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He was there for all of it, as a scout and a pro personnel chief, through the four Super Bowls and a playoff run that stretched to the end of the millennium. So in his mind, Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith never strays far from his Buffalo Bills roots. The memories and lessons are everlasting, a touchstone for his professional life.

"Marv (Levy) taught me a lot," Smith said recently from San Diego. "I always hear him ringing in my ear: 'Go out and get great players. That's fine. But if you mix in a bunch of players who aren't great physically but have solid character and work ethic, you'll be surprised at the success you'll have.' "

It's in Levy's new book. But Smith doesn't need a book. He has Levy's philosophy emblazoned on his brain. He talks to the old coach all the time. Smith says Levy keeps in touch with all his "boys" -- Bill Polian, Bob Ferguson, former coaches and players. He used to talk regularly with John Butler, too.

Smith took over the Chargers when his old pal Butler, the former Bills GM, died of cancer in April 2003. It did not go well at first. The Chargers were 4-12 last year, perhaps the worst team in the NFL. Expectations were low for this season. Critics figured coach Marty Schottenheimer would be gone by midseason, with Smith following him out the door in January.

But the experts underestimated Smith. They forgot that he had the one essential quality of all successful GMs. He knew a football player when he saw one. He could find the sort of character guys that Levy valued most, the smart, relentless workers who transform the competitive character of a team.

In a single offseason, Smith turned the Chargers from joke to contender, the talk of the NFL. They're 7-3, tied for first in the AFC West and angling for their first playoff berth since 1995. Smith is being touted for Executive of the Year and his team is being compared with the champion New England Patriots, as a reminder of how quickly a franchise's fortunes can change if the person in charge has an eye for talent and character.

"We're absolutely excited," Smith said. "But we've got a long way to go. There's guarded optimism around here. There's no question we have a lot of good football players, and the team is catching on. They're gaining confidence and they feel good about themselves. I really believe we have solid, character people.

"It's always about players," he said. "I firmly believe that. Get enough players from any means, any channel -- be it unrestricted free agents, the draft, the CFL or arena league, trades -- and you'll win. Whatever it takes, get players."

Smith got players. He made three trades, picked up solid unrestricted free agents, filled in with the draft. He made his biggest splash on draft day, trading No. 1 overall pick Eli Manning to the Giants for three picks and quarterback Philip Rivers. But Rivers, who held out for a month, has barely played.

It's the other, more subtle moves that positioned San Diego to be a contender. There's been much talk about the offense, with good reason. An entirely new offensive line, built with draft picks and free agents, has jelled quickly. Drew Brees, who lost his job to Doug Flutie last season, has been a revelation at QB.

Just before the trade deadline, Smith acquired holdout receiver Keenan McCardell from Tampa Bay. Antonio Gates, a former Kent State basketball star who didn't play college football, has blossomed into a top tight end.

The biggest factor, though, has been the defense, which gave up an AFC-high 441 points last season. Smith hired an old pal from Buffalo, Wade Phillips, to coordinate the "D". Using Phillips' signature 3-4, the Bolts have had a stunning turnaround. They're first in the NFL in rushing defense at 76 yards a game. They're seventh in rushing offense at 140 a game, nearly double what they've allowed. Was it Levy who preached run and stop the run?

Smith says his two free-agent linebackers, Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley, have been the defensive keys. He likened the Foley signing to the Bills getting Bryce Paup a decade ago. He said both have a mean streak reminiscent of a former Bills LB.

"Darryl Talley had a mean streak," Smith said. "Every four or five weeks, he would absolutely annihilate somebody on a tackle and it would reverberate through a team. You want people like that because it excites the entire team with a physical hit. These two guys make hits like that."

Smith has been flooded by calls from the national media, as he was after bringing Flutie to Buffalo. He hopes the happy times aren't a fluke. He has some difficult decisions ahead. He has a $41 million franchise QB in Rivers, who needs to play soon.

Brees has complicated the issue with his MVP-level play. If he wants to keep Brees, Smith might have to make him a franchise player at about $9 million per. Smith expects to be a whopping $21 million under the cap after this season. He could afford both Brees and Rivers. But he lived through the Flutie-Rob Johnson strife in Buffalo. It's hard to imagine him creating that situation again in San Diego.

Whatever the case, he's excited by the turnaround. He hears Marv Levy's voice in his head and he sees Butler's face every day.

"I've got John's photograph right here on my desk," Smith said. "I look at it every day. It's a giant picture of John and me in a golf cart. We would sit on golf carts everywhere and talk football. I can close my eyes and picture us together. He's with me all the time."

Smith says Butler didn't have enough time to see his plan come to fruition. Cancer cut him short. It's Smith's job to carry it through. This is his first chance at running his old operation. Before Smith got the Chargers job, Levy called and told him he had earned the job and he was ready.

"He told me not to copy anybody, to be myself," Smith said. "He said, 'Never forget, do what you think is right. Go with your instincts and build a football team.' And that's exactly what I'm doing."


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