Chargers released a statement from team owner Dean Spanos shortly after the announcement of Smith's death.

"Belying a tough, matter of fact and no nonsense persona — one synonymous with that of a true football guy — was A.J.'s softer side which included a tremendous love for his family, the NFL and the Chargers," Spanos said, per the statement.

"The architect of one of the greatest chapters in franchise history, A.J. made everyone around him better with a singular focus and intensity that elevated our organization."

After two years as assistant general manager under John Butler, Smith was the general manager of the Chargers from 2003-12, a span that saw them go 95-65 and make the playoffs five times. He's best known for overseeing the franchise's transition from Drew Brees to Philip Rivers, an era that produced one of the NFL's most prolific offenses.

Smith took over a 2003 team featuring Brees and Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson that went 4-12 in his first season as general manager. One of his first significant transactions was to sign projected Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates as an undrafted free agent. The last-place finish in 2003 secured the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft.

The Chargers used that pick to select Eli Manning, then traded Manning for Rivers, whom the Giants had selected with the No. 4 pick. Manning had repeatedly told the Chargers that he wouldn't play for them.

The Chargers received a package of draft picks in return that included New York's first-round selection in the 2005 draft. They used that pick to select linebacker Shawne Merriman, who went on to win Rookie of the Year honors and make three Pro Bowls. Manning went on to win two Super Bowls with the Giants.

The trade left the Chargers with two viable options at quarterback in Brees and Rivers. Under Smith's watch, the Chargers ultimately ran with Rivers. Brees suffered a shoulder injury at end of the 2005 season that left his future as an NFL quarterback In doubt.

The Chargers decided to let Brees walk in free agency after his injury and installed Rivers as their starter in 2006. Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints. He went on to recover from his injury and led the Saints to a Super Bowl championship after the 2009 season. He made 13 Pro Bowls in a certain Hall of Fame career.

Rivers made the first of his eight Pro Bowls in his first season as San Diego's starter and went on to lead the Chargers to AFC West championships in four straight seasons from 2006-09. The 2006 Chargers produced the league's best record at 14-2.

Despite the regular-season success, the Chargers failed to advance to the Super Bowl. They advanced as far as the AFC championship after the 2007 season, where they lost to the New England Patriots. The 2006 and 2009 teams that won 14 and 13 games, respectively, each lost in the divisional round of the playoffs after securing a first-round bye.

The Chargers dismissed Smith and head coach Norv Turner after a 7-9 finish in 2012 saw the team miss the playoffs for a third straight season. Smith then spent two seasons as a consultant and senior executive for Washington from 20013-14 before retiring in 2015 at 66 years old.

His son, Kyle, was a scout in Washington during his two seasons with the team. Kyle eventually rose to vice president of player personnel in Washington and was named assistant general manager of the Falcons in 2023.

Smith's 98 wins, including playoffs, are the most by a general manager in Chargers history. Smith is survived by Kyle, his wife Susan and daughter Andrea.