by Tom Gower
Three years ago, we started a series on "coaching all-stars," the best player-seasons in the history of some of the NFL's best and/or most famous coaches. For this latest installment, we're looking at Norv Turner.
After backing up Dan Fouts at Oregon, Turner coached collegiately at Oregon and USC before jumping to the NFL as the wide receivers coach of the Los Angeles Rams. He became offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys in 1991 and guided a top-four offense by DVOA for three seasons, winning two Super Bowl rings in the process. After the 1993 season, Jack Kent Cooke hired him to coach the Washington Redskins. He served as head coach of the Redskins from 1994 until he was fired late in the 2000 season by new owner Dan Snyder. During his tenure, the Redskins went 49-59-1 and made the playoffs once, beating the Detroit Lions in 1999 before losing at Tampa Bay on a botched field-goal attempt.
After three more seasons as an offensive coordinator, one in San Diego and two in Miami, he got another chance as a head coach in Oakland, leading the Raiders to 5-11 and 4-12 marks before he was fired. He spent 2006 as the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, then A.J. Smith hired him as head coach of the Chargers. In San Diego he won the AFC West in his first three seasons, but failed to make it to the Super Bowl. After missing the playoffs from 2010 to 2012, he and Smith were both fired.
As we chronicled in Pro Football Prospectus 2007, Norv is perhaps the least fortunate head coach in NFL history, as his teams have consistently underperformed their Pythagorean win projections. His career record is 114-122-1, while his by-season cumulative Pythagorean record is 124.6-112.4. Over fifteen seasons of coach, that's underachieving by about two-thirds of a win each year. Only once in his career, when the 2009 Chargers went 13-3 with 11.3 Pythagorean wins, did his team overachieve their Pythagorean record by more than one win. By way of comparison, six teams did that in 2012.
Beyond underachievement, Turner is renowned as a fine offensive mind and developer of quarterbacks, while perhaps not being the most inspiring leader or having the best defenses. Let's see what kind of team we can put together with that.
Brad Johnson had a nice year in 1999 and Gus Frerotte made the Pro Bowl in 1996, but Rivers has been Norv's star pupil at quarterback. He led the NFL in DVOA and finished second in DYAR in 2008 and 2009.
At running back, I thought LaDainian Tomlinson's 2007 All-Pro season would be a lock, but Davis had a phenomenal season in 1999. He ran for 1405 yards and 17 touchdowns, similar to what Tomlinson did, but his advanced statistics are even better. His 526 rushing DYAR ranks tied for second in DVOA history (1991-present). He had a 60 percent success rate, one of the best ever for a high-usage back, and is one of only three backs to have a rushing DVOA of at least 30% with 200 or more carries. (Marshall Faulk in 2000 and Jamaal Charles in 2011 are the others.) His receiving value was minimal or negative, but he was so valuable as a runner it did not really matter. Lorenzo Neal in Tomlinson's great season should help clear the way for him.
Wide receiver was less impressive than I thought it would be. His star receivers in Washington were Henry Ellard and Michael Westbrook, both of whom had seasons ranking toward the bottom of the top ten in DYAR. Jackson led the NFL in DVOA and ranked second in DYAR in 2009, when he made the Pro Bowl and at least one All-Pro team. Floyd's game, meanwhile, seems tailor-made for him to play in a Norv Turner offense, and he finished second in DVOA and seventh in DYAR in 2011.
Tight end was "pick Gates's best season," though Stephen Alexander did make the Pro Bowl in 2000. Gates only played in 10 games in 2010, but I ultimately decided I could not ignore a career-best and then-record-tying for tight ends 358 DYAR and insane 76.3% DVOA.
*-"Skill players" is a convenient, widely-understood way to refer to these positions. Other NFL players are skilled, too.
