If things go poorly for Norv Turner on Thursday night in San Diego, he reportedly could be unemployed Friday. And if Turner gets pink-slipped while A.J. Smith continues on as the Chargers' general manager, I'm going to question the wisdom of team president Dean Spanos – all day, every day.
Turner, who on Monday told reporters he was coaching "on a week-to-week basis," may be fighting for his job when the 3-4 Chargers host the 1-6 Kansas City Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium. San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Kevin Acee told profootballtalk.com on Thursday that a Chargers loss could trigger Turner's immediate departure, with special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia taking over as interim coach.
That would be a terrible idea, on many levels. Globally, going interim is seldom a wise course of action – I'll get to that a bit later. And in this specific case, scapegoating Turner for Smith's sins would be downright preposterous.
For starters, the roster assembled in recent years by Smith is pretty far from championship caliber. These are not your big brother's Chargers, who had 11 Pro Bowl players in 2006, the year before Turner arrived. That team had beasts like LaDainian Tomlinson, Shawne Merriman, Jamal Williams, Antonio Gates (in his prime) and Kris Dielman. How many flat-out game-changers are on the current team?
Then there's the long list, which most Chargers fans can recite by rote, of the players that got away under Smith's watch. Among the highlights (or lowlights): Drew Brees, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Laurent Robinson and Antonio Cromartie.
If anything, Turner's coaching – via masterful play-calling and the development of Philip Rivers – propped up the Chargers in the latter part of the last decade, forestalling a flameout that would have left Smith (among others) unemployed long ago.
Now that San Diego seems headed for a third consecutive season of missing the playoffs, is Smith actually trying to save himself by throwing Turner under the bus with a straight face?
And, if so, is Spanos actually falling for it?
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Chargers' current roster is top-shelf, and that Turner – in the eyes of Spanos and Smith – is the man responsible for the team's recent failings. Under that line of logic, shouldn't the general manager be even more culpable for the current state of affairs?
After all, it was Smith whose disdain for Marty Schottenheimer helped put in motion the tough-to-fathom coaching change following the '06 season, a full month after the 14-2 Chargers were upset by the New England Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.
For you young readers, or those of you who were in the Peace Corps or otherwise indisposed, let me repeat that: Marty Schottenheimer coached the Chargers to a league-best 14-2 record in 2006, then got fired. Yes. That happened.
Spanos had his own reasons for making the move, but the discord between Schottenheimer and Smith – who refused to speak to the coach during their final season together – played a major role. At the time, Spanos referred to the situation as "dysfunctional." The hiring of Turner, on Smith's recommendation, was supposed to change that, while allowing the Chargers to remain among the league's elite.
If ever a general manager and coach should be joined at the hip, Smith and Turner are those people. The notion that Turner might get torpedoed even a day earlier than his GM is a complete injustice. If anything, I could make an argument that Smith should be the first to go, and that Turner should get another eight games to try to coach his way out of this mess.
Even if you disagree with me and believe that Turner is the wrong coach for the Chargers, firing him now would be a bad idea. To me, there is very little upside when bringing in an interim coach. Often, an immediate bounce ends up clouding an owner's thinking and negatively impacts the long-term interests of the franchise.
In recent years, we've seen this happen in Oakland, where Al Davis replaced Lane Kiffin with Tom Cable in October of 2008. No one who has worked with Cable had ever regarded him as head-coach material, but the Raiders had a decent showing down the stretch and Davis decided to keep him.
Bad idea: Cable presided over a pathetically underachieving offense (until Hue Jackson was brought in as coordinator before the 2010 season) while embarrassing the franchise with his off-the-field behavior. The latter humiliation was cited by Davis when the late owner fired Cable after the 2010 season and was one reason he was so excited by his decision to promote Jackson before he passed away last fall.
Later in October of '08, there was another abrupt coaching change across the Bay: The San Francisco 49ers got rid of Mike Nolan and promoted linebackers coach Mike Singletary as his interim replacement. After literally pulling down his pants in the locker room during halftime of his first game, a debacle of a defeat to the Seattle Seahawks, Singletary got his team sufficiently motivated to win four of its final five games.
That ultimately useless burst of achievement inspired 49ers owner Jed York to remove the interim tag and give Singletary the big job. York, after an effort the owner correctly described as "inept" less than two years later, fired Singletary with one game remaining in the 2010 season. To his credit, York resisted the temptation to consider that year's interim, Jim Tomsula, when he hired his next head coach. Instead, he ran an aggressive search that netted a true star, Jim Harbaugh.
In each of those cases, owners got seduced by short-term improvements and hired coaches they likely wouldn't have considered otherwise – depriving those organizations of the chance to hire better candidates via legitimate coaching searches after the season, and thus setting them back a couple of years.
Many would argue that the same could be said of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and current head coach Jason Garrett, who took over as an interim midway through the 2010 season and stayed on after winning five of eight games. Garrett hasn't been a disaster like Cable and Singletary, but the decision to hire him has kept Jones from going after enticing candidates like Harbaugh, Jeff Fisher and Jon Gruden.
In Jones' case, I understand why firing Wade Phillips in the middle of the '10 season was necessary.
The Cowboys, coming off a playoff season and hyped as contenders for a Super Bowl taking place in their home stadium, were 1-7 when Phillips got booted. Sometimes, as an owner, you need to make a statement to the disgruntled customers that the current state of affairs is simply unacceptable.
In those cases, even when firing a coach midway through the season doesn't necessarily serve the franchise's interests, it at least sends the proper signal to the fans. It's the equivalent of a basketball coach intentionally taking a technical – or two – during a blowout defeat.
Even if the Chargers lose to Kansas City, I don't believe that a 3-5 start would rise to that level of unacceptability. San Diego has been a middle-of-the-road team for three years now, and any high expectations were unrealistic in the first place.
The Chargers' remaining schedule is hardly foreboding, and only seven AFC teams are ahead of them in the standings. Turner has rallied his team from poor starts before, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could do it again.
I realize that, for some of you who've been reading me for a long time, the notion that I'm defending Turner may seem a bit bizarre. Certainly, I have been critical of his head-coaching style in the past. Early in his Chargers tenure, I also thought the switch from Schottenheimer to Turner carried the potential for disaster.
I got religion when I watched Turner guide an injury-ravaged Chargers team to an upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts in a divisional-round playoff game, and in the time since I've been impressed with his ability to finesse good (and mediocre) seasons out of a roster whose talent level is overrated.
If the Chargers' downward trajectory continues and Spanos decides to get rid of Smith and Turner after the season and start over, I won't question the decision.
If Spanos freaks out and fires his coach on Friday – and gives Smith an undeserved chance to stay on, with Bisaccia as his shining light – he'll be making a big mistake.
Highlights of Chargers' victory over Chiefs:
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