The head coach of the San Diego Chargers, Norv Turner, has had a peculiar career with the team. He has led San Diego to three playoff victories in two years while overcoming inopportune injuries to core players (Philip Rivers, Ladainian Tomlinson, and Antonio Gates have all both missed games and played hobbled across the last two postseasons). As a Charger he has never lost in December.
Yet he has also helmed a team that has repeatedly underwhelmed in the face of high expectations to start each year. The 2008 Chargers won the AFC West despite a 4-8 start and 8-8 record thanks to a monumental collapse by the Denver Broncos to close the year. The team has favored for deep playoff runs every year since before he took over, yet has never been to a super bowl.
Taking the team to a 2-3 start this year coupled with another hot start by the Denver Broncos, calls for Turner’s head reached crescendo level. With a milquetoast personality that makes him easy to attack, and the circumstances surrounding his arrival Turner, has had a hard time winning fans over in Chargertown.
On the heels of losing their first playoff game in the second round, Marty Schottenheimer’s 14-2 San Diego Chargers were looking to rebound from yet another disappointing playoffs. The team had been putting up consistently good regular seasons for three years, but had failed to translate it into any playoff results.
It briefly appeared San Diego would retain Schottenheimer for one more year, but following both coordinators leaving for head coaching jobs(Cam Cameron for a disastrous year with Miami, Wade Phillips for an ongoing roller coaster with Dallas) Schottenheimer was sent packing by general manager AJ Smith with whom the relationship had always been testy.
The move was not extremely popular. Had he been let go immediately following the playoffs, the sting of that upset would have been fresh enough for fans to be more accepting. Instead time enough had been given not to heal the wound, but at least for it to become bandaged. The offseason head coaching spree had already seen the bulk of top candidates finding their homes and pickings seemed modest.
Instead of pursuing a hot up and comer, AJ Smith signed coaching veteran Norv Turner. Turner was a highly successful offensive coordinator who had yet to have success at the top level in stints with Oakland and (Washington?). The signing of Turner was immediately pounced upon. His past resume at the head coaching level was not compelling and the man he was replacing was still fairly popular both among fans and within the Chargers organization.
He took a 14-2 Chargers team to an 11-5 record, but managed something in his first playoff game that Schottenheimer had been unable to, a postseason victory. The Chargers were eliminated by the eventual AFC Superbowl representative in both of Norv Turner’s postseasons, first to the New England Patriots and then to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The result was given mixed reviews, especially 2008’s loss in which the team showed a vulnerability to physical teams, being out-muscled by Pittsburgh to end its mediocre year.
With the team seeming to have peaked or started a downturn, it was easy to want to lump blame onto Turner. He was not a particularly popular pick to begin with, had posted a consistent decline in the team’s win-loss column, and gone 10-11 during the 2008 to early 2009 seasons. A website dedicated to firing Turner cropped up and “Norv-hate” was at an all time high.
What was not considered was a team adjusting to major injuries (an out one year ineffective the next Shawne Merriman, no Jamal Williams in 2009, no Nick Hardwick for 17 of the last 24 games, etc.) and finding its own way. Support from Chargers management was written away as AJ Smith enjoying his opportunity to be the dominant personality.
After all of this something happened. The team discovered its identity, finally finding the balance between supporting a high-powered air assault with a solid-enough ground attack, using hard hitting safeties to harass opposing quarterbacks in lieu of a strong front seven pass rush, and through it all putting up twenty plus points every night.
The 11-3 Chargers now look their most dangerous since that 14-2 year. The difference however, is that the team is also more grounded. They have a history to turn to whenever the playoffs are discussed, a history that gives the team a chip on its shoulder instead of an overconfident swagger.
They may have ascended to third in the bulk of NFL power rankings (such as foxsports.com, espn.com), but play and perform as if they were a plucky fourth seed looking to topple the other giants of the league. That blend, as well as the array of developed weapons (in years past a stalled Tomlinson meant a catatonic offense), makes this a strong, solid team looking forward to a great postseason run.
With all this, why do I hate Norv Turner? Because he is doing a great job of proving people wrong. Disliking his first hire, questioning his remaining with the team after 2008 and early into 2009, he is on pace to translate this year into one of the team’s best regular seasons.
No matter what has been thrown at him, he has adapted. He has lead the team past debilitating injuries, the fall from prominence of the team’s hall of fame offensive leader, and a front seven unable to consistently put up the numbers expected of it. Norv has managed to do something in this streak that he had been unable to through his first two years and five games as a head coach. He has earned my trust in his stewardship over the team.