Dean Spanos knew the reason behind the decline of the San Diego Chargers.
“To me, what this GM has to have is the ability to build this team for the future,” the Chargers president told the Union-Tribune. “He’s got to get us back in that cycle where we depend on the draft and not free agency.”
Former general manager A.J. Smith believed in that philosophy, too. But the last few seasons saw Smith stray further and further away from what brought success to the team in the first part of his 10-year tenure.
Last year, Smith brought 12 new free agents to San Diego, the most he ever did while the team’s general manager.
He signed five free agents in 2011 and again in 2010.
Contrast that to the Chargers’ last playoff appearance (2009) when Smith signed just one new free agent (linebacker Kevin Burnett).
Smith was able to build one of the most successful eras in Chargers history through the draft, and Tom Telesco—who was named the team’s new general manager Wednesday—is expected to do the same.
“We discussed every facet of football operations, top to bottom,” Telesco said in a release. “During the process it became clear that our philosophies and goals are one and the same.”
He later added at a press conference: “We’re going to be a draft-driven team. Our main focus will be the draft. We will use free agency to support the roster, if the talent equals the money.”
If that sounds all too familiar, it’s because it is.
Smith, in the early part of his tenure with the Chargers, strayed away from signing free agents—especially marquee names that would have attracted the millions of dollars and cap space that it took to sign them.
Instead, Smith focused on the draft, selecting young talent, and building for the next season, even taking harsh criticism from fans at times.
The result was arguably the most successful period in Chargers history. Smith’s 98 wins is the most by any GM in the team’s history.
And there’s a reason as to why Smith and Telesco profess the same philosophy. Both came from the same executive tree.
Smith—and his predecessor John Butler—both spent time under Bill Polian, who built the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills and oversaw the Peyton Manning Era with the Indianapolis Colts.
Telesco served under Polian in Indianapolis and also served under Butler and Smith as an intern with the Bills in the early 1990s.
Smith received the same mentorship from Polian in Buffalo, working with the Bills from 1987-2000, before coming to San Diego with Butler.
“I always had great respect for this organization,” Telesco told the team’s website. “John Butler and A.J. Smith both came from that Buffalo pedigree. And that’s kind of where I grew up in Buffalo. So it’s always been a talented organization.”
Chargers fans don’t need to be reminded of how successful the Colts have been since Telesco was a member of their front office.
With Telesco helping make the decisions, Indianapolis drafted Manning, Ederrin James, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney. In the 15 years that Telesco was with the Colts, that team won 154 games (second only to the Patriots in that span), went to two Super Bowls and won Super Bowl XLI.
He most recently ended his tenure as Indianapolis’ Vice President of Football Operations, where he helped draft Andrew Luck and turn the Colts from a last-place football team into a playoff team in just one offseason.
There’s no doubt that he knows what winning feels like. And there’s no doubt in the direction that Telesco wants to take the team, even if it may be an eerily familiar one.
But it’s a direction and philosophy that has worked before. And the Chargers know it. It worked for them just a few years ago.
“I wanted change; I wanted a new vision,” Spanos told the UT.
In reality, Spanos was looking for something that his team once had.