Chargers Hope Turner's Past Isn't Prologue
Friday, August 17, 2007
SAN DIEGO -- Long before he became the mastermind behind the San Diego Chargers, with his harem of superstars in lightning-bolt helmets and an office from which he can gaze out across Murphy Canyon, A.J. Smith would spend many of his days inside a closet of a room, alone with nothing but a television and a pile of football game videotape.
This was a beautiful place, for in the darkness the tapes never lied. They gave a glimpse into a football man's soul. And Smith, as an advance scout for the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s, spent hours looking into the heart of a Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator named Norv Turner. Super Bowls loomed, the Cowboys would break the Bills twice in four January Sundays, and Smith wanted to understand the genius. How was it that a man could be bequeathed Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith and find a way to let them all shine at once?
So maybe it isn't absurd that when pro football's best backroom melodrama finally played itself out and Marty Schottenheimer and his 0-2 playoff record with San Diego were dispatched, A.J. Smith handed one of the most talented teams in the NFL to Turner. This despite Turner's 58-82-1 record as a head coach with the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders, and the howls of laughter that followed the announcement.
But those cackling are not football men the way Smith is a football man. They did not sit in the room for hours in Buffalo, crawling into the brain of Norv Turner. They are not scouts the way Smith, despite his title as Chargers general manager, truly will be a scout, always searching the tapes for a truth no one else can see.
"Game day, in the playoffs, when it's turned up a notch big-time, there are critical, critical [coaching] decisions that must be made," Smith said. "I'll just say four, five or six decisions that take place in a game, critical decisions made by the head coach. Consult with the coordinators, yes, but you still have to make the call. The strategies, the chess game, it's all very important. You have to make the right call.
"I think Norv has this."
There is no great supporting body of evidence for his belief. Turner does not have a sparkling postseason record to call upon, as he has led a team to the playoffs in exactly one season. Unlike Schottenheimer, who has been to the playoffs 13 times and then failed miserably when it came to the four, five or six big-game decisions, most of Turner's seasons were over by the new year.
The word on Turner has always been this: He's a great offensive coordinator, but a man unsuited to be a head coach.
"Bill Belichick was in Cleveland once and there are a lot of opinions of him there," Smith said. "And there are a lot of opinions of him as a coordinator under Bill Parcells. Then stepping outside of the box is [Patriots owner Robert] Kraft. He goes with his instincts, he makes a decision, the rest is history."
The coach who would be the next Belichick, about to rewrite his own history, sat at a table next to the Chargers practice fields the other day. Turner is a kind man, a gracious man, forever haunted by the label of being too nice to be a head coach
"That's a knock that just isn't fair," he said. "There are things that I am that people perceive differently. When I'm with our players and I'm with my team, I'm vocal and aggressive and I make it clear what I am asking of them. I'm not going to throw a tirade in front of the media that's self-serving. I'm going to deal with it in our team, in the meeting room and on the practice field. The great thing is there are some guys in this league -- and I'm not going to put myself in this category since [Colts Coach Tony Dungy] just won a Super Bowl -- but there are some guys being successful with what some would call being mild-mannered.