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Philip Rivers and the Search for the Next Chargers Head Coach

When it comes to the NFL, the QB question dominates all other concerns. You're either trying to find one, or trying to maximize the value of the one you have. When the Chargers search for a new Head Coach and/or General Manager, this should be the point of emphasis.

Can El Capitan be fixed? That is the question.
Can El Capitan be fixed? That is the question.
Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

In sports, fans rail against the end of a championship window by blaming the front office, coaching staff, players, ownership, themselves, anything other than facing the simple truth that sports is a cyclical proposition, and even the greatest franchises face a decline at some point (except for the Los Angeles Lakers, who haven’t suffered a truly bad season since I’ve been alive. Screw the Lakers! But whatever...)

For Chargers’ fans, it’s especially bitter because this most recent era (2004-2009) ends with as much success as the previous eras did in winning a championship. That is, none. It’s also bitter because a good case can be made that the Chargers were the best team in NFL at the height of 2 eras (1979, 1980 and 2006, respectively).

I’m already tired of the questions regarding Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith – an issue I will dispense with shortly. The reason I’m tired of these discussions is because it obscures the most important question Dean Spanos has to ask himself, the question whose answer will determine the fate of the Chargers for the rest of the decade. That question is…

Can Philip Rivers be rehabilitated?

Answering this question answers all the others. But let’s get back to the Turner/Smith part of this equation. When you consider the future employment of Turner/Smith against the question of Rivers, there’s really only one answer:

They both should be fired, for the following reasons:

Norv Turner

As not only the head coach, but also the offensive coordinator and play-caller, it falls on Turner to have a better understanding of Rivers’ strengths and flaws than any other person on the staff. These strengths and flaws, after all, are (or should be) factors in the design of the offense. If Rivers is struggling either mentally or physically, Turner’s job is to determine if a) Rivers should be playing at all, and b) if Rivers plays, what can or can’t he do. Thus far (since 2010), we’ve seen the following:

Turner is creative, within the confines of the offensive system. If the system itself is incapable of accommodating the required changes, so is Turner. 2009 versus 2012 is a great example:

  • In 2009, LaDainian Tomlinson’s age and Darren Sproles’ size prevented the Chargers from relying on the running game. Therefore, Turner went pass-first with the offense, but the pass game was still a vertical pass game as intended in the Coryell offense.
  • In 2012, Rivers is incapable of pushing the ball downfield (for assorted reasons), yet Turner doesn’t change or modify the system accordingly.

Turner has seen these problems going back to the 1st half of the 2010 season, yet with 1 full offseason, and part of another offseason, plus 2 full preseason and regular seasons worth of games to review, has no answers for them.

Thus, Turner is not the right head coach to make this evaluation of Rivers.

A.J. Smith

As the General Manager, Smith’s job is the acquisition of talent. In the context of Rivers, however, it’s also asset management. Rivers’ is the franchise’s most valuable asset (valued at over $90 million), therefore Smith’s job is (at least partially) to maximize and protect that asset. Here’s examples of questionable asset management, given that context:

Here are the players protecting Rivers’ blindside since the start of 2010:

  • Marcus McNeill: 20 games
  • Jared Gaither: 9 games
  • Brandyn Dombrowski: 7 games
  • Mike Harris: 7 games

Why was no backup Left Tackle drafted after 2006, in case McNeill was lost in free agency (or a hold out), or in case his spinal stenosis created a career-threatening / ending problem? More generally, here are the offensive linemen drafted by Smith after 2006:

Position Player Name Year Drafted Round Pick # School
T Corey Clark 2008 7 234 Texas A&M
G Louis Vasquez 2009 3 78 Texas Tech
G Tyronne Green 2009 4 133 Auburn
OL Stephen Schilling 2011 6 201 Central Michigan
G Johnnie Troutman 2012 5 149 Penn State
C David Molk 2012 6 226 Michigan

The Average Draft position of these 6 offensive linemen over 6 years is 170. Basically, one lineman drafted in the back of the 5th – top of the 6th round each year. This is Example A of how not to protect and maximize your investment in Rivers. These are the offensive skill players drafted by Smith after 2006:

