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OAKLAND, Calif. – As the San Diego Chargers' presumptive season of triumph unravels like Ryan Leaf under a heckler's spell, it's time to pose a serious question.
Which is more radical – firing a coach after a 14-2 season, or firing one who's 1-2?
I'm not suggesting that Chargers general manager A.J. Smith will relieve Norv Turner of his responsibilities following San Diego's embarrassing 31-24 defeat to the Packers in Green Bay on Sunday. To do so would be to call Smith's own professional credibility into question.
But make no mistake – San Diego's swift fall from the ranks of the NFL's elite is an impending disaster that needs to be dealt with, and soon. And unfortunately for the Chargers and their fans, the coach most qualified to do so is not the man who'll be wearing the headset on San Diego's sideline come Sunday, but the guy whom Smith pushed out last February.
As Smith promised, Turner is no Marty Schottenheimer, a coach the headstrong general manager detested for his conservative tendencies, corny sayings and propensity for making dubious decisions in playoff games. But Schottenheimer, who last season coached the Chargers to the league's best record before they all but handed a divisional-round playoff victory to the New England Patriots, did serve one vital function in Smith's universe: He was the quintessential scapegoat.
Anytime anything went wrong during Schottenheimer's five-year tenure in San Diego, and even when things didn't go right enough for Smith's liking, the personnel man-turned-GM could blame the coach and Schottenheimer's trademark "Martyball" for the Chargers' failings.
But as Smith flew home from Green Bay on Sunday evening – as when he and the Chargers made their middle-of-the-night escape from New England last Monday morning – he saw the current culprit staring back at him through the reflection in his first-class-cabin window.
In retrospect, was Martyball really so bad? As anyone who has watched San Diego closely knows, A.J.-ball has been even more unsightly. For the Chargers, the future's so dark, they've got to wear headlamps.
All across the NFL, talent evaluators and coaches are appalled at the way San Diego has looked so flat, unprepared and disorganized under Turner. On Sunday at McAfee Coliseum, where Turner flailed as the Raiders' head coach from 2004-05, players and front-office executives talked expansively about his shortcomings and expressed skepticism that he can motivate a Chargers team that played so passionately under Schottenheimer.
"That team is a mess, and you know the players are wondering what the hell is going on," one NFL veteran who played for Turner in Oakland told me Sunday night. "They're looking to Norv for answers and leadership, and they won't get it. Marty had them on edge, ready to play, and they responded to that. And now this? They're a great team but it's not working, and it's not gonna work."
Sure, it's early, and the Chargers theoretically are a talented enough group to shake off their sketchy start and emerge once again as title contenders. But anyone who thinks this is a minor detour on the way to Glendale, Ariz. is either delusional or a white-haired man with the initials "A.J.S." monogrammed onto his dress shirts.
When LaDainian Tomlinson stares blankly ahead and proclaims that his team is "lost," as the star halfback did during his postgame media conference Sunday, you can bet that he and his teammates privately are questioning the direction of the franchise. How can they not, given that they returned virtually everyone from last year's team that ripped up the league?
It isn't hard to deduce what has changed – Schottenheimer's emotional and relentless leadership style has been replaced by Turner's nervous, detached stewardship. That seemed like a plausible trade if you believed Smith's propaganda: that he'd assembled such a talented team in San Diego it could practically run itself, that a skilled play-caller who stayed out of the way was the ideal choice to coach this star-studded ensemble.
I spent several minutes alone with Tomlinson after the Chargers' 38-14 defeat to the Patriots, and I've seldom seen a superstar so bewildered and deflated after a regular-season game. That LT got into an animated verbal exchange Sunday with Philip Rivers after the quarterback ignored him on a third-down play in the third quarter (instead forcing an incomplete pass to tight end Antonio Gates) is another sign that the pressure is starting to get to the team's most important players.
How did things get so toxic? It started when Chargers owner Dean Spanos, despite what he later would term a "dysfunctional" relationship between Smith and Schottenheimer, stayed flaccid after the playoff defeat, watching helplessly for nearly a month as coordinators Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips got head coaching jobs in Miami and Dallas, respectively. Finally – after Schottenheimer asked to hire his brother, Kurt, as the new defensive coordinator – Spanos fired him and essentially appointed Smith, an accomplished talent evaluator with questionable people skills, as the undisputed king.
