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Chargers' Turner has vindication at stake

December 31, 2008|SAM FARMER

When Marty Schottenheimer walks into a room, you know you're in the presence of a football coach.

When Norv Turner walks into a room, you ask him whether he's finished doing your taxes.

When Schottenheimer's 2006 San Diego Chargers stormed into the playoffs with a 14-2 record, you wondered how they could possibly be one and done.

When Turner's 2007 Chargers limped through the playoffs with injuries aplenty, you wondered how they could possibly stick around so long -- even giving the undefeated New England Patriots all they could handle in the AFC championship game.

Marty versus Norv, it's the argument that has defined these Chargers over the last few years, and it's one Turner could put to rest over the next four weeks.

Was last season's improbable playoff run a fluke, or is Turner the anti-Marty, a coach who has more trouble winning the little ones than the big ones?

The little ones are over. It's all big ones now.

And for Turner, a coach who has the chance to redefine his legacy, these playoffs are huge. His Chargers, who saved their season with a 4-0 surge down the stretch -- coupled with a mystifying Denver collapse -- will try to keep it rolling Saturday at home against Indianapolis (5 p.m., Ch. 4).

"To make the playoffs is the big deal," he said. "To win your division is a big deal. I know what the skeptics say in terms of the record, but I think every division is different and every division has to handle the situation, the schedule, who you're playing, where you're playing, the circumstances involved and we were able to do that."

Chargers owner Dean Spanos and General Manager A.J. Smith have never wavered in saying they made the right decision to make the switch from Schottenheimer to Turner. Then again, they're expected to say that. Smith points to last season's improbable playoff run as evidence that the move was a smart one.

In the wake of Sunday's division-clinching rout, Spanos credited Turner with sparking the turnaround.

"I think it says a lot about the resiliency of the team -- they stuck together," he said. "The catalyst and person who made it all happen was the head coach."

Turner also drew praise after the 2007 postseason flurry, but one playoff run does not a legend make.

Barry Switzer won a Super Bowl with Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys, but Switzer wasn't considered a great NFL coach.

Bill Callahan got to the Super Bowl with Jon Gruden's Oakland Raiders and was shown the door when his dysfunctional team finished 4-12 the next season.

So was Turner just riding the wave that Schottenheimer started?

The Chargers have a chance to cut that theory to ribbons over the next month and drive another nail in the notion that Turner is miscast as a head coach, a guy who should be watching games through a pair of binoculars from the coaches' booth.

NBC's John Madden thinks one of Turner's biggest strengths is he's true to himself.

"You can't be a phony," Madden said. "If you're a quiet and reserved type of guy, you can't be running around yelling and screaming. If you're one of those yellers and screamers, you can't be a reserved guy. You have to be yourself. Players catch a phony right off the bat, and Norv isn't a phony."

But is he a good head coach? Madden, for one, thinks he is.

"There's 32 jobs and there's not 32 Vince Lombardis," he said. "I'm not saying that he's one of the great head coaches of all time, but name me half of them in the league that are better than him."

There's no arguing that Turner kept the Chargers focused even after they fell to 4-8 and flirted with mathematical elimination. San Diego did have a lot of injuries to key players this season -- lots of teams do -- and Turner made the right but difficult move in replacing defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell with Ron Rivera midway through the season.

Then, there was the 4-0 sprint to the finish.

"If you're going to blame a guy when they lose," Madden said, "then you've got to give him the credit when they win . . . A year ago, they were one game away from the Super Bowl. So he's done some pretty good things."

As Smith likes to say, to make a run in the playoffs a team has to be good, injury-free and lucky.

Good isn't an issue with the Chargers; they're loaded with talent. Injury-wise, they're in a lot better shape than they were at several points this season.

And lucky?

They used up the luck of 10 teams with the unprecedented demise of Denver, the first franchise to lose a three-game division lead in the final three weeks.

Now, with every team at 0-0, Turner has a chance to change how some see him. Never mind that the Chargers are the first 8-8 division winners since Cleveland in 1985.

Those Browns, incidentally, lost in the first round of the playoffs, much to the dismay of their coach.

Marty Schottenheimer.

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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