The news out of Redskin Park that Norv Turner will be back to coach the team next season reminded me of my first conversation with Daniel Snyder. It was just after he was approved by the NFL, and I asked him how in the world he expected an outfit that had missed the playoffs for six straight seasons to be any different this season. Snyder said: "Sometimes, an overhaul isn't needed as much as getting better results out of the same people. To that end, sometimes it's best to apply pressure." He kept coming back to that phrase, a second, a third time: "apply pressure."
At the time, it seemed fairly sinister. Like he was going to take Norv and his assistants to a torture chamber. Folks such as Terry Bradshaw took the phrase literally, and spent week after week screaming that Snyder should get out of the way--or be thrown out of the way--and let Norv do his thing, as if that had worked the last five years. Well, it's been only one season, and the Redskins aren't exactly sitting on top of the world. And although the relationship has had rocky moments, the results suggest the Snyder-Turner partnership is working more effectively than most of us dreamed it would. Is keeping Turner a good idea? Probably, as long as Snyder doesn't change his style too much. And as long as Turner is proactive in dramatically improving the defense and special teams.
At the beginning of the season, Snyder said Turner needed to get the Redskins into the playoffs to keep his job, and yesterday he made good on his word, saying that Turner will be back. This might come as a shock in some quarters, given the national perception of Snyder. The Redskins owner has quite a rep around the NFL. He's seen pretty much as a cross between Jerry Jones, George Steinbrenner and George S. Patton. I've had at least a half-dozen players and former players in Detroit, Indianapolis and San Francisco ask me, "How can Norv stand that guy?"
Well, making good on a preseason promise is a better start than many owners are capable of. It's not as if Snyder had left Norv out there flapping in the breeze. "It wasn't a matter of making up my mind; we had a goal and we achieved the goal," Snyder said.
The first year of the Snyder-Turner relationship has been a relative success. How can I say that, what with Snyder looking over Turner's shoulder every day, with the owner meeting with players? Easy. Results. Applying pressure seems to be working. Without it, the Redskins went home after the holidays. With it, they're going to the playoffs as division champions.
Relationships between owners and coaches don't have to be conventional, just productive. You think Jack Kent Cooke didn't make Joe Gibbs crazy at times? Snyder and Turner will figure each other out as they go. Snyder will know when to give his coach some room. Turner will know when the owner needs to step on some toes, lay down some demands, apply some more pressure. The last thing a franchise needs is for the two most important men at the top to be cut from the same cloth, as John Cooke and Turner seemed to be. A professional football team isn't supposed to be a comfortable place. The teams that have had the greatest success have men who sometimes make what seem like extreme demands. If the coach can accomplish that all by himself, fine. But we didn't see that for the past five years, did we? If the owner can help in that regard, fine.
Is there reason to think that Turner, six years into his tenure here, can still evolve into the coach of a championship outfit? Perhaps, but with the right conditions. Remember the phrase "late bloomer"? Remember when the prevailing wisdom was that it took five years to get a quarterback ready to be a first-rate starter in the NFL? Now, we want everybody to be Peyton Manning. If a guy can't make the Pro Bowl in his second year, what good is he? Patience isn't a virtue in sports, it's a sin.
But maybe Turner is a late bloomer, a guy who needed time to develop, to grow into the job of head coach. More time than most of us would like to give, granted. But maybe Turner is a different coach than he was for the more laid-back, hands-off John Cooke. Maybe Turner has learned some hard-boiled lessons these six seasons. And maybe, just maybe, the new owner's pressure brings out the best in him.
One thing Turner has for the first time is a real quarterback. Brad Johnson makes a world of difference. Turner's offensive system is heavily dependent on a smart, veteran quarterback. I was dead wrong in thinking the club gave up too much to get Johnson from the Vikings, because he has been healthy and incredibly productive all season. And the acquisition of veterans Marco Coleman, Larry Centers and Irving Fryar is critical. Yes, there are still missing pieces. But sometimes you win, then you get good. That's probably the case with the Redskins. Truth is, they've struggled to win a very weak division. It's a fact that the Redskins lost to the best teams on their schedule, and defeated only the sorry ones, such as the Cardinals and 49ers. The Cowboys, who beat the Redskins twice, are terrible.
But the confidence that often comes from winning (regardless of the circumstances), plus those three first-round draft picks the club is sitting on put the team in position to be a solid contender for the next three to five years. Making the playoffs, remember, is just a baby step in the big picture. "That's the first goal; there are many more," Snyder said yesterday.
In other words, the bar has just been raised for Turner and the Redskins. The schedule is going to be tougher. Expectations will be greater. Snyder will probably need to apply even more pressure for the team to reach these new goals. His coach and his team have responded to the first dose of pressure favorably. Why stop now? Why change the coach now?
Road to Turner's Title
Norv Turner will return for a seventh season as head coach of the Redskins. His record thus far:
1994 3-13 5th, NFC East
1995 6-10 3rd, NFC East
1996 9-7 3rd, NFC East
1997 8-7-1 2nd, NFC East
1998 6-10 4th, NFC East
1999 9-6 NFC East champions
Totals 41-53-1 .437 winning percentage