Smith's immediate reaction was to consolidate his power. He brought in Ted Cottrell, whom he knew from his days as a Buffalo Bills assistant scouting director, as the defensive coordinator. His prime criteria in hiring Turner, he of the 59-82-1 career record as a head coach, seemed to be, "Obeys Orders And Recognizes My Ultimate Authority."
Smooth move, A.J.
Because Turner is an accomplished offensive coordinator who has a knack for play-calling, Smith, like others before him, got lured into believing Turner could work the same magic as a head coach. This just in: He can't. And some of us have been saying so for a long time.
Talk to Turner's former players, and this is what they'll tell you: Give the man one job, and he'll do that job well. But give him a big job with multiple responsibilities, and he gets anxious and scattered and has a hard time doing any one thing capably.
That's what we're seeing with San Diego's once-mighty offensive attack so far in 2007. The Chargers have been strangely unable to terrorize defenses with Tomlinson's multifaceted talents, and Turner has shown a penchant for disjointed, conservative play calls at key times. This was true on Sunday when San Diego, leading 21-17, had a chance to put away the Packers but seemed to be playing not to lose while failing to produce a key first down. The Chargers were flat-out brutal in the red zone during their season-opening 14-3 victory over the Chicago Bears and were beyond atrocious against the Patriots.
Under Schottenheimer, this team had an obvious offensive mission statement, enunciated by a line that blew teams off the ball and a halfback who worked in tandem by wearing down deflated defenses. So far, San Diego's identity under Turner is that it doesn't have one.
Defensively, the team has struggled with the transition from the ultra-aggressive Phillips to the tamer Cottrell, though injuries on the defensive line have played a role. Most glaring, the secondary has been shredded on numerous occasions, often because the Chargers haven't been where they're supposed to be. That's coaching, pure and simple.
Coverage breakdowns led to Randy Moss running wide open for a touchdown in the Patriots game and other easy completions by Tom Brady. On Sunday, the Packers' winning points came when Brett Favre threw a sweet slant to Greg Jennings on which cornerback Antonio Cromartie was overly aggressive and strong safety Clinton Hart was caught flat-footed and out of position. Jennings caught the pass in stride and raced to a 57-yard touchdown.
The play evoked memories of Troy Aikman's game-clinching pass to Alvin Harper against the 49ers in the '92 NFC championship game, back when Turner was Dallas' boy-wonder offensive coordinator, and before he and the rest of Jimmy Johnson's high-profile assistants (Dave Wannstedt, whose Pitt Panthers lost to Connecticut on Saturday; Dave Campo; Butch Davis) proved largely ineffective once they got a chance to be in charge, most glaringly in the pros.
Beyond strategic concerns there is the motivation issue, one highlighted after the Patriots game when Gates, an All-Pro performer, said San Diego had come out "flat" for its nationally televised showdown with the team that ended its '06 season. Yeah, guys, why get up for that one when that big tilt at Lambeau was looming?
Even Turner's former players who speak highly of him concede that getting the locker room revved up is not his forte.
"I think Norv's a good coach, a good play-caller who had a tough situation from the jump, because that team lost both its coordinators," Raiders wideout Ronald Curry said after Sunday's game. "He can be a little passive at times, but everybody's got a different approach."
Another former Raiders wideout – a guy named Jerry Rice, who before his emergence as a reality-TV dancing star earned some notoriety as the greatest receiver of all time – was even more pointed in an interview last week on Fox Sports Radio. Pulling the Chargers out of their funk, Rice told hosts Andrew Siciliano and Krystal Fernandez, is "going to be up to their head coach. I don't know if Norv Turner can do that because I've played under him, and I don't know if he's going to be able to motivate that team that way."
In fairness, what does Jerry Rice really know about motivation? Oh, wait, that's right: everything.
So how does San Diego fight its way out of this jam? Well, for starters, the people in charge of the franchise need to stop pretending a problem doesn't exist, and to come up with a bold solution to address it.
Is it so outrageous to think that cutting their losses by firing Turner now – and replacing him with inside linebackers coach Ron Rivera, who interviewed for several head coaching jobs (including San Diego's) after his strong showing as the Bears' defensive coordinator the previous three seasons, could save the Chargers' season?
Perhaps, but is that any more outlandish than getting rid of a coach with a 200-126-1 career regular-season record who was coming off a 14-2 campaign and had the unqualified support of Tomlinson, the league MVP and most important presence in the locker room?