McNeill's 2007 Pro Bowl appearance was the only postseason honor for a Turner-coached offensive tackle. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a rep pick as he suffered from a slump after a fine rookie season. His 2009 campaign was better, with fewer blown blocks leading to sacks and more success for the Chargers running to his side. At right tackle, I struggled a lot to find a candidate I was very comfortable with selecting. Simmons was a member of the Hogs that protected Mark Rypien in that fabulous 1991 season, but was in his thirties by the time Turner arrived in Washington. A young Jon Jansen, who became a starter in Washington in 1999, was my other candidate.
Dielman made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2007 through 2010 and was a second-team All-Pro in 2008 and 2009. Johnson made the Pro Bowl and Dr. Z's All-Pro team as he helped pave the way for Davis in 1999. Hardwick lacks postseason awards, but played all 16 games in 2010 for a Chargers team that was very good running up the middle.
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DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN
DE: Marco Coleman, 2000 Redskins
NT: Jamal Williams, 2007 Chargers
DE: Derrick Burgess, 2005 Raiders
OLB: Ken Harvey, 1995 Redskins
ILB: Marvcus Patton, 1997 Redskins
ILB: Stephen Cooper, 2009 Chargers
OLB: Shaun Phillips, 2010 Chargers
Outside of Williams and Harvey, who made the Pro Bowl from 1994 through 1997 and made Dr. Z’s All-Pro team in 1995, this position grouping was a bit of a struggle. The defensive ends both made the Pro Bowl thanks to double-digit sack seasons; Coleman had 12.0, while Burgess led the league with 16.0 and gives us a representative from Norv's Oakland tenure.
The other outside linebacker spot came down to Phillips or Shawne Merriman. 2007 was Merriman's last good season, but I ultimately went with Phillips as a better all-around player. Inside linebacker lacked a single standout player, nor did any obvious candidates come to mind. Neither Patton nor Cooper, let alone any other inside/middle linebacker Turner has coached, earned any major postseason honors. I also considered a young Derek Smith from late in Turner's Washington tenure, Kirk Morrison in Oakland, and Donald Butler for his work in 2012.
Both Green and Washington's other starting corner, Cris Dishman, made the Pro Bowl in 1997 as the Redskins finished eighth in the league in pass defense DVOA. Green also made the Pro Bowl in 1996. Bailey made the Pro Bowl in 2000, his second season in the league. The other cornerback to earn postseason honors under Norv was Antonio Cromartie in 2007, when he had 10 interceptions despite starting only eight games.
Eric Weddle is one of the best free safeties in the NFL. He finally made the All-Pro team in 2011 after snagging seven interceptions to help prove his point. Shade was a runner-up on Dr. Z's All-Pro team in 1999. Lacking another standout candidate at safety, that was good enough for me.
Turner has rarely had an outstanding kicker. Nate Kaeding made the All-Pro team in 2009 and came out best on placekicks by our numbers, but San Diego was below average on kickoffs. Janikowski had a very good season in 2004, making 25-of-28 field goals, and was better on kickoffs. I give the slight edge to Janikowski, though Kaeding has a case.
Punter was not quite the surfeit of riches it was for Dan Reeves, but it was a surprisingly strong position. Reggie Roby in 1994, Turk in 1996, and Shane Lechler in 2004 were all All-Pro punters for Turner. Turk's 1996 season comes out best by our numbers, just ahead of his 1995 season, with Mike Scifres' 2008 season in third place.
Mitchell made the All-Pro team in 1995, but I ultimately went with the season before. His conventional statistics were very similar in both seasons, and 1994 came out better by our numbers (25.6 points of combined return value compared to 19.3).
When you coach for 15 seasons and finish with a sub-.500 record, this is the kind of team you end up with. The traditional Achilles' heel of a Norv Turner-coached team has been defense, as only the 2000 Redskins, 2007 Chargers, and 2010 Chargers have finished in the top ten in defensive DVOA under his watch. The secondary is somewhat better than I thought it would be, but is the defensive front seven really better than the one the San Francisco 49ers had this year? You would think you would be able to luck your way into more good defensive players if you coached for 15 years, but apparently Norv could not.
Previous coaching all-star teams: