Coaching Coalition: Chargers Brain Trust to Field Top-Level Product

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Coaching Coalition: Chargers Brain Trust to Field Top-Level Product
(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Every NFL team has an identity and for most that is the head coach.

 

While Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson personify the club on the field, it is Norv Turner who provides the underlying fundamentals of what it currently means to be the Chargers. The players know it, opponents know it, the fans know it.

 

He may also have his detractors as evidenced by web sites such as firenorv.net, but Turner has the Chargers poised to do what no other team in franchise history has done: win four straight AFC West titles. He's also only one of three head coaches to take a Chargers team as far as the conference championship.

 

Coaches usually have an affinity for one side of the ball or the other and Turner's is offense. No shock there; he was quarterback at Oregon from 1972-74 and played behind Dan Fouts.

 

It's the offense, then, to which Turner has devoted the bulk of his attention as a professional coach.

 

Turner has worked under John Robinson three times, first as a player at Oregon, then at USC and later with the Los Angeles Rams. He coached wide receivers, defensive backs and quarterbacks at 'SC before getting his first offensive coordinator position there in 1984 under Ted Tollner. Robinson had bolted for the pros two years earlier and Turner followed him to the Rams in 1985.

 

It is to that period that Turner has traced the roots of his current offense.

 

As wide receivers coach with the Rams and later tight ends, Turner absorbed the concepts of a power running back combined with a down-field passing attack.  Providing further mentorship was Ernie Zampese, the Rams offensive coordinator who earlier paired with Don Coryell to create the Chargers aerial circus under Fouts.

 

Turner's first pro offensive coordinator job saw those ideas blossom under the Dallas dynasty of the early 90s, helping guide Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and company to a pair of Super Bowl titles. There he also perfected the idea of passing first to set up the run.

 

What followed was his first taste as head coach and the results were not as favorable as Turner compiled a 49-59-1 mark with the Redskins from 1994-2000. Offensive coordinator jobs ensued, including LT's first year in San Diego (2001) before Turner landed his second head spot. This time in Oakland, but the results were not any better:  two years and a 9-23 mark.

 

The hiring of Turner to take over the Chargers in February, 2007 was met with skepticism, mainly that his skills matched that of a coordinator and not a head coach. While he's managed a 19-13 record in two seasons, there are some other numbers to consider.

 

Turner has a 12-2 mark in December and January, and is 9-0 in December as head coach of the Chargers.

 

But offensive production is of lesser concern for the 2009 Chargers than defensive pressure.

 

An underperforming group a year ago led to the midseason hiring of Ron Rivera to replace Ted Cottrell as defensive coordinator. The team responded by allowing fewer yards, fewer points, and winning more games over the regular season's final eight contests.

 

Rivera's career has been defined by the Chicago Bears.

 

First as a linebacker and a member of the 46 Defense devised by Buddy Ryan, Rivera was part of a group that simply plowed through opponents en route to the title in Super Bowl XX. Rivera was also defensive coordinator of the Bears from 2004-2006, capping that assignment with a berth in Super Bowl XLI.

 

His defensive aptitude was apparent quickly, though, helping to develop Jeremiah Trotter in Philadelphia during his run as linebackers coach from 1999-2003, a period that also saw the Eagles advance to three straight NFC Championship games.

 

Rivera's defense is not quite as exotic as the 46, one that often put both outside linebackers on the same side of the ball and could bring as many as eight players to rush the quarterback.  In addition to Ryan, Rivera has been influenced by Jim Johnson in Philadelphia and Lovie Smith in Chicago. Though he's a proponent of the more traditional 4-3 defensive alignment, Rivera will have some intriguing pieces to utilize with the likely return of Shawne Merriman and the arrival of Larry English.

 

The main duties of the offensive coordinator are not only to devise the team's offensive scheme and game plan but to call the plays. In San Diego, those duties are largely the domain of Turner so OC Clarence Shelmon's chores are mainly to look at something that works and make it better.

 

A healthy LT will make a lot of people look better and the word is the groin strain is no longer an issue. Getting Tomlinson back to fuel the power running game will only add to the explosiveness of the offense that sees Rivers returning from his best year as a starter.

 

Adding Darren Sproles into the mix beyond the occasional screen pass could be Shelmon's greatest contribution in 2009.

 

Shelmon and Turner both will get a hand from Rob Chudzinski, the new tight ends coach. Chudzinski held the same post in San Diego from 2005-06, but now carries the additional title of assistant head coach.  He will help on the offensive side, but is expected to shoulder other coaching duties as well to free up Turner.

 

Rivera has also reached out for assistance, tabbing Don Johnson as defensive line coach and Steve Wilks to coach the secondary. The three worked together in Chicago and Johnson most recently was the D-line coach in Oakland while Wilks coached defensive backs with the Bears.

 

Nate Kaeding, Mike Scifres, Kassim Osgood and Sproles can make any coach look good, but special teams coach Steve Crosby will play a critical role early as the team adjusts to new blocking rules on kickoffs.

 

While it's the players who ultimately count come game day, the Chargers coaching staff has developed greater cohesion for the third year under Turner.

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