Position Player Name Year Drafted Round Pick # School
WR Buster Davis 2007 1 30 Louisiana State
TE Scott Chandler 2007 4 129 Iowa
WR Legedu Naanee 2007 5 172 Boise State
RB Jacob Hester 2008 3 69 Louisiana State
RB Marcus Thomas 2008 5 166 Texas-El Paso
RB Gartrell Johnson 2009 4 134 Colorado State
WR Demetrius Byrd 2009 7 224 Louisiana State
RB Ryan Mathews 2010 1 12 Fresno State
TE Dedrick Epps 2010 7 235 Miami, FL
WR Vincent Brown 2011 3 82 San Diego State
RB Jordan Todman 2011 6 183 Central Connecticut State
TE Ladarius Green 2012 4 110 N/A
RB Edwin Baker 2012 7 250 Michigan State

Not one unqualified success out of the entire group. This is Example B.

When Darren Sproles was a free agent in 2011, he signed with New Orleans for $14 million over 4 years, after being named the Chargers’ Franchise Player in 2009 and 2010. In August 2008, six months before Sproles first became a free agent, reserve OLB Jyles Tucker was resigned for $14 million over 5 years – on the back of 1 good game against an awful Raiders team. Or maybe choosing to re-sign RT Jeromey Clary for $20 million over 4 seasons during the 2011 offseason, instead of Sproles. This is Example C.

I would also note Vincent Jackson, however I generally agree with not giving huge money to a player who had demonstrated uncommonly poor common sense (2 DUI’s and driving without a license) prior to holding out in 2010. That said, the manner in which his holdout (and McNeill’s for that matter) was handled was embarrassing. Also, it stands to reason once deciding not to offer a long-term extension, Smith would have been better served trading Jackson for picks instead of getting nothing.

Lastly, assuming A.J. Smith survives while Norv is canned, very few coaches will want to take a position where the following are givens:

  • They’ll have minimal say in drafting and roster spots.
  • The GM will be firmly on the hot seat, and his team will likely have to show major improvement over the next 2 seasons to keep himself (and his new coach) employed.

Going Forward Without A.J. and Norv

I am not going to agitate for a "Name" head coach to replace Norv Turner, for the following reasons...

  1. Dean Spanos, rightly or wrongly, believes in "Division of Power", so he will not be inclined to hire a head coach with full control of the player/personnel process.
  2. No head coach who has ever won the Super Bowl has gone on to win a Super Bowl at a subsequent coaching stop*.
  3. Name head coaches are usually outside the age range of coaches who win multiple championships (Tom Coughlin would be a notable exception). Read this article for further information… but here’s the pertinent piece of information: The average age of a Super Bowl winning coach since 1980 is 48.9 years.

I realize this will disappoint a lot of people, but these factors generally disqualify the following "Name" Pro and College Coaches from the prospective coaching list:

  • Jon Gruden
  • Bill Cowher
  • Brian Billick
  • Mike Holmgren
  • Andy Reid
  • Chip Kelly (Author's Note: It would likely mean the end of Rivers, but Kelly really intrigues me)
  • Kevin Sumlin
  • Chris Petersen

Now, given the Philip Rivers Question, the Chargers will probably be looking for someone who has an offensive background, but not someone who is "system oriented." As I said above, I think a true deficit of Norv Turner is his inability (or unwillingness) to change the offensive design to best suit what his players can do. The Chargers should want a coach who is capable/willing to design an offense that is best suited to his players’ talents, as opposed to someone who tries to fit players into his system, however poor the fit may be.

Because the Chargers are clearly in the "Talent Valley" (the dropoff between championship windows), it stands to reason that any coach the Chargers hire will need at least 2-3 seasons to return the team to Contender status.

Combine all these factors and this is what the Chargers should be looking for: a coach in his early to mid 40’s, who has a diverse offensive background, and who has not yet coached a team to the Super Bowl.

Here’s a list of current NFL Offensive Coordinators (unless otherwise noted) that meet most of the criteria outlined above:

From this list of coordinators, we can probably eliminate the following:

Haley ended up with a 19-26 record in Kansas City, although getting competent play from Matt Cassel and a division title in 2010 with the (mostly) current Chiefs roster looks more impressive with each passing moment. He’s also the fiery, combative type of coach a lot of Charger fans would like to see. If he has another year or two of success in Pittsburgh, I think he resurfaces elsewhere as someone hopes they’re getting the next Bill Belichick or Tom Coughlin.

