SAN DEIGO – A.J. Smith missed the irony.
Nestled in his office on Thursday and dissecting last season's playoff collapse, the San Diego Chargers general manager proved a deft surgeon from behind his sprawling maple desk. He threw out numbers and made analogies. He spun ideologies. And predictably, he took thinly veiled shots at former head coach Marty Schottenheimer.
And after about 30 minutes, he got to his point.
"We have failed," Smith said. "We are 0-2 in the postseason in my current position. That's all I see is that 0-2, and I'm not happy with that. What have we gotten out of this football team? Nothing. Why? I have a theory why …
"I'll say it now, I'll say it five years from now and I'll say it when I'm retired and somebody finds me in a little bungalow in Hawaii: The differences between myself and Coach Schottenheimer on how to win a world championship were galaxies apart."
And therein lies the irony of the Chargers this season. Despite boasting league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, eight Pro Bowlers and a 14-2 record last season, San Diego's fertile roster once again bore no postseason fruit under Schottenheimer. So to solve the problem of playoff failure, Smith's answer was to hire a man who has had a notoriously lousy record as a head coach. Schottenheimer won two AFC West titles in three seasons but couldn't win in the playoffs. Now he's replaced with Norv Turner, who managed one playoff berth in nine seasons as a head coach in the NFL.
"People say to me why would you hire a loser?" Smith said. "Well, I'm familiar with our previous coach and I'm familiar with Norv Turner. I've read both of those books. My point is: Norv has not worked with the Chargers and has not worked with me together in this present capacity."
Now the general manager who saved one of the league's worst franchises thinks he can turn around one of the NFL's historically flagging head coaching careers. And like every other Smith project met with public resistance, you get the feeling he likes being told that he's crazy to try it. Just like it was ludicrous to trade Eli Manning for a package that included Philip Rivers, and just like it was insane for the Chargers to pass up on Michael Vick in the 2001 NFL draft.
But unlike those previous moves, this season's coaching change had been looming on the horizon for months, if not two years. Even in training camp last year, when a Chargers team administrator was approached by Yahoo! Sports, he predicted two certainties in the Smith/Schottenheimer relationship: that the head coach would be fired, and that Cottrell would be a member of the Chargers' coaching staff heading into the 2007 season. Lo and behold, Schottenheimer is gone and Cottrell – out of coaching in '06 but an assistant in the '90s while Smith was with the Bills – is now San Diego's defensive coordinator.
Not that anyone could have predicted the circumstances that led to Turner's hiring. Indeed, his candidacy for the job required an almost cosmic aligning. Essentially, it took San Diego losing both of its coordinators and some key positional coaches to other jobs to leave the Chargers' cupboard bare of internal candidates. And for the first time in several years, there was a dearth of other prime head-coaching candidates floating around without jobs.
Once Smith added it all up, he came to the conclusion that finding coaches who mirrored San Diego's current offensive and defensive schemes was more important than finding coaches who were popular. The result was Cottrell, who is a natural fit for the attacking 3-4 style employed by former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. And on the offensive end it was Turner, the Chargers offensive coordinator in 2001 whose balanced scheme matches the attack employed over the past five years by Cam Cameron – who was on Turner's coaching staff in Washington.
"Coach Turner has been running basically the same system for years, and you see what he's done with quarterbacks in it," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "And he teaches it and coaches it the way I like to play. That's with a lot of passion and some of that backyard mentality within the system.
"We may have scored the most points in the league last season, but I think it's fair to expect growth. But that growth, it can't always show on paper with statistics. We hope we grow, because whatever we were last season, we weren't good enough to get it done."
Whether Turner is the coach who facilitates growth and improvement remains to be seen. As it stands, the national perception is that a winning lottery ticket has fallen into his lap. After washing out with the Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders and accruing a 58-82-1 record (and going 1-1 in the playoffs), he has been gifted a young and talent packed roster that is just hitting the prime of its Super Bowl contending window. A reality that Turner readily admitted "comes with a lot of responsibility".
"You always look at something in the simplest manner on the surface level, and from the outside, I'd look at it (as a stroke of luck) too," Turner said. "But when you get into something, you understand the reality of it and the process that's involved."
"It doesn't bother me that people perceive me as being lucky to have this job. I've been through all the different scenarios as a coach. And none of it really matters in the here and now. What matters is me going out and doing what I can on Sunday."
Even before seeing what wrinkles Turner has in store, the simple act of closing the book on the Schottenheimer era might be a step in the right direction. As linebacker Shawne Merriman put it: "That whole situation was crazy, but we're so far past that now. We've been waiting for the next thing for a while now."
While Smith declined to elaborate on why his ideologies didn't match up with Schottenheimer's, his descriptions of Turner tell the story.
"He knows how to put the ball into a playmaker's hands on a consistent basis," Smith said of Turner. "I don't think he's cautious. I don't think he's conservative. I don't think he's reckless.
"There are five or six times in a game – and it's even more pressure packed in the postseason – where key decisions are made to turn the tide of a ballgame. I believe Norv has the ability to make sound decisions. I don't think he's a panic guy. He's an even keel guy. And I believe if you give him good players, good things are going to happen."
Turner's primary charge outside of winning in the playoffs will be continuing the development of Rivers, who posted a 92.0 quarterback rating and threw 22 touchdowns en route to Pro Bowl honors in only his first year as a starter. But as good as those numbers were, there is an assumption in the locker room that Rivers is ready to take a major leap forward, much the way Carson Palmer did between his first and second seasons as a starter with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I think he's going to be up there with the best in the league," tight end Antonio Gates said. "I think he's ready for that. One thing that I learned early about him is that he loves to compete and be in that kind of situation with those expectations. He's already got the respect of this locker room. Next is the respect of the league. He's ready to take that step."
Gates smiled and considered that thought for a second.
"We're behind him. I think we're all ready to take that next step."
- Norv Turner
- Marty Schottenheimer
- San Diego