Norv Turner's ability to weather football's trying times -- through humor, determination, rationalization or charm -- has marked his five-year tenure as coach of the Washington Redskins. But with new owner Daniel M. Snyder in charge, only one tactic will do: Winning.
Failing that -- and making the playoffs, which Snyder has said he fully expects this season -- Turner's run as Redskins coach may very well be over.
Under Snyder, Turner faces what amounts to a 16-week audition for a role he has held since 1994, thanks to the support of late Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who signed him to a contract through 2001. Snyder has said he will keep Turner as his coach this season, but the vote of confidence goes no further. Turner's .400 record (32-47-1) apparently will be overlooked as long as he snaps the team's six-year exile from the postseason.
In a recent interview at Redskin Park, Turner seemed to accept that reality.
"He wants to make the playoffs, and he wants to have success when you get in the playoffs," Turner said of Snyder. "It's what he expects to have happen. It's what Redskins fans expect to have happen. And it's what we've been working to have happen."
Turner has been rebuilding the Redskins since his arrival in Washington. The reconstruction, however, has yet to produce satisfactory results. After inheriting a squad that went 3-13, Turner overhauled the team and led the Redskins to a 9-7 mark three seasons later. Since then, the victories have been more scarce: eight in 1997; six last season.
Turner's latest retooling is his most ambitious. His projected starting lineup this fall reflects a 60 percent turnover from last year's season opener. On offense, six players are either new or at new positions; on defense, seven players are new or at new positions. The net effect, Turner says, is a younger team with more speed and enthusiasm -- factors he views as major weapons. He counts Snyder's vigor as another plus.
"I think he's going to be demanding on everybody -- demanding on me, demanding on the assistant coaches, demanding on the players, demanding on everybody involved in the organization," Turner said. "If that gives us a better chance of wining, I think everyone is going to figure that out real fast, and it's going to be a positive for us."
The events of the past 10 months have been tumultuous for the Redskins. Put on the auction block in September 1998, the team finally sold after a messy bidding process for a record $800 million to Snyder, a 34-year-old communications executive and longtime fan. Team president John Kent Cooke, the presumed heir, was passed over after failing to submit a competitive offer. He has since relocated to Bermuda.
If any of this affected Turner last season, he won't let on. "When you have as much going on as you do during the season," he said, "I don't think it was something that was an issue one way or the other for me or for our coaches."
As for reports that Howard Milstein, the bidder initially chosen to become the team's next owner, was considering firing him, Turner said he simply paid no attention. "The good thing about that entire period, starting in January, was there were so many things that were reported in error that it became very easy to ignore whatever was being said and go do your job," he said.
Turner said he and Snyder have spoken numerous times since May 25, the day Snyder's offer was unanimously approved by the 31 NFL owners. In those conversations, according to sources, Turner has given a thorough analysis of last season's roller-coaster results, from the 0-7 start to the reasonably strong finish. Based on the season's second half, in which the Redskins won six of nine games, Snyder expects to make the playoffs.
"We've been close a couple years," Turner said. "Last year, we looked like we were a long ways away. But last year is last year. And now, it's a new year."
Still, Turner saw strengths amid the losses.
"For parts and segments of games, we played pretty good," he said. "If you go back and look at it, the combination of turning the ball over way too many times and not being able to put four good quarters of football together was the big issues. There are a lot of physically good things that we did."
The turning point, which followed the Week 7 loss to Minnesota, was "a matter of everyone's individual pride," Turner said.
In the final nine games, Turner turned increasingly to younger players -- not so much by design as default. With injuries mounting, he had no choice. To his surprise, many outperformed the starters.
"The one thing I came away with from that was, hey: A player gets hurt or a guy you're counting on can't play for some reason, and the next guy goes in and, shoot, you end up playing better," Turner said. "That's an eye-opener for everybody."
That led to the philosophy that drives the 1999 lineup, which anticipates starting roles for youngsters such as tight end Stephen Alexander, running backs Skip Hicks and Stephen Davis, linebacker Shawn Barber and safety Leomont Evans. The most sweeping change is at linebacker, where Turner will start a trio of 24-year-olds: Derek Smith in the middle, where he succeeds Marvcus Patton, among the veterans not re-signed during free agency; and Barber and Greg Jones on either side.
The emphasis on youth has trimmed the average age of the Redskins' starters from 27.6 in Game 1 last season to 26.3 this season.
The team's real challenge, Turner said, will be protecting quarterback Brad Johnson, who is recovering from arthroscopic surgery performed on his left knee in May. The Redskins gave up a team-record 61 sacks last season, and veteran left tackle Andy Heck, 32, was acquired recently to bring that number down.
That Johnson is a Redskin at all is partly a result of the change in team ownership, which bogged down free agent negotiations in February allowing Trent Green, last year's quarterback, to sign with St. Louis for roughly equal money. Last winter also saw the departure of two members of Turner's coaching staff: Mike Martz (quarterbacks) and Dale Lindsay (linebackers).
More significant, in Turner's mind, are the four or five members of his coaching staff who turned down offers to go elsewhere.
"I think, like me, they believe we've got a chance to be a good football team," Turner said. "When you start a job, you want to see it through. We've obviously had ups and downs, and we've been close. I think being that close gives some guys a feeling: Hey, we can get there."
CAPTION: Norv Turner, 32-47-1 in five seasons with Redskins, likely needs a postseason appearance to keep his job.
CAPTION: Norv Turner said reaching the postseason is what new owner Daniel M. Snyder "expects to have happen."