Josh McDaniels is one apple off the Belichick tree, and we all know how well Belichick's coaches have done around the league – Romeo Crennel and Nick Saban come immediately to mind. Plus, McDaniels is perceived as the guy who nearly ruined the Denver Broncos because of his need for control, although some of his personnel decisions were terrific (check out his 2010 draft, the Tebow pick not withstanding). Might be better in a second go-round, but not in San Diego.

Brian Daboll is another apple off the Belichick tree. He needs to prove he can coordinate an actual good offense, but he also hasn’t had much to work with in Cleveland, Miami, and Kansas City. Daboll needs more success and seasoning before getting serious consideration.

Brian Schottenheimer would never work for the Chargers unless the Spanos family sold the team.

Kyle Shanahan is being groomed for the job in Washington when his father retires, if he lasts that long.

I’m choosing to dismiss Curtis Modkins (as I would dismiss Hal Hunter) out of hand, as Chan Gailey calls his own plays in Buffalo.

The Walsh Offense Guys

  • Jay Gruden
  • Bill Musgrave
  • Darrell Bevell
  • Jeremy Bates

Gruden’s overexposed brother obviously ran the Walsh Offense in Philadelphia, Oakland, and Tampa Bay, and his father worked as a 49ers scout. Most of Jay Gruden’s career was spent as a player and coach in the Arena Football League. Right now, the development of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati (along with the entire young Bengals offense) is a huge plus in Jay Gruden's favor.

Musgrave was a backup QB for the 49ers and worked on Mike Shanahan’s Denver staffs. His work with young QBs so far has been mixed at best (Brian Griese, Christian Ponder).

Darrell Bevell worked for Mike Sherman in Green Bay and Brad Childress in Minnesota before going to Seattle, where he replaced Bates. As with Musgrave, Bevell's work with young QB's has been mixed (Tarvaris Jackson, Russell Wilson).

Bates was Mike Shanahan’s last offensive coordinator in Denver. His track record is marginally better when you consider that he helped with the development of Jay Cutler. On the other hand, he couldn't turn Clipboard Jesus into a starting QB.

The bigger point is that hiring any of these 4 coaches would seem to indicate the Chargers intend to move away from Philip Rivers, as their systems generally prefer QBs who can throw on the move and extend plays with their feet. In my opinion, the fact they are all system guys works against them, for the same reasons it works against Turner now.

The Non-System Guys

Mike Miller

Yes it’s true that Miller hasn’t been very impressive calling the plays in Arizona, but I wonder if that’s because of working with QBs like Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Derek Anderson, and Max Hall. What’s not disputable is his work with receivers, as demonstrated by Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and even Andre Roberts. The downside to Miller is that he’s only been calling plays since 2011, and he hasn’t gotten much of anything from any of the QBs on the Cardinals roster, which makes me wonder how he’d get Rivers back to 2008-2010 form.

Greg Roman

Roman has served a variety of styles as coach, ranging from Run-First to Walsh Offense. Most of his success has come since being part of Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford and San Francisco. Those offenses feature a run-heavy offense with a QB attacking with play-action and controlling the clock with shorter throws. Working with Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, and Colin Kaepernick indicate a preference for a mobile QB, but one area that Roman has impressed is in aiding the career resuscitation of Alex Smith. I’m not sure how much of this credit goes to Roman or Harbaugh, but it’s frankly the kind of help Philip Rivers might need. One negative against Roman is he doesn’t call plays.

Pete Carmichael

Carmichael took over play calling from Sean Payton in 2011, and the Saints’ offense hasn’t skipped a beat. What I like best about the Saints’ offense is it’s versatility, and they seem to maximize the skills of every player on the depth chart. They also take advantage of Drew Brees’ quick decision-making skills at the line, with a lot of three and five step drops. As a possible bonus, Carmichael was on the Chargers’ staff from 2002-2005, and would have at least some familiarity with Philip Rivers.

