Chargers Inside Slant

Draft day is drawing near, and the Chargers will be without general manger John Butler.<br><br> Butler died April 10 following a battle with cancer after being diagnosed last July. He had been hospitalized since March 13, yet up until his passing, there was constant communication with Butler in the hospital and plans were being made for that to continue.

"It's kind of business as usual," A.J. Smith, the Chargers' assistant general manager had said. "That is the expression we are saying and that is what it is.

"We all share his philosophy. When you got people who have been together for so many years -- it's a system, a philosophy we believe in. It's a program that is in operation and it's not just one guy."

Smith spoke with Butler most days by phone. And really, Smith probably knows what Butler is about to say before he even says it.

The two had been together since 1982, when scouting George Allen's Chicago Blitz team in the USFL.

Another longtime confidant is Buddy Nix, the director of player personnel. He's been with Butler since 1993 when the trio was in Buffalo.

"If we were all strangers from different teams -- if Buddy came from Cleveland and I came from Kansas City -- it would be difficult," Smith said, of the staff working together. "But we've been operating together for so long, it's a system we know of studying players, formulating preliminary lists and formulating what our target list is."

Following Butler's death, club president Dean Spanos said Smith will be in charge during the draft weekend.

"John and I had talked long ago of our confidence in A.J.'s ability to lead us through the draft in the event John was unable to be there," said Spanos. "As the assistant general manager and someone who has worked side-by-side with John for 21 years, we know the procedures that have been successful for us the past two drafts will continue. Just as John had always done, now A.J. will make the final decisions."

The current Chargers hierarchy attempts to draft players all factions of the organization agree upon. That wasn't always the case with former general manager Bobby Beathard, who more than once surprised his coaches with his draft picks.

"When we get a cluster of players, we must take a player that everybody wants," Smith said. "The head coach, personnel department and general manager must be on the same page. If we've got division on somebody, we move on to another player everybody wants. There's plenty of players to get that done.

"But in some organizations, the scouts and personnel department give the general manager their reports and the general manager says `thank you very much' and makes his own picks. But you have to get players everyone agrees on. (Bills coach) Marv Levy believed in that, Marty (Schottenheimer) believes in it. That's the way to get it done, or pretty soon people start pouting."

Few Chargers fans can cry after the first two drafts under Butler's guidance.

In 2001, Butler rolled the dice and traded the No. 1 pick and a chance at quarterback Michael Vick. He drafted Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson instead in the first round, and quarterback Drew Brees one round later. He also added three players who'll potentially vie for starting positions: cornerback Tay Cody (third round), and linebackers Carlos Polk (fourth) and Zeke Moreno (fifth).

In 2002, Butler snagged expected 2003 starters in cornerback Quentin Jammer (first round) and wide receiver Reche Caldwell (second). Plus, there's starting guard Toniu Fonoti (second) and linebacker Ben Leber (third).

Tight end Justin Peelle (fourth) had two starts last year.

"John," Smith said before Butler died, "has a game plan."

Now it will be up to Smith to carry it forward.

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