When kicker Younghoe Koo would line up for a field goal during training camp one year ago, his competition, incumbent Josh Lambo, would turn his back, intentionally ignoring the rookie’s reps.
It was how he handled a competition that was very clearly defined — either Lambo or Koo would do the kicking for the Chargers in Week 1. The other would be out of work.
It’s a tricky dynamic — two men competing for one spot — but kickers are isolated enough that any cold-blooded competitiveness doesn’t get in the way of what the team is trying to accomplish.
But for Geno Smith and Cardale Jones, the two quarterbacks trying to earn a spot on the Chargers roster as Philip Rivers’ backup, that kind of attitude could poison the team.
“Clearly, we understand it's a battle, but we both want what's best for the team,” Jones said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think not having a decent enough relationship to have a decent conversation with one another — that's not going to get us closer to our goals.”
The goal is to find someone who is capable if the unthinkable happens — an injury to Rivers that would keep him off the field. It’s happened exactly zero times since Rivers became the starter in 2006.
Still. the Chargers have to prepare, and the competition ramps up with Saturday’s preseason opener at the Arizona Cardinals.
“I want a guy that can go in there and win if your starter is out, whoever that is,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “When I was in Pittsburgh, we had a guy named Charlie Batch, and Ben [Roethlisberger] was out for a couple of games one year and we were playing really well. Charlie came in and won both games that he had to play, and that's invaluable.
“If you have a guy that can do that and the team is confident in doing that, it goes a long way.”
You don’t have to look far into the league’s past to realize the value of a quality backup quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last season with Nick Foles playing instead of the injured Carson Wentz.
But Foles, like Batch, was a former starter.
That would appear to be an edge for Smith, who was signed in the offseason. In four seasons with the New York Jets and one with the New York Giants, Smith started 31 games, going 12-19. Jones has appeared in one NFL game — back in 2016 with Buffalo.
“That’s been my whole mantra my entire time in the league — I approach every single day like I’m a starter,” Smith said. “I expect great things from myself and I put the pressure on myself. No one else can put any added pressure on me. You know you're competing and you know you’re always going to compete, that's the name of the game.”
The two are both listed as second-string quarterbacks on the first preseason depth chart, and Whisenhunt said the team hasn’t decided who would get the first snaps Saturday.
Whisenhunt said the Chargers have done their best to divide the second-team reps equally between Jones and Smith. In last Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage, Smith had the better day.
While Smith has the experience, there’s something tantalizing about Jones’ rocket arm and imposing 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame.
The Chargers acquired Jones during last year’s training camp and kept him as the No. 3 quarterback, but that doesn’t assure they’ll keep three on the roster this season.
In the meantime, Jones has done his best to be a sponge around Rivers.
“Just being in a room with Philip for a week, I felt like I wasn't in the NFL the year before because of the knowledge he was able to provide,” Jones said. “Just coming from experience, he has an answer for any question I have.”
Saturday, this season’s battle for the No. 2 quarterback spot will have its biggest chapter to date, with both getting their first shot against an opposing defense.
Smith and Jones are ready to keep fighting — even if the battle is friendly.
“I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't want anything given to me,” Jones said. “I’m pretty sure he feels the same way. It’s great to have competition with an experienced guy. I’m trying to take advantage of some of the mistakes or things he does well and try to put it in my game.
“It’s a huge advantage and he feels the same way to just not be thrown into the position of, ‘Hey, you’re our guy. You’re our backup and we’re sticking with you.’