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An Experiment - A Level Headed Assessment of Norv Turner

Following John's creditable job of defending A.J. Smith earlier in the week, I'm going to discuss Norv Turner, and risk sounding like a monstrous hypocrite in the process.

In October, I was among those calling for Norv Turner's head.  However, following the Chargers amazing return to elite status, I've been busy reexamining my feelings and thoughts. 

To begin with, can we all concede that having a level-headed discussion regarding Norv Turner is virtually impossible. I will provide some thoughts about Norv's coaching history, his current status with the Chargers, and try to explain why he merits an extension as Chargers' Head Coach.

More below the jump...

Appearances are Deceiving

Maybe it's an appearance thing.  It's possible that fans dislike Turner because he doesn't fit any of the three archetypes that seem to endear coaches to fans; he's not an icy sideline genius like Tom Landry, Mike Shanahan, or Bill Belichick, nor does he have the fire-and-brimstone attitude of a Bill Cowher, Bill Parcells, or Marty Schottenheimer.  He's also not a young, fiery, whiz-kid along the lines of a Jon Gruden or Josh McDaniels. 

Turner doesn't fit any of these classic types; to me, he seems like a bemused and/or exasperated professor shuffling through term papers and working out theorems in his head, while wondering why many of his students don't "get it."  In short, it seems like he's not all there on the sideline, and I can't imagine anything more annoying to fans and players.

The challenge, then, is to look past appearances.

Early Career

Turner's coaching career began with USC, as a receivers (WR) and tight ends (TE) coach.  From there, he followed John Robinson to the Los Angeles Rams, where he worked with Don Coryell disciple Ernie Zampese to make the Rams' offense (with QB Jim Everett, WRs Flipper Anderson, and Henry Ellard) one of the most potent in the NFL. 

It seems likely that Turner's emphasis on a balanced attack comes from the conflating of Robinson's USC teams which ran opponents into the ground, and Zampese, one of the most fervent disciples of Coryell's timing based, aggressive passing attack.  This was the basis of the offense that Turner took to Dallas, when Jimmy Johnson hired him as Offensive Coordinator in 1990.

Turner, with Troy Aikman at QB, Emmitt Smith at RB, WR's Michael Irvin, Alvin Harper, TE Jay Novacek, FB Daryl Johnston, and possibly the best offensive line in NFL history progressed from a green bunch of kids into an offensive machine, one that could just as easily pound opponents into the ground as throw over their heads.  Within 4 years of his hiring, Dallas had won 2 Super Bowls in dominating fashion.

Washington Redskins

Turner was hired in 1994 as the Head Coach of the Washington Redskins.  Turner was inheriting the ruins of the Joe Gibbs / Bobby Beathard dynasty which produced 3 Super Bowl championships in 4 appearances from 1982-1991.  The Redskins GM was Charley Casserly.  Together, they made a mistake that is universally regarded as the biggest setback for a struggling franchise - drafting a franchise QB who does not pan out.  The player in question was Heath Shuler, and his failure to develop cost Turner at least 2-3 seasons of growing quarterbacks.

Actually, like Gibbs before him, Turner had something of a QB carousel, using Gus Frerotte and Trent Green, before Brad Johnson arrived in 1999 to take the Redskins to their only playoff appearance under Turner.  He was fired in 2000 with 3 games remaining on the schedule (a 7-6 record).  His final record in Washington was 49-59-1, with a 1-1 record in the playoffs.

The hallmark of Turner's teams in Washington was getting off to a fast start, but fading down the stretch and missing the playoffs.  In 1996, the Redskins started 7-1, only to finish 9-7.  In 2000, the Redskins started 6-2, but his firing followed a streak where the Redskins lost 4 out of 5.

Another mark of Turner's Washington teams was the inability to hold leads late in games.  The Redskins were  known as a team that could compete with the best teams in the league, but also could lose to the worst teams in the league, often in consecutive games.  He also developed a reputation for being "aloof", and being unable to instill disciplined play in his roster.

In Turner's defense, he developed Gus Frerotte into a serviceable QB, who stayed in the NFL for years as a competent back-up or short time starter.  His development of Trent Green led eventually to Green's successful stint as the starting QB in Kansas City, by way of St. Louis (not coincidentally, the place where Coryell disciples Al Saunders, Jim Hanifan, and Mike Martz helped create the The Greatest Show on Turf).

Also, it should be noted that Casserly proved to be a marginal GM, unable to consistently stock the Redskins (or Houston Texans) with the quality of players Bobby Beathard provided to Joe Gibbs.

Return to the Coordinator's chair

In 2001, Turner served as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers.  In his 1 year in San Diego, Turner oversaw the first competent offensive attack the Chargers employed since 1996.  He was responsible for the early development of RB LaDainian Tomlinson, and contributed some to the development of QB Drew Brees - who played outstanding in his 1 half of game action as a rookie.

Following consideration as a head coaching candidate in 2002 (a job he lost to Marty Schottenheimer), Turner went to Miami, building his offense around RB Ricky Williams, while marginalizing the deficiencies of QB Jay Fiedler.  In early 2004, Turner was named Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders.

Oakland Raiders

Turner was stepping into the exact same position in Oakland he had entered in Washington, a team built around a fading group of veteran stars, with a lack of young talent behind them.  In Al Davis, Turner found a kindred spirit in the theories and execution of offense, but Davis failed to provide the players or autonomy Turner would have needed to be successful.

