Chargers general manager Joe Hortiz is happy to act as sidekick Robin to coach Jim Harbaugh’s Batman during the NFL season, as Harbaugh described his vision for their new partnership. Hortiz is equally willing to reverse roles to play Batman to Harbaugh’s Robin while making personnel decisions during the offseason, as Harbaugh outlined last week during his introductory news conference.
Hortiz did have one reservation about bringing to life the superhero scenario the pair discussed for years before Harbaugh and Hortiz were hired, in that order, with welcome, new boldness from the Spanos family.
“The only thing is, I’m not wearing tights, all right?” Hortiz said Tuesday, drawing laughter at his first news conference. “I’ll put the cape on, but I’m not wearing tights, all right?”
Fair enough. But there’s no disputing that the task of resuscitating the Chargers, who were an ugly 5-12 last season and face severe salary-cap challenges, requires nothing less than the might and dedication of a caped crusader. Or two.
Former general manager Tom Telesco, who was fired along with coach Brandon Staley on Dec. 15 after the Chargers’ appalling 63-21 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, pushed enough salary over to next season to leave the team upwards of $40 million over the cap. Staley, a first-time NFL coach, left them with memories of bad calls, a disjointed season and no running game to complement quarterback Justin Herbert’s golden arm.
Where to begin to fix it? Start by luring Harbaugh, who added a national championship at Michigan to a résumé that included a successful NFL tenure with the San Francisco 49ers. Then hire Hortiz, who developed a strong reputation as a personnel evaluator and difference-maker over 26 years as a scout and in other roles with Baltimore, where he worked alongside Harbaugh’s brother, John, the Ravens’ coach.
It’s no coincidence Hortiz and Harbaugh know and like each other well, which minimizes the potential for the kind of poisonous relationship Harbaugh reportedly had in San Francisco with then-GM Trent Baalke.
John Spanos, the Chargers’ vice president of football operations, said candidates for the coaching job were asked about candidates for the general manager job, and vice versa, in order to get the right fit. Harbaugh and Hortiz, he said, had only “super positive” comments about each other.
“We did not want to have an arranged marriage in any way,” said Spanos, son of chairman and owner Dean Spanos.
“I think, for me, one of the things that always stood out about Joe from the very beginning when I met him was just how hard-working he is, how low-ego. From being at schools with him and seeing the way he can talk to people who were at the schools, he has a really special way of connecting with people and building relationships, which I think is really important in this business.
“The body of work, of course [is] where Joe has been super impressive. I think that the Ravens are very highly respected in regard to their player personnel department for the way that they’ve done things, for the success that they’ve had in acquiring players. I know that Joe has been a big part of that.”
Hortiz’s team-building skills were a key strength in Spanos’ eyes.
“When it comes to player evaluation, player acquisition, I think those things are just paramount with the general manager position,” Spanos said. “From looking at Joe’s work and where he’s been, we feel really excited about his ability to do just that here.”
In turn, Hortiz was assured and self-effacing as he met the media at the Chargers’ soon-to-be abandoned practice facility in Costa Mesa. He apologized for sweating profusely under the intense TV lights and for speaking in a rapid, East Coast cadence that he said reflected his Philadelphia upbringing.
He often referred to family in the context of football and his life, saying he had three families: his parents; his wife, Jennifer, and their four sons, and the Ravens. He had “a couple” of chances at other general manager jobs before this one, he said, but chose the Chargers because he wanted to work with Harbaugh and find another close tribe.
“This is a family organization. I felt it on the interview. I felt it when I walked into this building on the second interview. I’ve been feeling it for the last five days when I’ve been walking around the building. You guys are committed to winning,” Hortiz said.
“We’re going to build a consistent winner here. You have the right leader, you have the right players on the field. We’re going to do it together. As Jim mentioned, it’s team, team, team. I believe in that philosophy. I’ve lived that for 16 years in Baltimore. That’s what we’re going to do here.
“We’re going to get those multiple championships. We’re going to do that. We’re going to bring you a trophy, Dean. We’re going to get it done. I have four boys that have two rings. We’re getting the other two, at least, and we’re going to keep trying to go.”
His priority is to build the coaching staff, with more announcements possible in the next few days following the addition of Jesse Minter as defensive coordinator Tuesday. Once that’s done, he plans to sort through the salary-cap issues. Also on his agenda is evaluating the scouting staff, though any changes likely would be delayed until after the draft, which begins April 27.
The Chargers hold the fifth pick, but Hortiz didn’t rule out trading for a package of later picks to replenish their talent. “Certainly, you have to have a partner to do something like that,” he said. “We’re a long ways away from the draft.”
If they keep the pick, they’ll go — wait for it — for the best player available.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the fifth pick or the 32nd, every pick is important to this organization,” he said. “If you put a value of importance on the pick number, you’re doing it wrong.”
This isn’t a tear-down, according to Hortiz.
“Our goal is to build a winner every year. We want to compete to win a championship every year, OK?” he said. “That’s going to be starting now. That’s not going to be, ‘Let’s gut it and start over.’ Those are the decisions. What balance of players give us the best opportunity to go out there and compete this year? I know who we’re trying to be, we know who we’re trying to be, and we’re gunning, we’re going that direction.
“We’re not mailing in a season, no way. We’re going to try to win this year, but you make the right decisions and the best decisions that give us flexibility this year and going forward.”
And that takes wearing superhero capes, but not the tights.