Rob Chudzinski

Speaking of familiarity with Rivers, it would be hard to do better than Chud. I also like that Chud has worked not only in the Coryell offense under Norv, but he’s coached the one back spread at the University of Miami, and he’s built in a lot of read-option and spread plays for Cam Newton in Carolina. In other words, he matches his scheme to his personnel. Further, we know he can get good play from bad QBs (see Anderson, Derek – 2007). Best of all, he’s phenomenal at coaching the TE position; who better to help the Chargers find the next Antonio Gates? Working against Chud, however, is the same problem Norv has with Rivers – the guy who should be able to figure out what’s wrong with the QB (Cam Newton, in this case) can’t. Also, he’s starting to look like a guy whose offensive fixes only last for 1 season (see Cleveland Browns 2007-08 and Carolina Panthers 2011-12).

Mike McCoy

In terms of coaching adversity, look at what McCoy has done in Denver. In 2009 and 2010, he worked with Josh McDaniels to make Kyle Orton look halfway decent running a one-back spread passing game. In 2011, he junked that and went to a run-heavy offense with lots of play-action, bootleg, waggle, and read-option for Tim Tebow. Now in 2012, he’s basically had to reinstall the one-back spread that Peyton Manning prefers to run. The thing I like best about McCoy is his willingness to build the offense around what his players do best, regardless of their limitations. He’s helped get the most of out some very limited players (Orton, Tebow), and at the very least has helped Manning hit the ground running in Denver.

Others Worthy of Consideration

Rich Bisaccia – Current Chargers’ Special Teams Coordinator, 52

Bisaccia has been on the radar for many NFL teams over the last several years, and would be the only logical internal candidate to serve as an interim coach if Norv hits the bricks before the end of the season. He’s done a very nice job helping to fix the Chargers’ Special Teams from the 2010 disaster, until the last few weeks. He doesn’t currently call plays, but that hasn’t been a detriment for John Harbaugh in Baltimore. If Norv Turner is fired, but A.J. Smith is retained, Bisaccia is among the front-runners for the job.

Hue Jackson - Bengals’ Assistant Secondary Coach and Special Teams Coach, 47

Jackson is a gifted offensive play-caller, and a coach whose teams play a tough, physical brand of football. During his 2 year stint in Oakland (1 as OC, 1 as Head Coach), the Raiders featured a physical running game that beat opponents into the ground (even despite deficiencies at QB and WR), and put the Raiders into playoff contention. Furthermore, his work in Oakland seems even more impressive, considering the quality of play in Oakland both before his arrival and following his departure. What works against him is the naked power play he made in Oakland following the death of Al Davis, rumors that he undercut Tom Cable during the 2010 season, and his perception as an unpredictable live wire while he was the Head Coach.

One other thing: Al Davis had an exceptional track record in identifying young offensive coaches (whether he hires them or not) who blossom into quality head coaches: Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton all meet this description. I think if Hue Jackson finds the right GM, he could yet prove Al Davis right.

Bill O’Brien – Head Coach, Penn State University, 43

O’Brien is another apple from the Belichick tree that has shown some success away from New England, going 8-4 in his first season coaching at Penn State - an admirable accomplishment given the brutal circumstances. Furthermore, he has experience calling plays in New England, and it should not be overlooked that O’Brien oversaw the transition of the Patriots from a WR spread offense to a TE oriented offense. Lastly, he’s a fiery coach that’s not afraid to get into the business of Future HOF Quarterbacks, as he demonstrated last year in a sidline spat with Tom Brady. On the downside… his limited time as head coach, and the poor performance every Belichick disciple has shown following some brief success (see Charlie Weis, Scott Pioli, Josh McDaniels, and Romeo Crennel).

Chip Kelly - Head Coach, University of Oregon, 48

Kelly's arrival in San Diego would likely mean the end of Philip Rivers in San Diego, simply because Kelly likes passers who can run. It's not the spread run offense that intrigues me with Kelly, rather it's the pace of play and the organizational skills that impress me. The other thing about Kelly that I really like is his statistical approach to game management, which only Bill Belichick seems willing to adopt at the NFL level. A coach who operates his team this way is clearly well-organized and well-prepared, and is willing to dictate terms to opponents (i.e. defend the entire field, play using the hurry-up, taking advantage of opponent's mistakes in both personnel and down and distance) using methods other than physical domination at the point of attack.

