WASHINGTON — Regarding Norv Turner, perhaps one possibility has not been completely explored. In the endless, exasperating discussions over the past six years about whether Turner is a "good coach" or a "bad coach," one alternative has gotten short shrift.
What if, after all the time and energy we have expended on him, Turner is simply an average NFL coach--neither bad nor good. What if his perennially frustrating near-miss Redskins teams are a fair reflection of the man? Throw out his first two years--call them rebuilding seasons. Since then, his teams are 28-28-1. If he really is Mr. .500, what does the Redskins' future hold?
As a head coach, Turner has just enough gifts, especially as an offensive guru, to fascinate his players and the public, too. Those great Cowboys offenses really did have his fingerprints on them. The Redskins' gaudy 32-point scoring average is Turner's work.
Remember, only two teams in the NFL are within 50 points of Washington's second-ranked total of 287. Would you really rather root for boring 5-4 teams such as the Giants, Bucs, Raiders and Steelers, who average two touchdowns less than the Redskins? Only one team wins the Super Bowl. Doesn't entertainment count, too?
Even after Sunday's annual loss in Philadelphia (1-9 in the 1990s), Stephen Davis is on a pace for 1,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. Albert Connell and Michael Westbrook (now injured) are on pace for about 1,400 yards per man. Brad Johnson may pass for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns with only 10 picks.
Don't kid yourself that the same production could be milked from those four players by some run-of-the-mill offensive mind. Johnson praises Turner's system constantly. Neither Davis nor Connell was picked in the top 100 in the NFL draft. When fourth-rounders get groomed into stars, coaches should get credit, too.
As for Westbrook, who's to say that Turner--who sees the best in everybody and waits interminably for it to appear--hasn't saved his career and a bit of his soul?
In addition, Turner's self-deprecating manner can charm and disarm anybody. No Washington coach in any sport in my lifetime has benefited from half the goodwill and suspension of disbelief that has attended Turner.
In a profession full of ego monsters, Turner's confident yet balanced sense of self often saves him. Tuesday, I said, "You've proved you're a .500 coach, but you've also proved that you're not Don Shula."
"If anybody said I was, they'd be laughed out of the sports world," said Turner. "But I know what goes on here. I know what it takes to win. And when we lose, I know why and what has to be done to correct it. I know a good player from a bad player."
If Ronald Reagan's open, aw-shucks Western manner helped make him famous as the Teflon president, then Turner has given Washington the asbestos coach--fireproof. Even now, the consensus holds that if the Redskins stagger into the playoffs--no matter how humbly they do it--Turner deserves to keep his job.
Why? Where was this assumption born?
Unfortunately, for every honest compliment that you can pay Turner, he merits just as heartfelt a knock. At 47, Turner has faults--as a motivator, communicator and sideline presence--that are presumably intractable. Year after year, he has come to the edge of some modest success, yet still failed. Of the defeat by the Eagles, Turner said he felt his team was well prepared, except for three or four players. There we have it, don't we. Good enough to lose.
Turner's whole Washington career is mirrored in the way he talks. You know he's sincere. You root for him to get his ideas in marching order since few skills are more vital in coaching than speaking with clarity and authority. Yet when you parse what he actually says, his meaning often evaporates.
Those who have had Turner's job in their hands have seemed paralyzed by this unsettling paradox of the first-rate fellow with the golden resume who, unfortunately, has yet to make the playoffs.
What awaits the Redskins the rest of this season? Probably adversity. In the first half, they benefited from a weak schedule, a plus-nine turnover differential and an absence of normal NFL injuries; they couldn't have stayed healthier in a flag football league. If their luck reverts to the mean just as their schedule toughens, the Redskins may have to play considerably better just to keep from performing considerably worse.
If the Redskins make the playoffs, Snyder better think twice before rehiring Turner. If his goal is to reach two or three Super Bowls in the next decade, then there's considerable evidence available that Turner probably can't take a team to such heights.
On the other hand, if the Redskins don't make the playoffs, Snyder better think twice before firing Turner. Don't fall into the easy assumption that it's a snap to replace an "average" NFL coach. You've got a 50 percent chance of doing worse, and about a 90 percent chance of having a worse offense without his system.
Is an average NFL head coach of good character the kind of man they want to have running the team in the next century?
That's what they've got--no more, no less. And the rest of the '99 season isn't going to change it.