Sometime over the summer, the mayor, city attorney and county supervisor spearheading the work to keep the Chargers in San Diego decided to switch from trying to mollify the Chargers and owner Dean Spanos to trying to persuade the NFL to force Spanos to stay.

Last week, that effort reached its bitter end. They failed.

The NFL, led by Commissioner Roger Goodell, concluded in a special report to owners that the city and county and its negotiators had left too much uncertainty on the table.

“The primary sources of uncertainty include that the proposal requires a public vote, which would not occur until June 2016 at the earliest. Failure to receive voter approval would prevent the project from moving forward,” Goodell’s report reads. This section was provided by a source who asked for anonymity as the sensitive talks continue.

It was an ignominious end to perhaps the most frenzied and productive collaboration the city and county have mounted in decades.

Goodell also cited concerns about the environmental impact report the city had rushed to complete for the preferred Mission Valley site the mayor and friends had settled on. The NFL even hired its own environmental lawyers to verify the Chargers’ concerns.

This must have come as a surprise to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who once said on KUSI that his legal efforts would terrify the Chargers.

“If the Chargers are going to go to their partners and say, ‘Hey we need to move to Los Angeles because it’s not doable in San Diego,’ their worst nightmare is that we’re actually doing it,“ Goldsmith said.

The message for all of 2015 to Chargers fans was a simple one: “Relax, we’ve got this.” Every meeting they had was great.

It even became a social media meme.

It was a strategy they played out to the last minute: Convince the NFL owners and staff that they had done all that could be asked of the city and the Chargers were being unreasonable.

Goldsmith’s nightmare scenario never haunted the Chargers. The team was easily able to convince its counterparts it was eligible to move.

This should have been apparent. The idea that the NFL would, when facing this decision, send the Chargers back hat in hand to work under the mayor’s vision was always fanciful. It could still happen, I guess.

We seem more and more likely, however, to see an announcement the Chargers will move to Los Angeles. If we do, let there be no mistaking that it is the NFL, its economics and the Spanoses’ own fears fueling the decision.

The Chargers have been disingenuous about how many proposals they’ve tried to carry out in San Diego only to have the city shut them down. Some of the proposals weren’t even in the city and one was not rejected by the city, but withdrawn by the Chargers after the economy showed signs of trouble a decade ago.

The Chargers, however, are not wrong that the city’s plan is uncertain.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, admirably, did not succumb to the pressure and eliminate that primary source of uncertainty for the Chargers and NFL: his commitment to let the public vote. The NFL clearly invited him and the city to just approve a stadium and its financings — including $350 million in public funds — and he refused.

I’m not sure he could have done any differently. It’s hardly clear the proposal has enough support at the San Diego City Council and the County Board of Supervisors to pass without a vote of the people.

This did not stop the city from implying otherwise.

Check out this statement in the executive summary of the colorful, professional report the city submitted to the NFL:

“Within his first year in office, Mayor Kevin Faulconer began working with Supervisor Ron Roberts and the elected City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to put together a realistic plan that includes a significant funding commitment toward the construction of a new stadium facility – representing the largest public commitment to a multipurpose sports and entertainment venue in the history of the State of California,” the report — purporting to be from the city of San Diego — reads.

The proposal, however, was not a significant funding commitment. It was not a commitment at all except from three influential individuals: Faulconer, Roberts and Goldsmith. It was just their promise to ask voters for such a commitment.

The city cannot tell people it committed to offering the largest public subsidy to a stadium in the history of California. In fact, the uncertainty is one of its salvageable qualities. The mayor is saying to residents, “Don’t worry, this isn’t a firm, certain move. We have not made any commitments. You get to approve it before we do.”

Later in the letter to the NFL, the city touts support it received from the speaker of the California Assembly, Toni Atkins.

But Atkins herself will not say she supports the mayor’s proposal. In fact, she does not support spending taxpayer dollars on a stadium, let alone the most ever spent on one.

It’s actually quite hard to find a politician in San Diego who does. Even the biggest supporters hide behind something like “Well, if the voters support it … ”

That’s a giant “if.” San Diego simply wasn’t ready to play the NFL’s game. The mayor knew that the biggest danger to him politically was not to be seen as the one who lost the Chargers but as the one who bent over too much for them.

And the Chargers, for many years, have recognized this paradox.

“We have never believed that it was realistic to expect that voters would approve a significant public subsidy for a stand-alone football stadium. That had been one of the tenets of our 14 years of work,” the Chargers’ special counsel, Mark Fabiani, said in an email Monday.

We all recognized this. And yet, for a year, the city had to pretend that it didn’t; all because the mayor and county supervisor and city attorney were determined to outplay the Chargers at the NFL.

The Chargers might not be good at football, but we should have known this wasn’t a game we could beat them at.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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