Personally, I don't think so. The Chargers' window of opportunity, once perceived to be vast, is closing up like LT's running lanes, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Here's one that Spanos could implement: fire Turner and Cottrell – and Smith, the man responsible for their presence – and bring back Schottenheimer, today, to try to restore the winning edge the coach worked so hard to instill.
Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of crazy. But if you look at the whole picture, the status quo is even crazier.
STORY OF MY LIFE
As Cleveland's Phil Dawson lined up for the 40-yard field goal attempt with three seconds remaining that could have doomed the Raiders to a second consecutive down-to-the-wire defeat, Curry steeled himself for the inevitable. "You've been on that other side for so long, you almost start walking with your head down to that locker room before he even kicks it," Curry said. "I mean, a minute to go and you had 'em down and let them drive down the field, and now they're in position to win – you know how this is going to end, and it's an awful feeling."
Then, to Curry's great delight, the Raiders flipped the script: Several players penetrated the middle of the Browns' blocking scheme and Tommy Kelly blocked Dawson's kick to the Coliseum turf, preserving a 26-24 victory. The ball still was rolling around, technically in play, as Curry and many of his jubilant teammates charged triumphantly onto the field. "I'm sure everybody in this locker room is going to get a FedEx from the league telling us we've been fined," Curry said, laughing. "But I'll take it. It feels so good not to lose a game like this."
Give the Browns credit for fighting back from deficits of 16-0 late in the first half and 26-17 in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Derek Anderson, coming off his five-touchdown breakout performance in the previous Sunday's 51-45 stunner over the Cincinnati Bengals, had far more presence than predecessor Charlie Frye in driving Cleveland 69 yards without a timeout in the final 1:04 to set up Dawson's kick. The Raiders' defense was disquietingly soft in allowing Anderson to flip a 13-yard sideline completion to Joe Jurevicius just before Dawson took the field, but Oakland made up for it on the play that counted most. The end result was that a pair of 1-2 teams who aren't nearly as bad as their fans feared after the season's first week left the field with at least a morsel of hope for the near future.
I'M HOT 'CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Boy, the Cowboys sure miss Bill Parcells' ego, grandstanding power-flexes and conspicuous demeaning of players like Terrell Owens, don't they? By going to Chicago and ripping up the Bears, Wade Phillips' Cowboys showed they are the best team in the NFC and that, if they do represent the conference in the Super Bowl, they'll do so with a quarterback who actually can win a big game, rather than merely trying to "manage" it.
• Evidently, for Donovan McNabb, it's not all that hard being a powder blue and yellow quarterback. With the Eagles wearing throwback jerseys that looked like they might have been stolen from the UCLA lacrosse team, the embattled quarterback shook off his rust like Lightning McQueen in "Cars" and turned Kevin Curtis into Isaac Curtis. The Eagles put up 478 yards on Sunday … in the first half. As usual, Philly's brass is asking McNabb to shoulder much of the team's playmaking responsibility, but it's good to know the franchise still can count on The Franchise.
• Yeah, he has an issue with fumbles, and when the pass protection fails him he has no hope of getting out of the way. But give Kurt Warner (15-of-20, 258 yards, two TDs) a little bit of time, and he still is a very dangerous player – and what he did Sunday against the Ravens, leading Arizona back from a 23-6 deficit in relief of struggling Matt Leinart before Baltimore rallied for a game-winning field goal on the final play, was downright eerie. As one NFC personnel man said, "He looked as good as he ever has – and that's scary. Sitting Leinart would be a tough thing to do because he's the quarterback of the future and there's the whole psychology of that. But I don't see how Warner doesn't start next week." Next week the Cardinals (1-2) host the 3-0 Steelers in a game that Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm desperately want to win, given that both were former Bill Cowher assistants who got passed over for the coaching job after The Chin "retired" last January. Incidentally, anyone who questioned whether Grimm could work his magic with the Cardinals' offensive line now knows that the answer was affirmative; Russ, kindly step forward and take a bow. (After the game, Whisenhunt indicated that Leinart remains the Cardinals' starter but that Warner likely would continue to see spot duty.)
• Jon Gruden, who by all accounts could get fired if the Bucs don't have a big season, isn't the kind of coach who'll go down without a fight – and the Bucs have responded to his full-throttle intensity. If Tampa Bay can sneak out of Charlotte with a victory over the Panthers next Sunday, guess who'll be alone in first place in the NFC South?
• Plaxico Burress shook off that sore ankle and made the play that may have staved off a total collapse of the Giants' season, bulling his way into the end zone with the winning touchdown in a 24-17 victory over Washington. When Burress makes plays like that, he seems capable of carrying a team physically, mentally and emotionally. The Giants need him to do that now.