David Shaw - Head Coach, Stanford University, 40

Shaw is the son of longtime NFL Assistant Coach Willie Shaw, who's had jobs in multiple NFL cities (including San Diego in 1994 under Bobby Ross). Shaw is a San Diego native, who was a WR at Stanford under Dennis Green and Bill Walsh, giving him a strong grounding in the Walsh offense. He has served as an NFL assistant under Jon Gruden and Brian Billick, before joining Jim Harbaugh at USD, and then Stanford, serving as the offensive coordinator. Stanford's offensive style seems to blend Michigan's old (i.e. under Bo Schembechler) power run offense with the Walsh Offense. As Stanford's HC, he's compiled a 20-4 record, and furthermore proved this season that his success wasn't just due to the presence of QB Andrew Luck (who Shaw helped develop into a polished rookie). As with Greg Roman (mentioned above), he might prefer a more mobile QB than Rivers, but the offensive design might do wonders to protect Rivers from mistakes.

The Spanos Conundrum

Here's the other problem Dean Spanos faces: A frustrated, angry, and apathetic fan base.

Whether it's justified or not, a lot of Chargers fans have always viewed the hiring and retention of Norv Turner as a slap in the face, because of the 58-82-1 record he carried into the building. Chargers fans were willing to suspend judgement as long as the team was going to the playoffs, but the truth is most fans have never been sold on Turner, and have been waiting 5 and 1/2 years for him to fail.

With regards to A.J. Smith, a lot of fans blame him - justified or not - for the antagonistic departures of Drew Brees, Marty Schottenheimer, LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, and Vincent Jackson. Whether Smith is solely to blame for these losses or not, here's three factors that cannot be overlooked: These are the players Chargers fans loved, these are the jerseys the fans bought, and the fans hated to see these players leave, especially under antagonistic circumstances. For many fans, firing Turner and retaining Smith would be the ultimate Spanos cop out.

The failures of the last 2 and 1/2 years has put Spanos in a position where he might feel he has to prove to Chargers' fans he's committed to winning, by going with the anti-Norv Turner (i.e. a proven winner), and dethroning Smith as the "power-hungry" GM. Thus, for a lot of fans, proof will rest solely in the pudding of a big-money, big-name Head Coach with personnel power - even if that arrangement is anathema to Spanos, and even if the candidate is not the best choice for the job - to answer the Philip Rivers Question.

Failure to deliver for the fans will mean more blackouts, and (importantly to Spanos) encouragement for taxpayers and politicians to view the Chargers and their stadium quest with cavalier disregard - which Mayor Elect Bob Filner has already expressed quite openly.

In Closing

Here are my favorite potential replacements for Norv Turner, in order of preference.

  1. David Shaw
  2. Mike McCoy
  3. Chip Kelly
  4. Bill O'Brien
  5. Pete Carmichael
  6. Hue Jackson
  7. Greg Roman
  8. Jay Gruden

Dean Spanos missed his chance last year to make the bold move, one which I mistakenly defended as "Discretion being the better part of valor." Under today's circumstances, these are the choices I see Spanos having in front of him:

  • Retain A.J. Smith and sacrifice Turner, and hope that Smith finds the right guy. Smith had this opportunity last year, and by keeping Turner last year, implicitly acknowledged the players were the problem. Additionally, given his previous failures to properly protect the franchise's investment in Rivers, it would reek of a sacrificial gesture. It would also further antagonize an already frustrated fan base.
  • Blow out Smith and Turner, and give control to a likely "has-been" such as Cowher, Gruden, Reid, or Holmgren with the intent of mollifying the fan base. This is a marginally gutsier choice,and it will initially please fans/sell tickets/help with stadium issues, but it comes with one big condition - because these coaches will be inclined to win now, they'd better be able to fix Rivers in a hurry and build for the future simultaneously.
  • The choice which would take real guts, is the one that hires a new GM, gives a young and talented coach an opportunity to make the right decision on the Philip Rivers Question, and then build a contender accordingly. This has the highest chance of failure. It will require at least 2-3 years of patience. It's also the best chance for this team to capture a Super Bowl trophy.

If anyone out there has any additional suggestions, I'd love to hear them. I didn't cover GM suggestions, simply because I don't know as much about who the up-and-coming GM candidates are - feel free to share these ideas as well.

* Thanks to nickelbolt for catching the previous error