By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 21, 2005
Norv Turner said a few words of appreciation to his Oakland Raiders. Not many, because words aren't his best thing. Then he gave a game ball to the guy who made the sack that clinched a 16-13 victory over the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field yesterday. No mention of his nearly seven years as the Redskins' coach, including his final season, when he was fired in the middle of a playoff race despite a winning record.
Short and sweet by one of the NFL's classiest, most popular, but indisputably middle-of-the-pack head coaches. However, veteran Warren Sapp, perhaps the only man in the room who could steal the stage from the head coach, knew what the Raiders wanted done. So the 300 pounds of Sapp stood up and handed Turner a game ball of his own. "When you're unceremoniously dismissed in the middle of a season, you want to come back there and win," Sapp said. "Norv took over the Redskins when they were bad [in '94]. He took them back to the playoffs.
"In '99 in Tampa, we only beat the Redskins [14-13 to go to the NFC championship game] on a botched snap. Norv didn't mess up that snap.
"The next year, his team is still in the playoff picture [7-6] and they fired him. To be done like that, in the middle of the season, that's going to sting for a very long time. We all have our pet-peeve teams. Nobody has to say it. He wasn't going to show it. But we knew. It's always nice to go back to the place where they do you like that and kick a little butt and get a game ball."
Norv couldn't have said it better. Which is just as well because, if you waited 100 years, he never would.
"We surprised him with that game ball," said defensive end Bobby Hamilton, grinning. "He was very emotional, very excited. He dropped his head." That would figure. The Raiders are lucky Norv didn't tug his forelock and kick an imaginary pebble with his toe. The man who may have the only guileless smile in the NFL was overwhelmed with simple gratitude at the gesture.
Minutes later, when he met the press, Turner was trembling and near tears, his eyes filled but not dripping. "It was quite an experience for me, very emotional," he said. He called his time in Washington "seven great years -- my kids grew up here" and tried to claim that was the reason his hands were tugging at his pants and his voice had a quiver. Dan who?
With his trademark little wry half-smile, shy and sincere, almost ludicrously misplaced in a room full of violent giants, Turner even tried to claim that his emotions were stirred up by seeing old "friends and associates [in the media], whatever you are when we do what we do." Only Norv. Touched to see that a few reporters didn't begrudge him winning one from the heart.
Then, after years of remaining silent on his feelings about his exodus from the Redskins, Turner said he would make one final comment, then nothing more on the subject. For Turner, what followed was a soliloquy.
"The hardest thing for me, I came in here to a team that had won four games and really had not had much success," he said. "We were 9-23 my first two years. After that we were a competitive football team [41-38-1]. The guys that a lot of people thought at the time were so-called 'great players' never panned out to be great players. All that talent we supposedly had wasn't as great as people thought. I was always very proud of what we did here in Washington."
Of course, some of those "so-called great players" were Turner's own disastrous draft picks, such as Heath Shuler and Michael Westbrook. But let it pass. Turner's last years here were coached under the pressure of Daniel Snyder's astronomical payrolls, which usually proved to be nothing more than squandered millions on Jeff George, Dan Wilkinson or Deion Sanders.
Turner had a miserable history in similar mistake-filled, aesthetically atrocious but nerve-wracking games as the Redskins' coach. For Turner, Washington always meant heartbreak in the final minutes. His Redskins lost by three points or less 20 times. And 15 other times they lost by a touchdown or less. Misery, usually measured in migraine minutiae, was his trademark. Tiny but recurrent mistakes or infuriating breaks perpetually left his teams on the wrong end of 45-42, 41-35, 37-34, 31-29, 29-27 and 27-26. The highlight of his tenure was that 14-13 loss to the Bucs when his Redskins almost got to play for a ticket to the Super Bowl. In the end, he was fired by Snyder because, in the space of five weeks, Turner managed to lose 27-21, 16-15, 23-20 and 9-7 despite having the highest-paid roster in NFL history.
In Oakland, Washington has seemed far away to Turner, as it should. But old memories, and feelings, finally returned. "I didn't let it [come to mind] until yesterday," he said. "Then I got a lot of messages from ex-players, friends here, the people who hung with you. I've gotten a lot of messages. It's always appreciated, but I haven't spoken to them."
But he knows what some of them might say. These days, Joe Gibbs gets the kind of benefit of the doubt that Turner never received. Of course, the reason is as simple as three Super Bowl trophies. Gibbs has earned it. Turner didn't. But it stings.
"The Redskins have had a couple of tough games recently -- against the Giants [a 36-0 loss] and losing on the last play last week. I know those types of games come around, but when it happened when I was here they were my fault," Turner said in the Raiders' locker room. "It's supposed to be everybody's fault. But that's part of being the head coach."
Turner doesn't want to leave that sour grapes taste. "Everybody paints my years in Washington as something bad. It wasn't. You have high expectations, you want to live up to them. It hurts when you don't," he said. Then, that small crooked smile returned. "We were always short a field goal kicker," he said. "That would have made a lot of difference."
And how about close calls, like a possible Raiders fumble near the Redskins goal line in the final minutes that the officials saw as no fumble at all? "We would have won a lot more games," he said.
Few in Washington wish the Turner era had continued much longer. If he hadn't left, then Marty Schottenheimer couldn't have come -- and gone. And, oops, be returning to FedEx Field with his nasty Chargers next week. For that matter, Steve Spurrier couldn't have coached 'em up, headed for the hills, then returned to his glory comfort zone in the SEC. Who would want to miss all that entertainment? And, of course, Gibbs couldn't have resurrected his saga-in-progress that nobody wants to miss.
As a coach, Turner may always be remembered as Mr. Near Miss and he knows it. Asked if he thinks of all those close losses with the Redskins, he gives his characteristic self-deprecating expression and says, "I don't have to. I get reminded on a continual basis."
Still, for one day, bitter as it was for the Redskins, few would begrudge Turner his moment. "We all wanted to give him that game ball," Sapp said. "Just a little gesture for a good guy, a classy guy who's been in this game a long time."