The Chargers disappointing 2011 season is in the rear view mirror and all eyes in the organization are focused sharply on what needs to be done in the coming months to build a championship caliber team. 2012 is a must-win year for the Chargers for a number of reasons, and every organizational decision will be crucial to the success of the team and the future of professional football in San Diego.
The following is part one of a nine-part series analyzing every position from the front office to the defensive backfield.
Coaches and Front Office
Team President Dean Spanos began 2012 by making the widely unpopular decision to stay the course with General Manager A.J. Smith and Head Coach Norv Turner. Despite missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the man constructing the roster and the man charged with coaching it were both retained.
In analyzing the decision to keep the current administration intact, it’s important to reflect upon the ineptitude that put their jobs in jeopardy in the first place. If the Chargers had sufficiently talented personnel, as acquired and retained by their general manager, and got the most out of their players through good coaching and game management, this situation would be moot. With that said, let’s review what has happened in respect to coaching and personnel decisions since the last time a decision of this magnitude was considered.
The Chargers finished 2006 at 14-2 and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the AFC. The season ended with a disappointing loss to the Patriots. General Manager A.J. Smith convinced Dean Spanos that head coach Marty Schottenheimer had taken the Chargers as far as he could, and a new head coach was needed to achieve their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl.
Enter Norv Tuner, a brilliant offensive coordinator with a combined 58-82-1 record as a head coach. While Turner will always be associated with helping the ultra talented Dallas Cowboys of the early 90s win two Super Bowls, his stints as head coach of the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders ended in utter failure.
Fast forward five seasons and the Chargers are about as close to winning a Super Bowl as A.J. Smith is to winning a popularity contest. Speculation was that Spanos would definitely fire Norv Turner and at least consider moving forward without the services of A.J. Smith. The overwhelming opinion of fans and local media is that Turner has failed to inspire maximum potential from his players, and Smith has failed to maintain a high level of talent due to questionable free agent decisions and inconsistent drafts.
Smith is credited with being the architect who transformed the Chargers from cellar dwellers to perennial playoff contenders through great drafts and shrewd free-agent decisions. However, the argument could be made that Smith's last successful draft was in 2005 and his recent failures in free agency have the Chargers trending in the wrong direction. His handling of high profile players like Donnie Edwards, Drew Brees, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles has left fans scratching their heads.
In retrospect, Brees should have been traded after his Pro Bowl season in 2004. Michael Turner should have been re-signed or at least franchise tagged so the Chargers could have received better compensatory draft picks. The biggest blunder for Smith has to be franchise tagging Darren Sproles for consecutive seasons in 2009 and 2010 to the tune of nearly $15 million. The New Orleans Saints signed Sproles to a four-year, $14 million contract. For roughly the same amount of money the Chargers could have retained Sproles’ rights for an additional two seasons. If only A.J. Smith knew then what he knows now.
Should the Chargers have fired A.J. Smith, Norv Turner or both?
Fans and media were stunned when Spanos decided to retain both Turner and Smith despite the team’s disappointing downturn. Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I’m not saying Dean Spanos is insane; but I am suggesting that Albert Einstein might define him as such.
The knock on Turner has been that his personality is not suited for motivating players and that his insistence on coordinating the offense negatively affects his ability to manage the game. The perception that Turner is not a motivator doesn't appear to be a reality, as nearly everyone in the Chargers organization describes his locker room manner as vastly different from the aloof demeanor he exudes in interviews and press conferences. In terms of game management, Spanos and Smith both acknowledged Norv could use some help.
Like him or hate him, Norv Turner puts points on the board when he’s calling an offense. However in doing so, he lacks the required concentration to make game management decisions that affect the outcome of contests. In 2012 Turner will have assistance in that department. In addition to amending special teams coach Rich Bisaccia’s title to include assistant head coach, the Chargers also reached outside the organization to bring in former St. Louis Rams offensive assistant, Steve Fairchild. to serve as senior offensive assistant/special assignments.
Translation, Norv will continue to call plays but will now have not one, but two assistants helping make critical game-day decisions like calling time outs, challenging plays, making substitutions and other miscellaneous duties. Sure this essentially reduces Turner to an offensive coordinator, but it’s also playing to the man’s strengths and providing the best opportunity for success.
Head coach and general manager were not the only jobs in question for 2012. The Chargers defense underperformed and the popular opinion was that changes needed to be made in terms of personnel and coaching. First-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky became the first casualty of the 2012 offseason when he was fired on January 5. While it should be noted that injuries and lack of depth on defense where a liability, Manusky failed to produce the aggressive attacking style defense he promised. Linebackers coach John Pagano was promoted as Manusky’s replacement. Pagano was rumored to be headed to UCLA to assume the same position with the Bruins.
2012 will be Pagano’s 11th season with the Chargers and 16th as a defensive coach in the NFL. The move to promote Pagano now is puzzling. If the Chargers thought highly enough of him why wasn't he promoted to replace Ron Rivera last offseason when the job was available? I’m not suggesting that Pagano is not deserving; after all he has certainly served his time as a defensive assistant, and is part of a coaching family that include his father Sam, who coached high school football for nearly three decades, and his brother Chuck, who was recently hired as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Ready or not, Pagano is now charged with improving a defense that largely disappointed last season.
Other coaching changes include the resignation of offensive coordinator Clarence Shelmon and the departure of secondary coach Steve Wilks, who took the same position with the Carolina Panthers. Offensive line coach Hal Hunter had offensive coordinator added to his title as a replacement for Shelmon, and Ron Meeks was hired to replace Wiks as secondary coach. Former Buccaneers and USC assistant, Joe Barry, was hired to replace Pagano as linebackers coach.
With the coaching staff set, the Chargers are now preparing for free agency and the 2012 draft. Stay tuned for the continuation of this series on the Chargers 2012 offseason.