Ken Leighton 12:03 p.m., Jan. 24
The Chargers are likely headed toward a major housecleaning, but the bulk of the blame for the team’s failures is misplaced.
Last week, the U-T San Diego’s Kevin Acee reported that according to “sources,” both Chargers head coach Norv Turner and GM AJ Smith would be fired at the conclusion of the season; that owner Dean Spanos had made up his mind weeks ago and is waiting until the season’s over to make it official.
Spanos responded to the report by releasing a brief, angry statement saying “There is only one person in this organization who will make those decisions and that’s me, and I haven’t shared my thoughts with anyone. I will make my evaluations at the end of the season. Anything coming out now – from sources or otherwise – is pure speculation.”
And there you have it. Nothing has been decided (yeah, right).
One thing is certain, and anyone who follows football or the Chargers knows it: Something’s gotta change. Spanos decided at the end of the 2011 season—after yet another non-playoff year in which the team bumbled and stumbled its way to the finish line—that he was going to stand pat with his guys. In his gut Turner and Smith could turn things around, and he was going to give them one last chance to do it.
I have to admit that I rather admired that move. It took a lot of guts for Spanos to calmly stand his ground in defiance of public opinion. It’s his team, it’s his business, and he did what he thought was best for his team at the time, and he wasn’t going to allow the Monday morning QB’s to push him into making a rash decision.
And believe me, it’s more rash than you think it is.
Norv Turner has been under fire practically since the day he was hired to replace Marty Schottenheimer. Before he had even coached one game the masses wanted him fired.
The argument goes like this: He’s a retread. He was a failure in Washington, and he was a failure in Oakland, his two previous head coaching stops, and he hasn’t won a championship here. He’s done.
It’s very easy to blame the head coach; he’s the only one who’s out there front and center every day talking to the media. He’s the de facto face of the franchise; the only one anyone really knows anything about. And because he’s the public face, he’s the one who gets the lion’s share of the blame when things go wrong. And inevitably he’s the one who gets fired, while all of the other underlying structural issues get swept under the rug and continue to drag the team down regardless of who is hired as the next face of the franchise.
Put it this way: What have the Washington Redskins done since owner Dan Snyder fired Norv in 2000? They’re on their sixth head coach and have made exactly two playoff appearances, in 2005 and again in 2007 during Joe Gibbs’ second stint as head coach, going 1-2 in those games. Not exactly the pinnacle of success.
The Raiders? They’re even worse! They’re on their fifth head coach since they fired Turner in 2005 and haven’t come anywhere close to qualifying for the playoffs. The Oakland Raiders could possibly be the absolute worst franchise in the NFL, and it wouldn’t matter who their head coach is.
Both of those franchises have terrible owners who are (or in the case of the late Al Davis, were) overly meddlesome in the team’s day-to-day football operations (although apparently Redskins owner Dan Snyder has gotten better in that regard). The Redskins are now captained by Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, and they’re currently fighting for their playoff lives even with a superstar rookie phenom at QB.
At some point you have to conclude that there’s something else going on and that it’s not all on the head coach’s shoulders. At some point you have to look past the sidelines and toward the management and personnel decisions that have been made, and to the kind of work environment created by management and ownership.
And that’s the problem up in Murphy Canyon. Dean Spanos is a pretty hands-off owner. He lets his football people run the show without much interference from him. In the Chargers’ management structure, the General Manager is the boss. It is AJ Smith who makes the personnel and all other football related decisions. But more than that he has created a toxic work environment that has permeated down into the locker room and poisoned all of his players. The players know they’re not respected by the man who signed their contracts.
This creates an incredible challenge for Norv Turner, the head coach. He’s tasked with getting his team—the team he’s been handed to work with by AJ Smith—on the same page and all working together; to create a family atmosphere in which the team can thrive. That’s exceedingly difficult when they know that the man lording over them from his balcony, leering down at them with a contemptuous scowl, doesn’t have their back and never will. And it doesn’t matter how much they like or respect Norv, because they know that Norv’s not the final authority. And they don’t like or trust the man who is.
And that’s the crux of the problem. Add that to the draft missteps and free agent foibles, and Norv Turner is stuck having to take his cards from a deck that’s stacked against him. He has a roster that is becoming more and more depleted each year because of questionable personnel decisions; a roster that has lost some of its most important components and not replenished with adequate replacements along the way. Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, Marcus McNeil, Kris Dielman, among others….all of whom were keys to the Chargers’ past success, and all of whom are either now retired or earning paychecks from other teams—and thriving with those other teams.
It’s obvious that Norv Turner hasn’t “lost the locker room,” as the saying goes. His players still play hard for him. Last Sunday the Chargers beat the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers , earning the first regular season win in Pittsburgh in the franchise’s history. They did that in spite of a rash of injuries on the offensive line and in spite of losing a starting defensive lineman to injury during warm-ups; they did so in spite of having to deploy wide receivers who weren’t even on the roster three weeks ago.
That’s not to say that Norv is perfect or that he has done everything right. He isn’t, and he hasn’t. He could certainly stand to hire an offensive coordinator whom he trusts to handle the playcalling duties, freeing him up to focus on the larger task of managing the game. I hear Cam Cameron is now available.
But as easy and as tempting as it may be to blame Norv Turner for all of the Chargers’ failings over the past three seasons, the bulk of the responsibility does not and should not rest on his shoulders. For that you have to look up onto that balcony.
Chances are that Kevin Acee is right, and that the Chargers have a house cleaning heading their way. It’s too bad because the way I see it Norv Turner never really had a chance to succeed out there in Chargers Park, any more than he had a chance in D.C. or in Oakland—and he had no chance in Oakland. There were just too many things working against him, including and especially his boss.