• So far in his young head coaching career, Mike Tomlin has trailed for a grand total of 12 seconds. That's how long it took for the Steelers, down 3-0 to the 49ers on Sunday, to answer with Allen Rossum's 98-yard kickoff return for touchdown. It was as if Tomlin's players were saying, "Sorry about that, coach. Things are cool now."
• It would've been pretty cool to be a fly on the wall – or buddies with a video assistant armed with a clandestine camera – when two pro football legends, Raiders owner Al Davis and ex-Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown, got together before Sunday's game in Davis' suite at McAfee Coliseum. "It was unbelievable," says radio personality JT the Brick, who helped arrange the meeting. "They hadn't seen each other for over a decade, and they talked about everything from the history of the league to Syracuse to Al's vision of how to take care of the retired players. They even talked about the Black Panthers and the history of Oakland. And when the conversation ended, they were both smiling."
… YOU AIN'T 'CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Ah, Rex Grossman, I like you, and I get fired up when you block out the negativity and show off that big arm of yours. But I fear you are about to be benched in favor of Brian Griese, and I can't blame Lovie Smith for going that way. The Bears still have a Super Bowl-caliber defense and special teams, but they no longer have Thomas Jones, and they need as much dependability on offense as they can muster right now. Griese may not be the answer, but Smith owes it to his players to explore the possibility.
• Bad news, Mike Nolan: The defense you've built in your third year with the 49ers is good, and rookie linebacker Patrick Willis is a star in the making, but it's not nearly as fearsome as what you had in Baltimore with Ray Lewis, and your offense is even worse. It's time to go to a different model, beginning with a playmaking wideout who can help quarterback Alex Smith's development. Though Smith has completed just over half his passes (43 for 83) in '07, he didn't throw his first interception until Sunday – a sign of progress given that he threw 11 picks against only one touchdown as a rookie in '05. "He played very smart and very safe," Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu said of Smith. "There's a few routes that a lot of people would have thrown that probably would have been intercepted. Otherwise, he may have taken a sack or thrown the ball away, which is very smart."
• OK, football gods – I am hereby placing a moratorium on Buffalo Bills injuries for the next month, at least. They've suffered enough. Kindly back off.
• Former Jets wideout Wayne Chrebet, who suffers from post-concussion syndrome to the point where he says he'd be totally lost without a GPS system in his own town, was honored at halftime of the Jets' victory over the Dolphins at Giants Stadium. Earlier in the week Chrebet questioned Lions quarterback Jon Kitna's decision to return the previous Sunday against Minnesota after being knocked out with a concussion. Our advice to Kitna: Listen very carefully to this man – and your doctors – before you start talking about divine intervention. It's just not worth it.
• Maybe that umpire was in the wrong, Milton Bradley, but you're easier to play than Candyland.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The PGA Tour's playoff system: what it is, and why it exists.
2. Why no TV announcers can pronounce Edgerrin James's name. They say "Edderin or Edgederin or Egderin." It's EDGE-ur-in. Why is that so hard?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Rams, I want to love you, with your accurate quarterback and trio of dangerous wideouts and do-everything halfback, but I've come to the conclusion that you're the worst kind of tease. You were the sucker bet, like the '05 Raiders – an offense straight out of fantasy heaven that, alas, struggles when it comes to playing actual football. I guess offensive line play has a slight impact on performance, but man, what a brutal disappointment. I abhor the way you seem to wear down after halftime, and I don't see it getting any better anytime soon. Enjoy your trip to Dallas next Sunday and the massacre that surely awaits.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"That this story (was) front and center means that Yahoo! and you have not moved on somehow. Why not? Still playing politics? There's a lot more to sports than an 0-2 team vs. Tennessee, sir. Katrina was not a sports story and it was lied about and overplayed enough by CNN and ESPN the past two years. I like the NFL but won't watch. The teams don't interest me, and it's baseball season until October ends. Oh, and I cannot stand Tony Kornheiser!"
Katrina was lied about and overplayed? Give me a break, Indy guy. I was in New Orleans with Deuce McAllister five days after the levees breached and I saw the devastation and the misery for myself. If your political viewpoints depend upon refusing to acknowledge a tragedy, I feel sorry for you.
"I think the Saints have fallen so deeply in love with Reggie Bush that they have forgotten that Deuce McAllister is a great running back. The games I have been able to see have had more of Reggie than Deuce. They should go back to the same game plan they had last year. Why not? It worked."
