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Striking comeback

Chargers' strong finish helps Turner win over skeptics

Email|Print| Text size + By Jim McCabe
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

SAN DIEGO - So often in the fickle world of NFL coaching, the end comes on the heels of a bitter season or a clash with a star player. Then again, sometimes it arrives with a slam of the door and the screams of a petulant owner.

Strike one in his head coaching career? Not from where Norv Turner sits. First of all, "I don't count [the chances] as one, two, three," said Turner.

But if you insist on that perspective, he feels compelled to set the record straight about the way his seven-year run came to an end with the Washington Redskins in 2000. In the aftermath of a 9-7 loss to the Giants, Daniel Snyder, then in his second year as owner of the Redskins, demanded a meeting with Turner.

Forget that the Redskins were 7-6 and had three winnable games coming up. Forget even that the franchise's most heated rival, Dallas, was next. Forget, too, that the team had won the NFC East the previous season, 10-6 with a wild-card game victory before being squeezed out, 14-13, by Tampa Bay. Forget that Turner was popular with his players and arguably one of the game's brightest coaching minds.

Certainly, Snyder forgot all of that. With cobra-like swiftness, Snyder fired Turner. Even for those close to the scene who understood how tension had escalated during the season (Snyder basically forced quarterback Jeff George on Turner, thus creating dissension within the ranks, because Brad Johnson was secure as the starter), the firing was a stunner.

Just don't call it strike one.

"When you've been to the playoffs the year before and you've got a winning record in the middle of the year, then you're not fired," he said. "That had nothing to do with football. That had nothing to do with my ability to coach. That had to do with my situation with the ownership."

His words had been delivered with a passive rhythm, not because the departure from the Redskins grates at him, but because he had been asked if he feels he's been one of the fortunate ones in this coaching carousel. Some don't ever get a shot at a head job. Others get one, maybe two. But Tur ner? When the Chargers called last spring and offered him a third tour of duty as a head coach, he wasted little time with a positive response. So, yes, he most definitely feels fortunate.

Especially since he and the Chargers sit one game away from the Super Bowl.

Long, winding road

"I think the biggest thing for me is, having had the first two experiences, I just wanted to coach," said Turner, whose idle time post-Washington can be measured in days, which is a testament to the respect he commands.

He had assistant jobs with San Diego (2001) and Miami (2002-03) before agreeing to be head coach in Oakland for 2004-05. Call them turbulent seasons, which is often the case for coaches under Al Davis, and if you suggest that it was strike one, well, Turner is OK with that. But it didn't hinder his career path, because he quickly moved to the other side of the bay and settled in nicely as Mike Nolan's offensive coordinator with the 49ers.

If the phone never rang again, Turner would have been a happy man. He's a Bay Area guy, unpretentious and content with how he's conducted himself throughout his career.

"I loved what I was doing in San Francisco," said Turner. "I wasn't pursuing any situation."

Instead, a situation pursued him. It was the head job in San Diego, and the fact that it had become available presented contrasting parameters that Turner couldn't ignore. On one hand, his one year there had brought him into contact with LaDainian Tomlinson, and Turner appreciated the young man's uncanny skills and was cognizant of the wide array of offensive firepower that would be at his disposal. But on the other hand, the Chargers, even under the guidance of proven commodity Marty Schottenheimer, had been one of the league's biggest disappointments, a colorful and talented team with more baggage than an overseas flight.

When he weighed it all, however, Turner was struck by one resounding sentiment. "This situation was very unusual," he said. "It was a great opportunity and certainly you appreciate opportunities. I've always had, fortunately, people who've shown an interest."

And so he took the job, not so much concerned about the pressure as he was excited about the endless possibilities available to an offensive mind that some contend is unsurpassed.

"He's got the ability to recognize a player's strengths and an uncanny ability to call plays, to know what the defense is going to give you," said Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, twice a Super Bowl champion under the tutelage of Turner, his offensive coordinator with the Cowboys in 1991-93. "He's remarkable in that way."

Aikman recalled how Turner had come over from the Los Angeles Rams, where he was wide receivers and tight ends coach for six seasons after a successful eight-year run as an assistant at the University of Southern California. With the Rams, Turner had developed pass routes that played to the strength of a big, strong-armed quarterback, Jim Everett.

"He could throw the 'pass-corner' route very well," said Aikman, "but for me, it was not something that worked."

So Turner went with what he called the "four-route" and Aikman used the system with enormous success.

"For me, it was a strength I had and Norv recognized that. He's a big reason for my success, which is why I had him as my presenter [at his Hall of Fame induction]," said Aikman.

Using his Super Bowl success with Dallas as a springboard, Turner landed as head coach in Washington in 1994. While it will never go down as the most distinguished of tenures, the years with the Redskins brought him into contact with more NFL people, which in turn enhanced his stature in the eyes of many.

"I think if you talk or listen to any of the other people who have been with him," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, "there's nothing but a high regard for Norv - as a football coach, as a strategist."

Considered an easygoing though emotional guy, Turner has been described as "cerebral," but if at times he seems aloof, it's because he's seemingly in constant thought. He has, after all, never met a napkin he didn't turn over so he could diagram a play.

"Some people would like him to be more of a taskmaster, but he's one of the better offensive minds who has come along in a long time," said Joe Mack, who has held front office positions with the Redskins and Panthers. "I used to love watching Norv go up against [defensive specialist] Bud Carson. As an assistant, Norv was a great coach. I'm surprised he hasn't had as much success as a head coach, to be honest with you."

Seeing is believing

Ah, yes. The record. It was what critics pointed to when Turner was named as Schottenheimer's replacement. His seven years in Washington and two in Oakland had translated into 58-82-1 and that didn't exactly send the local football citizenry dancing in the streets of La Jolla. It was understandable, but Mack looked at it differently.

"Bill Belichick is one of the great head coaches ever, but if you judged his body of work based on his job in Cleveland, that wouldn't be the case," said Mack.

It's sounds logical, but who pays attention to logic when a talent-laden team is 1-3, which is where the Chargers stood in September. Instead, Charger fans serenaded Turner with choruses of "Marty . . . Marty . . . Marty" in a home loss to Kansas City, and even the usually laid-back Southern California media took aim.

"They were brutal on us," said Chargers center Nick Hardwick. "They were killing us."

Turner could turn the tables now, given that he's won eight straight games and marched the Chargers into the AFC Championship game tomorrow against the Patriots, but that's not his style. Instead, to the myriad questions that have come his way regarding the dramatic turnaround, he merely slumps his shoulders, bows his head, and kicks at the dirt.

"We just started playing better," he said, and while in our thirst to have answers with more depth and color we might be disappointed with such a reply, the fact is Turner has a firm grip on the situation.

"It's interesting to look at when we were 1-2 and the sky was falling, that two of those losses [to Green Bay and New England] were to two of the teams that are getting ready to play this weekend," said Turner. "And they're pretty good."

As is his team, he could have added.

Jim McCabe can be reached at jmccabe@globe.com.

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