Nine years ago today, Norv Turner was out of work. Less than a year after he coached Washington to its first NFC East championship in eight seasons, owner Dan Snyder fired Turner with three games remaining even though the Redskins were in contention for a second straight playoff appearance.
So there’s some delicious irony at work in the 4-11 Redskins closing their 10th straight season without a division title Sunday at San Diego against Turner’s 12-3 Chargers, who have won the AFC West during all three of his seasons on their sideline.
Snyder is about to change coaches for a fifth time since Turner’s dismissal while his first coach is running the NFL’s hottest team. San Diego has won 10 games in a row and eliminated Indianapolis, which has the league’s best record this year, from the playoffs the past two seasons.
Turner has a legitimate shot to join Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren and George Seifert as the only men to win Super Bowls as coordinators and head coaches.
“It’s exciting to win,” said Turner, whose second-seeded Chargers have a first-round bye before opening the AFC playoffs Jan. 16 or 17 at home. “It’s why you’re in this, [but] you can’t get ahead of yourself.”
Turner, the offensive coordinator for the 1992 and 1993 Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, could never get ahead in Washington. Hired by octogenarian owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1994 to rebuild the suddenly rancid Redskins, Turner went 9-23 in his first two seasons. Washington just missed the playoffs the next two years before winning that division crown in 1999, less than six months after Snyder bought the franchise from Cooke’s estate.
The brash young owner tried to buy the Super Bowl in 2000, signing aging free agents Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeff George and Mark Carrier, moves that undermined Pro Bowl quarterback Brad Johnson and Redskins icon Darrell Green and established a circuslike atmosphere that damaged the chemistry gained in 1999.
“We had a lot more success than people remember,” Turner said of his seven seasons with Washington. “The experience of going through the turmoil… helped me over the long haul. When… the expectation level is so great, people want to do things to make it right. Sometimes it’s hard because you don’t feel [being fired is] warranted, but it’s part of the deal.”
Although Turner was 24-16 in his final 40 games with Washington - the Redskins’ best stretch of the past 18 years - Snyder fired him after the Redskins suffered consecutive close NFC East defeats at home in December 2000. They were 7-6, a 13-game mark they haven’t topped since.
“Norv’s an offensive genius,” said fullback Mike Sellers, the only player on Washington’s active roster who played for Turner. “He’s a coach that knows how to utilize his players to the fullest. He picked up on my talents and used them to the best of my ability. I can only thank him for that. We had a high-powered offense. We just didn’t have a defense. It wasn’t his fault.”
Turner didn’t expect to get a third head coaching job after being fired by Oakland after posting a 9-23 record. But after a 14-2 season ended with another playoff-opening home loss in 2006, San Diego owner Alex Spanos and general manager A.J. Smith fired coach Marty Schottenheimer and hired Turner, who had done well as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2001.
“I would have probably told you, ‘No, I won’t get an opportunity,’ ” said Turner, also the coordinator for Miami (2002 and 2003) and San Francisco (2006). “But I had been fortunate… to have been here a year and some of the other things I had done [got] their attention and swung their minds that way.”
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said Turner’s history with Johnson and with Hall of Fame passer Troy Aikman in Dallas helped quell any skepticism about the new man’s career 59-82-1 record when San Diego hired him.
“His experience running this system and the track record of what he’s done both with quarterbacks and offenses speaks for itself,” said Rivers, the AFC’s leading passer. “The steadiness, the never-flinch leadership and attitude that he coaches with have allowed us to bounce back from a 4-8 [record in 2008], bounce back from a 2-3 [record this year]. We never get too much on a high or too much on a low.”