Turner managed to install an effective offensive attack around QB Kerry Collins, but the general lack of responsibility and discipline was equally the result of the losing and decrepit culture in Oakland.  Turner's Raiders teams played with no consistency, ranging from solid to awful, but it should be noted that his predecessor Bill Callahan, as well as successors Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, and Tom Cable have not been able to produce better results than Turner.  Turner was fired after the 2005 season, with a record of 9-23 in Oakland (58-82-1 overall).

Coordinated... again.

Turner's next stop was in San Francisco as offensive coordinator in 2006.  Again, he demonstrated his ability to build effective offense with less than ideal players, turning RB Frank Gore into a star, and getting a solid (if unspectacular) performance from QB Alex Smith.  It should be noted that following Turner's departure from San Francisco, the offense as a whole, and Smith in particular, disintegrated into a horrendous mess that took 2 and 1/2 seasons to fix.

San Diego Chargers

Following Marty Schottenheimer's disastrous playoff loss against the Patriots in January 2007, internal strife led to his departure.  Turner was one of several candidates for the Chargers Head Coaching position, a group that included current Head Coaches Rex Ryan and Mike Singletary, current Chargers Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera, and former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gary Gibbs.

Based on his previous record as a head coach, Turner's hiring in San Diego was met with a range of reactions from incredulous to outrage.  The few defenders of Turner's hiring said he can't help but succeed with the talent on the Chargers' roster, and he's an outstanding offensive coach.  Everyone else made the obvious point - a guy with a 58-82-1 record has already proved to be a loser.

The truth is, Turner was hired by General Manager A.J. Smith for one overriding reason - to develop Philip Rivers into a championship caliber QB.  Looking at Rivers' progression over the last few years, Turner's performance in this area has been an unqualified success.

In 2007, the Chargers shook off a 1-3 start to finish 11-5, and advanced to the AFC Championship Game against 17-0 New England, where injuries to key players became too much to overcome.  During the playoffs, Turner's mastery of offense was fully displayed (particularly in the 2nd half of the Titans game, and throughout the Indianapolis game).

In 2008, the Chargers were forced to overcome injuries, a wildly inconsistent defense, and a 4-8 start before rallying to a postseason berth.  They defeated the Colts at home, before traveling to Pittsburgh and getting fully exposed by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Steelers.

When the Chargers failed to start well in 2009, Turner's flaws as a head coach - undisciplined play, poor game management, intermittently successful adjustments, and the "aloof" nature seemed to be brought into relief.

In truth, however, Turner had already begun the process of nullifying these weaknesses, even turning a few of them into strengths...

  • The offseason hiring of Rob Chudzinski as Assistant Head Coach has helped Turner manage games at much higher level than last year.  For proof, look at the 4th quarters vs. Oakland, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Cincinnati, as well as the much lower number of bad challenges.  Turner was smart enough to recognize he needed help in this area and got it.
  • Turner transitioned to a pass first offense.  Putting the ball in Rivers' hands makes the most of what the Chargers do best, has taken the pressure off the defense, and made a generally poor running game at least marginally effective.  It should be noted that since the game at Kansas City, the Chargers have been able to run the ball when necessary -in the red zone and 4th quarter.
  • The decision to cut Safety Clinton Hart, as well as demote nickel CB Antoine Cason immediately forced the players to become accountable for their mistakes on the field.  Nothing asserts a coach's authority quicker then taking away playing time.  It's no coincidence that the Chargers immediately started playing smarter football once these moves were made.
  • Speaking of autonomy, Turner is also the person who decided to remove Ted Cottrell last season, despite A.J. Smith's objections, and replace him with Ron Rivera (Turner could never have made these moves under Dan Snyder or Al Davis).
  • Turner has proven to be an outstanding evaluator of coaching talent.  Considering the injuries sustained, as well as the development of many young players, Turner's staff has worked some minor miracles.  Extra credit goes to Offensive Line Coaches Hal Hunter and Mike Sullivan, Defensive Line Coach Don Johnson, and Wide Receivers Coach Charlie Joiner.
  • Despite slow starts in each of his three years in San Diego, Turner has won the games he's had to win.  December is the month that separates the contenders from the pretenders.  The Chargers' record in December under Turner is 13-0.  He has also gotten the Chargers to at least the Divisional round of the playoffs in each of his 3 seasons.

The decisions listed above strongly suggest each of the following traits in Norv Turner: 

  • A willingness to examine weaknesses and correct them.
  • Willingness and ability to make major schematic adjustments on the fly.
  • The autonomy and trust to hold players and coaches accountable for undisciplined or erratic play, without losing the staff or the locker room.
  • The roster knowledge needed to select the right player for any given play or moment.
  • A talent for picking the assistant coaches who can get the most out of their players.
  • Most importantly, a gift for rising to the occasion.

Sounds like a good Head Coach to me.  Many other, better known coaches will stubbornly stick to their guns, even if it takes the team down with them.

Further, I think it pretty obvious that the quality of a head coach is proportional to the quality of his players.  It goes without saying that Turner has players in San Diego that he never had in Washington or Oakland.

Norv Turner has done the job he was brought here to do.  I say thanks to Norv for giving us the best QB the Chargers have had since Dan Fouts - a championship-caliber QB.   With a record of 31-16 in almost 3 full seasons, as well as a 3-2 record in the postseason, I also say Norv has earned the opportunity to finish the work he has started in San Diego.

Now, about those slow starts...