Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Feb 2007

The Terrible Mr. Turner

Let me say this as clearly and simply as possible: Norv Turner can't coach. He's an awful hire for the Chargers. He's going to undo everything that the team has accomplished over the last three years.

Turner's all-time record as a head coach is 58-82-1. That's bad. His teams have won 10 games exactly once in nine seasons. That's truly bad. Even a blind squirrel stumbles upon more than one nut per decade. Even Rich Kotite reached double-digits in wins two times. If Chargers fans are sick of Marty Schottenheimer because he always loses in the playoffs, they can take solace in the fact that Turner never reaches the playoffs. His all-time playoff record as a head coach is 1-1.

But Turner is a great offensive mind, you say? Turner the coordinator is only slightly more effective than Turner the coach. Since 1994, only one Turner-coached offense (head coach or coordinator) has finished in the top-10 in the NFL in DVOA: the 1999 Redskins. If you don't like DVOA, fine. Only one Turner-coached team has finished in the top 10 in points scored or yards gained: the 1999 Redskins. His teams – the 1994-2000 Redskins, the 2001 Chargers, the 2002-03 Dolphins, the 2004-05 Raiders, the 2006 Niners -- usually finish between 12th and 24th in the league in the major offensive categories. A 12th place finish isn't bad, but if offense is your strong point, you have to do better.

Turner's supporters point out that he often takes over terrible offenses, so his ability to take them from 32nd to 16th in the league is an accomplishment. I'd like to introduce those supporters to my friend Mr. Central Tendency. Mr. Tendency makes bad teams mediocre with the help of friends like Mr. Law of Averages and Mr. High Draft Choice. Once these misters have done their business, Turner doesn't have to do much to make a middling offense. His efforts with the Niners last season were typical. He took over a team that ranked dead last in offensive DVOA. Their rookie quarterback became a second-year quarterback, they spent a high draft choice on a tight end, they signed a veteran All Pro offensive guard, and Frank Gore emerged as a featured back. Thanks to all this and a little bit of Turner brilliance, the Niners climbed all the way to 24th in DVOA. Way to go Norv!

Of course, if a team climbed from 32nd to 24th to 12th to third on Turner's watch, that would be a sign of competence. But Turner never hangs around that long. If Turner were a business executive, he would take companies that were $20 million in debt, cut the debt to $12 million, and claim success. Then, after he left, the debt would go back to $20 million. Have you seen the Dolphins or Raiders offenses lately? That's the extent of Turner's post-Cowboys resume: he takes crappy teams, makes them slightly less crappy, then leaves before anyone notices that he hasn't coached a good offense since 1999. Then, the crappiness returns. Turner Boosters claim that the return to crappiness is a sign of Norv's genius: see, that was a 4-12 team before and after Turner, and only he could make them 7-9. You would think that such a great coach and developer of talent (more on that in a minute) would leave teams better off than they were when he arrived.

Oh yeah, the Cowboys. Turner made his name with Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, of course, and those teams posted some impressive offensive totals. The trouble is that my mom could have coached that team into the Super Bowl. "Here, Troy, here's a football. Give it to Emmit a lot, throw it Michael a lot. Remember that the offensive line will only give you a minute or two to make your decision on most plays, so choose wisely."

Turner has milked every drop of mojo he could from his stint with the Cowboys. In fact, you will probably read an article by Troy Aikman on the main FOX site in the next few days praising Turner. I don't want to knock Aikman. Aikman's toenail clippings contain more football knowledge than is lodged in my entire cranium. But Aikman just isn't impartial when it comes to his former coach. Aikman will often say that Turner made him into a great player, but Aikman was always destined to be a great player. He has it backwards: Aikman turned Turner into a viable coaching candidate. Chargers fans will pay the price over the next few years.

Offensive stats tell just part of the story. Compared to Turner the Motivator, Turner the Offensive Guru is a genius. Turner lets the boys be boys, with predictable results. His teams generally fade down the stretch and descend into squabbling while he sends out applications for his next gig. His Redskins underachieved. His Raiders underachieved. The Chargers, coming off a 14-2 season, have plenty of room for underachievement.

And yet Turner keeps getting hired, thanks in part to the old boy network and in part to the Turner Boosters who incomprehensible excuse and rationalize his failings. Turner is a great developer of young talent … you've heard that, right? In addition to Aikman and Irvin, he developed Trent Green, Terry Allen, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams, Frank Gore, and more. Actually, that's about it, and it’s a list that includes lots of players who would have been superstars unless a coach told them to bulk up to 400 pounds or cut out their ACLs in their sleep. Turner Boosters give their man credit for "developing" any player who ever did well on any of the teams he coached. The list looks pretty good because Turner coached all over the place and therefore rubbed shoulders with all sorts of top prospects.

Alex Smith is Norv's latest success story: Smith went from an awful rookie to a pretty mediocre soph (35th in the league in DPAR) in what looks like the standard career arc for a young quarterback. If Smith is an All Pro in two years, you can bet that Turner Boosters will put the feather in their man's cap.

Norv Turner is a lousy coach. He might be effective as a receivers or quarterbacks coach, where he can teach footwork and arm motion and never make a game-affecting decision. But he's awful as a coordinator and poison as a head coach. The Chargers made a stupid decision. He'll take them to 10-6 this season, miss the playoffs, and claim success. Broncos and Chiefs fans have reason to celebrate, and even Raiders fans can feel like the smart kids for a few weeks.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 19 Feb 2007

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