By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports
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, because 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 who 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 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 are privately 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 with Philip Rivers Sunday 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 would later 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.