Turner is NFL's most underappreciated coach

March 24, 2010

The general NFL perception is that the San Diego Chargers have the best overall talent (really not true) and that Norv Turner is merely average, a coach who was run off by two of the game’s most unrealistic owners, Dan Snyder and Al Davis.

The reality is that Turner simply has a better winning percentage (32-16, .667) than two  legendary predecessors in Charger history, Sid Gillman and Don Coryell, while his team won 13 games last season using 62 different players and basically losing five starters in the opener.

“It took us about a month to recover from that,” Turner said of the injuries.

If you do an accounting of the postseason all-star teams, from the Associated Press to Sports Illustrated, six NFL teams had more players named than the Chargers. The Vikings and Colts dominated the awards.

Still, the Chargers went on to win 11 consecutive games and the last time they lost in December was in 2006, or before Turner was coach. But all anybody remembers is that horrible playoff loss at home to the New York Jets, now the home of the franchise’s favorite player of the past decade, LaDainian Tomlinson.

Many blame Turner for that loss. If you remember, he called 18 running plays against the Jets. Basically, he counted on L.T. to give San Diego one final great game. And L.T. knew it was definitely his final home game, but even the emotion of that situation was not enough. On 12 carries, Tomlinson rushed for 24 yards, with a long of five yards. The biggest game of the season and the future Hall of Famer busted out. Yes, he looked like he was running in cement.

Then, on the game’s deciding running play, then-cornerback Antonio Cromartie feigned a tackle of Shonn Greene when the Jets’ rookie RB broke the line of scrimmage. That lack of effort got Cromartie, a former first-round pick, traded. And again, the Jets took this player, one who failed to produce in the big game. “I think he knows he should have made that play,” Turner said of his former cornerback. “One of the biggest problems on plays like that is that it’s repeated and repeated on TV, the Internet, everywhere.”

What’s interesting is that San Diego’s ownership and general manager A.J. Smith value Turner and his coaching staff a lot more than anyone else. Turner received a contract extension in January and really likes his coaching staff. Consider this: Charlie Whitehurst, the third-string quarterback in San Diego, was just traded to Seattle for the Seahawks’ second-round pick (40th overall). Don’t you think that Turner and John Ramsdell, his team’s quarterback coach, deserve some credit for picking Pete Carroll’s pocket?

“I remember talking to (Cardinals coach) Ken Whisenhunt about Whitehurst and he said he always watched him in our preseason games warming up and being impressed with his fundamentals and arm strength,” Turner said. “The Cardinals really wanted to make that trade and it went down to the wire to get Whitehurst.”

A possible outcome is that Turner and Ramsdell coached Whitehurst up so well that the Seattle draft pick could help produce the running back that San Diego definitely needs in next month’s draft.

And there’s recent precedent that San Diego can draft such a runner with that mid-second round pick. In past drafts, Baltimore selected Ray Rice with the 55th overall pick (2008), while Jacksonville took Maurice Jones-Drew with the 60th overall pick in 2006. Both made the Pro Bowl in January.

Clemson’s C.J Spiller will be long gone, but runners like Fresno State’s Ryan Matthews, Cal’s Jahvid Best, Auburn’s Ben Tate, USC’s Joe McKnight and Stanford’s Toby Gerhart could be available when San Diego picks at No. 28 in the first round, or even later. Turner won’t tip his hand on his preference, but you have to believe he wants a runner who can also catch and pass protect while being the 20-carries a game workhorse the Chargers need to complement Darren Sproles.

There is no doubt that San Diego fans have been spoiled by the Chargers for both success and entertainment: winners of four straight AFC West titles, scoring 20 or more points in 22 consecutive games. They swept the mighty NFC East, this past season, finishing 7-1 on the road. This is proof of the physical and mental toughness of Turner's team.

And the best example that the Chargers were well-coached last season? They committed only 78 penalties, the fewest in franchise history since 1976, a 14-game season.

So the expectations will remain high for Turner and the Chargers in 2010.

“Yes, we had a special year and our guys expected it to happen for us,” Turner said. “But it didn’t; we didn’t get it done. We didn’t make any game-changing plays in that game. I still believe we have a very resilient team. We’ve been pounding on that (Super Bowl) door. When we come back, we have to knock it over.”

Turner truly believes that his team will come back stronger next season and determined to reach the ultimate goal. Key stars like QB Philip Rivers and LB Shawne Merriman have no serious injuries to rehab, allowing them to focus instead on complete fitness.

“When you’re dealing with a serious knee injury or something of that nature, a player tends to ignore other areas,” Turner said. “Shawne had a bunch of nagging injuries last season, but I expect him to be closer to his former self next year.”

There is a need for major replacement parts for nose tackle Jamaal Williams, a dominant player only two seasons ago, and Cromartie, a very good cover cornerback. The Broncos jumped on Williams during free agency, but he wasn’t worth $6 million a year to the Chargers, based on his injury history. The club also believes that Antoine Cason, who played poorly as a nickel back, will be more comfortable at Cromartie’s cornerback position.

The Chargers are in a good place. Now it’s all up to Smith to draft the right running back. Turner loves to run the ball – 13 times in his 18 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator his unit had a rusher finish in the top 10 – but last season wasn’t one of them.