In fairness, the Saints were losing big in each of the first two games, and that tends to mess with your game plan. That said, you're not the only one who'd like to see Deuce get more of the work between the tackles.
"I hate it when you fish-hacks speak for me and tell me what I like and don't like and who I root for. The Saints were not America's team, at least here in the heartland, and they never made me smile. I could care less about the Saints and that toilet of a city they call home. Insensitive on my part? Maybe, but it's the truth and no one in this part of America rooted for the Saints that I know of. Do I feel bad for the victims of Katrina? Yes, but because of that I'm suppose to care about their crappy football team?"
You're right – you should definitely speak for yourself. Wow.
"I guess I should start out making a rude comment about your writing but I will leave that to other people. I have been reading your rankings the last couple of weeks and following your picks each week. I have noticed a trend and that you do not follow your own rankings. This week's example is that you have Oakland beating Cleveland in your picks. Yet in your ratings you have them several spots higher than Oakland. Do you not believe in your own rankings? Go Denver and Go Bears."
I believe in my rankings and my picks, though not with a religious fervor. And just because I think one team is better than another doesn't mean I believe that team will prevail in a matchup between them that week. Where the game is played and what circumstances are surrounding the two teams in question have something to do with who I pick – that and the tides and the respective quarterbacks' horoscopes.
"Hey Mike, if you were to go to Google Earth right now you would see the whole New England area is glowing red. Looks like someone started a fire. Good job."
Thanks, but for what it's worth, I can see it much more clearly when I go to Yahoo! Maps.
"In the interest of full disclosure, I am, have always been, and will always be a Patriots fan. That said, having read the e-mail responses to your column about the Belichick controversy, I am sick to my stomach. I am writing to make it clear that many, many of us here in Patriot-land find what Belichick did to be patently wrong and totally unacceptable. I have been even more upset to read the kind of comments that New England fans have been writing to try and get our coach off the hook. If I were not a Pats fan, and I was seeing this kind of hometown reaction, I would hate the Patriots and their fan base too. I just thought that needed saying."
I am happy to let you say it, if only in the interest of equal time.
"When you get e-mails like the ones in this week's batch, do you laugh, or like the maitre'd in 'Ferris Bueller' do you weep for the future? Some of these arguments are up there with 'Bonds didn't need steroids' and 'Nixon would've won anyway.' If videotaping signals doesn't help a team, why is it against the rules and why did Belichick do it? And what exactly does the 2007 edition of the Patriots hammering the Chargers prove about 2001, 2003 or 2004? Those Super Bowls were all decided by three points, and who can say taping signals couldn't make that slight bit of difference? Whether or not the Pats did or could have won without cheating, by cheating their achievements are definitely called into question. None of that changes even if New England goes undefeated and wins the Super Bowl."
I'm mad at Ferris right now. My wife rented the DVD the other night, and it basically taught my kids the S-word. They shouldn't use such profanity – at least until the Cal-USC game in November.
"Please allow Patrick Bettens and Kev to write a weekly sidebar to your column. The world needs to hear from the paranoid, anti-Dramamine, barely-literate fascists. It's time someone gave them a voice. I beg you; just give those kids a topic and let them run with it. And I guess before I hit send on my well-reasoned diatribe :), I should have realized you'd be getting a (expletive) of barely legible emails on the same topic. Sometimes I read emails from your other readers and feel a little embarrassed, like, 'If I read Silver, and this dumbass reads Silver, am I a dumbass?' But then I decide to not go down that introspective rabbit hole, much like pater familias (Roger) Goodell and his 'destroy'-ing of the Pats evidence. Rabbit holes can (expletive) you up like that sometimes. Please explain why you have two Yahoo! photos. The world is wondering. Why not a third, with sunglasses?"
A third one's coming, and soon, though I can't promise the new shades will arrive in time. And I'm glad that after all your faithful readership during my SI and si.com tenure, the rabbit hole allowed you to find me at my new address.
"Please, please allow 'Kev from Salisbury, Mass. to write a guest column (just one, though, thank you)."
I'm worried I'd turn into Wally Pipp. Or, as Kev would put it, Wallie Pippe.
"Michael: Are the emails you post for real? Are their real people who actually write and express their thoughts so poorly?"
Yep, they're for real.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Old dudes rule."
– Text from Brenda Warner after her husband's breakout performance.