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Tuesday, January, 8, 2007 | Allow me to be a bit whimsical, even sarcastic, about the Chargers’ 17-6 win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC playoffs.
The national media had descended upon San Diego ready for a public lynching. They had preconceived stories they wanted to write about Norv Turner being an offensive coordinator in over his head as a head coach.
But they needed the Chargers to lose to file their stories. As we know now, the Chargers sent the national writers and TV talking heads back to the re-write desk with their win that earned a date in the next round Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts.
On Monday at Chargers Park, instead of Turner hearing questions about his competence as a coach, the queries were about his incompetence as a dancer.
TV cameras n which don’t miss a thing in the playoffs — had captured his sideline dance with defensive end Luis Castillo once the victory was sealed.
“Horrible,” is how Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson described Turner’s dance. “I don’t know what that was. Luis was trying salsa or something. He needs to take some classes.”
Turner, perceived to be all business on the sidelines, laughed when asked to respond to a dance he didn’t expect to be captured by TV.
“It was a Luis Castillo impersonation,” Turner said. “It was a set up, and I’m going to get even with Luis. We talked after the Denver game about how you used to be able to do things on the sidelines and no one could get you. I’ll restrain from doing that again. ABC called about Dancing with the Stars, or some show like that, but I declined.”
It was all guffaws now that Turner is 2-1 in the playoffs, having gone 1-1 with the Washington Redskins in 1999 before coming to San Diego and winning in the post-season on the same field that Don Coryell and Bobby Ross won as Chargers head coaches.
But, just for the sake of showing how American sports fans overreact in this era of sports, let’s take a look at a couple of crucial plays in the game that went the Chargers’ way.
After Tennessee took a 3-0 lead, the Chargers’ first possession began at their 26-yard line. On second-and-3, Turner apparently had made the right call. Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates was isolated on a linebacker that can’t cover him. Quarterback Philip Rivers was about to hit Gates for a big gain n 30 yards, maybe more.
But Titans head coach Jeff Fisher also had made a good call. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan blitzed, hit Rivers and forced a fumble. The ball was loose, but instead of Tennessee recovering at the Chargers’ 19-yard line and being in position to go up 10-0, Tomlinson recovered the fumble (has this guy ever not made the right play?)
If Rivers had hit Gates, Turner is the smart coach. If the Titans had recovered the fumble, Turner is incompetent.
In 21st century American sports, a bouncing oblong ball holds that kind of power over a coach’s reputation.
Let’s look at another play, this one early in the second quarter.
Tennessee quarterback Vince Young had the Titans driving, facing a second-and-9 at the Chargers’ 12. Chris Brown ran around right end and appeared to have room in front of him, but suddenly Chargers’ outside linebacker Shawne Merriman hit Brown from behind and punched the ball free.
At the 9-yard line, Chargers outside linebacker Shaun Phillips recovered the loose ball before a Tennessee player got to it or it rolled out of bounds, allowing the Titans to retain possession.
What if Merriman doesn’t force a fumble and Phillips doesn’t recover it? Do the Titans eventually score and take a 10-0 lead? Does that mean Turner is incompetent and Fisher is the wily coach pulling off an upset?
Everyone wants to know the magic that has reincarnated Turner as a head coach after his tenures with bad teams in Washington and Oakland.
Part of the answer is as simple as Tomlinson recovering that fumble Sunday as opposed to the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in September when the fumble off a sack of Rivers was returned for a touchdown.
And part of the answer is that nothing has really changed for the Chargers other than they’ve gained consistency with time under Turner. Tomlinson, who was a rookie in 2001 when Turner was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator, says he’s the same now as he was then.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Norv,” Tomlinson said. “My rookie year we went through a rough stretch, and even though Norv wasn’t the head coach, he stood up and took the criticism about how the offense wasn’t performing.
“He was still the leader of our offensive group,” LT continued. “He stood up and said, ‘Hey, guys, it doesn’t matter what people are saying.’ He never changed. He was never shook from that point. It’s the same way with him today. He never blinked, even when he was getting criticized. He never made us feel as players he wasn’t confident about what he could do and what his team could do.”
American sports media and fans in this era insist blame be assigned, but sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces.
It reminds me of a post-game interview with Penn State coach Joe Paterno a couple of years ago after his team lost on the last play at Michigan. Two future NFL draft picks — quarterback Chad Henne and wide receiver Mario Manningham — hooked up for a touchdown pass as time expired.
Reporters asked Paterno the same question three or four different ways to get him to say he should have done something different.
Finally, old Joe threw up his hands and said, “Hey, what do you want from me? The guy made a great play.”
In American sports today, the other team’s guy can’t make a great play. Your guy screwed up is the only acceptable answer.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.