The response to yesterday's approval polls for Norv Turner and A.J. Smith made me realize something: These guys take the blame for not living up to the hype. Every year since Norv Turner has taken over as the Head Coach of the San Diego Chargers, some media person somewhere has predicted the team to make it to the Super Bowl. In that time, the team has never made it to the Super Bowl. This is either a result of Norv's bad coaching or A.J.'s bad drafting, right?
The thing is, those media types aren't stupid. They're not picking the Chargers because it's fun. They're doing it because the team has a lot of talented playmakers, and play-callers, and on paper they should be able to at least compete with any team in the league. So, why haven't they?
Norv Turner's first team, following a 14-2 season, struggled out of the gate. They were adjusting to a new offense and a new defense, and the defense was slow to learn. They allowed 30+ points in 4 out of the team's first 8 games, each of them losses as the team went 4-4. Saying "We'll win as long as we don't give up 30 points" seems like a stance a lot of teams would love to have.
Once the defense figured itself out, the team won 8 straight games and wound up in the AFC Championship Game. They hung tight with the undefeated New England Patriots, despite major injuries to their four most important players (Shawne Merriman, Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates).
The good defense towards the end of the 2007 season was mostly due to Shawne Merriman's ridiculous pass-rushing skills. He didn't get surgery on his busted knee in the offseason, choosing to rest it instead, and lasted about 30 seconds on the field in 2008 before leaving the team to fend without him. Without his pass-rush, one-dimensional players like Clinton Hart, Tim Dobbins, Matt Wilhelm and Jyles Tucker were exploited.
Chris Chambers, who had been an integral part of the 2007 offense after being traded for, was only able to play in 9 games. His replacements (Malcom Floyd, Buster Davis & Legedu Naanee) were raw, as was the beast on the other side of the field (Vincent Jackson). While Philip Rivers played efficiently, the offense lacked big play potential.
Still, Norv Turner brought the team back to the playoffs and lead them to victory over the 12-4 Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Steelers did a better job of exploiting the holes in the Chargers defense and put up 35 points on the Bolts on their way to winning the Super Bowl.
Blame: Shawne Merriman's injury
How this team finished 13-3 is beyond me. Nick Hardwick played in 3 regular season games. Chris Chambers was let go halfway through the season because he was terrible. Jeromey Clary missed 6 games. Jacob Hester got injured and was replaced with UDFA Mike Tolbert. There were 16 starts between Ian Scott, Ogemdi Nwagbuo and Alfonso Boone. The prize of the Chargers' free-agent class, Kevin Burnett, started just 7 games.
That team was a mess, specifically on defense, and somehow they ended up behind only the Colts for the best record in the league. Then Nate Kaeding happened, missing all 3 FG attempts in a game the Chargers lost by 3 points.
Blame: Nate Kaeding (and injuries) [Editor's Note: but mostly Nate Kaeding]
Here's the list of team starters that started less than 12 games: Ryan Mathews, Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates, Marcus McNeill, Louis Vasquez, Stephen Cooper, Steve Gregory.
Some of those were due to bad play, some of those were injuries and some were contract disputes. The WR group got so bad that Kelley Washington, Seyi Ajirotutu, Gary Banks and Patrick Crayton were seeing regular snaps. Antwan Applewhite started 13 games at OLB because neither Merriman nor Larry English could stay healthy. You can imagine how that went.
Because of all of the reasons listed above, the team started 2-5. This was a talented team on paper, but none of that talent was on the field. By the time VJ and MM came back, Antonio Gates was gone. Still, the team finished the season 7-2 and very narrowly missed the playoffs.
Again, this wasn't about the pundits being wrong about the Chargers. It was that the players that they love(d) were not on the field.
Blame: Contract disputes and injuries [Editor's Note: How the hell do you not mention special teams?]
Let's list the major injuries (games played). Bob Sanders (2 games), Malcom Floyd (7 games), Antonio Gates (13 games, but looking very unhealthy), Kris Dielman (6 games), Shaun Phillips (12 games), Marcus McNeill (9 games), Luis Castillo (1 game) and Nate Kaeding (1 game). Whew.
That's the starting SS, WR, TE, LG, OLB, LT, DE and K. That's a third (8) of the number of starters there are on a team (24, or 25 if you include the Long-Snapper).
The team was winning to start the season (4-1), despite losing Castillo and Kaeding in that first game. It was the losses of Phillips, McNeill, Dielman and Floyd in the middle of the season that led to a 6-game losing streak. Once guys like Antwan Barnes, Jared Gaither, Tyronne Green and Vincent Brown found themselves to be suitable replacements, the team finished the season in a familiar 4-1 fashion.
Could you make an argument for this to be A.J. Smith's fault? Sure. The guys he's drafting can't stay healthy. Should probably do a better job of inspecting them. He also may, or may not, be in charge of hiring/firing the training staff and team doctors. However, to claim that he drafts or signs players that don't perform up to expectations when on the field would be false. Also, pointing blame at Norv Turner when he's basically been handed half a team every year (and has yet to finish with a losing record), is ridiculous.
Get into a conversation with any of the folks that want to "Fire Norv!!!" and you'll find them going to the argument of "underachievement" very early. Each year, Norv is handed a very talented team and every year the team gets worse, right? This was a 14-2 team that Norv has destroyed, right?
Wrong. Norv gets handed a piece of paper with some impressive names, then he gets to build gameplans around Gary Banks. That 14-2 team had ONE major injury, and that was the loss of Luis Castillo for 7 games. Everyone else stayed healthy. The lines, the playmakers, everyone. That team simply got the opportunity to live up to its healthy potential. The team from the year before, with roughly the same players and same coaches, finished 9-7 behind a regularly-injured offensive line. Sounds an awful lot like Norv, doesn't it?