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Tuesday, July 31, 2007 | Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith goes about his business more like an IBM CEO than an NFL scout — his roots in the league.

His degree is in physical education from Kentucky Wesleyan College, but he’s more Wharton School of Business. Don’t let the Hawaiian-style shirts he favors fool you, because he’s big on drawing up plans and letting them unfold.

The Chargers’ overall talent and depth, acquired by Smith largely through the drafts from 2004 to 2007, is ranked at the top of the NFL at several positions: running backs (big surprise), quarterback, tight ends, offensive linemen and linebackers.

“We appreciate the accolades,” said Smith, who succeeded the late John Butler as general manager in 2003. “Our fans think we’re good and people around the country think we’re good. But we still have to win enough games to get back to the playoffs; that’s what it’s all about.”

Notice that he said getting back to playoffs rather than winning a division title.

Smith, who was with the Buffalo Bills when they went to four straight Super Bowls, breaks down the hunt for a Super Bowl title to three tiers.

The first step is winning enough games to get into the playoffs, and 2004 was the Chargers’ breakthrough season when they bounced back from 4-12 in 2003 to win the AFC West title with a 12-4 record.

“Winning the division is great, and we want to achieve that,” Smith said. “But if you don’t win the division, you want to win enough to get into postseason play (as a wild-card team). I don’t mean one year in and out. I mean be a good, solid team that is always banging around and giving you a chance to chase the dream.”

The Steelers were a wild-card team when they finally won it all in the 2005 season. The Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl in the 2006 season, even though they won more games in 2005. The 2006 New England Patriots almost got back to the Super Bowl, although they weren’t as good as their three Super Bowl championship teams in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Smith’s second tier is to be a consistent winner that regularly advances to the playoffs. That’s what he means about the Steelers, Colts and Patriots “banging around.” Those franchises have combined to win five of the last six Super Bowls.

“That’s where we want to be — the second stage,” said Smith, whose team hasn’t met the criteria with two trips out of three years but can this year with a third playoff berth in four seasons.

The third tier also has eluded the Chargers.

“The third part is what you do when you get there,” Smith said. “We’ve gotten there; we’ve haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities. We had a wonderful opportunity last year. We have to figure out not just how to get there but what to do once we get there.”

But Smith knows from his time in Buffalo that general managers can’t plan on kickers making a field goal as the Bills’ Scott Norwood failed to do in the final seconds of a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.

They also can’t plan on injuries or suspensions affecting who takes the field.

“I learned from Marv Levy you can do a good job, but things go wrong,” said Smith of the Bills’ head coach in the Super Bowl seasons. “Guys travel in the wrong crowd, get money and lose focus. If they do, they have to be removed. That’s a philosophy we won’t deviate from. You have to have character to win, but you’re going to have problems. It’s like life.”

Terrence Kiel, a Chargers’ starting strong safety from 2004 to 2006, has been removed for his problems off the field. But Smith’s planning has ensured that there are several players positioned to take over the two safety spots: Clinton Hart, acquired off waivers in 2004; Eric Weddle, drafted in 2007; Bhawoh Jue, signed as a free agent in 2005; and Marlon McCree, signed as a free agent in 2006.

Training camp is underway at Chargers Park, and Smith’s work is largely done. Now the coaches, players and the football gods that dictate the bounces of the ball determine the field of playoff teams and the eventual Super Bowl champion.

“I think we are a good football team, and I’m looking forward to this season more than any season since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I can’t wait for that first game against Chicago (Sept. 9 at Qualcomm Stadium). We want to get this thing going and win enough games to be in the postseason. I’m proud of how far we’ve come. We have a plan. When I was hired by Dean Spanos, we spent three days going over this plan.”

It’s been unfolding ever since then. There are crinkles from the 2004 and 2006 upset playoff losses, but the plan is still a roadmap that reads clearly.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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