Will throwing Cottrell under the bus backfire on Chargers' Turner?
Norv Turner fired defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell to cover his backside
The Chargers' D has struggled, but in part due to Shawne Merriman's absence
With the exception of last year, Turner has a checkered coaching history
The Chargers' decision to fire defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell on Tuesday was about one thing: Norv Turner covering his own backside.
When you've been fired twice as a head coach and your third team has lost three of four (to fall to 3-5 overall) and is being viewed as the biggest disappointment of the season, you tend to look for ways to take the focus off yourself. Which is what Turner did.
He took a good assistant coach, threw him under the bus and mashed his right foot on the gas pedal.
That is not to say the defense was playing acceptably. It ranked 28th overall, last against the pass, 28th in points allowed and 25th in percentage of third-down stops. But those problems go well beyond Cottrell.
If you watch closely there were too many missed tackles, too many "if onlys" and too many blown assignments. It's ridiculous to put that on the coordinator's shoulders. Cottrell is the same guy who coached the unit to within a game of the Super Bowl last season and the same person who was offered an extension in the offseason. Did he forget how to coach in less than a year?
Another thing, there's no overstating the significance of losing All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman to season-ending knee surgery after one week. Merriman was a guy opponents had to account for; no one else on the unit even comes close -- which made me wonder:
If Turner had lost QB Philip Rivers after one week and the offense struggled, would he have held himself to the same standard that he held Cottrell? Would he recommend firing himself?
"I'm not going to answer that question," Turner told me Wednesday. "I evaluate everything that everyone does."
Truth is, Cottrell was set up for failure from the moment that Turner brought Ron Rivera to town as his inside linebackers coach last season. Everyone in that locker room knew that Rivera, a respected defensive coordinator with the Bears from 2004-06, was the guy that Turner really wanted as his coordinator. That much was obvious before Turner got the San Diego job, when he interviewed for the Dallas opening and told owner Jerry Jones that he wanted Rivera to be his defensive czar. He only signed off on Cottrell because he knew that's who general manager A.J. Smith wanted (in fact, Smith "interviewed" Cottrell for the position a couple of weeks before hiring Turner, while at the Pro Bowl).
Human nature is to look to others for help when things go wrong. How many times do you think San Diego's defenders glanced at Rivera from the corner of their eyes in recent weeks and wondered, "What would he do in this situation?"
We'll find out now that Rivera has been named coordinator. Still it's interesting how history repeats itself.
The talk among some members of the Bears organization is that the club opted not to renew Rivera's contract after a Super Bowl season because coach Lovie Smith wanted longtime friend Bob Babich in that position. Now the perception is that Rivera has been named defensive coordinator because his friend, who happens to be the head coach of the Chargers, wanted him in that position.
The person who loses credibility in the shakeup is Turner. More than a few coaches around the league are looking at him through wary eyes. Following last season he fired wide receivers coach James Lofton without ever telling Lofton that he was dissatisfied with Lofton's performance -- this despite grousing before games to opposing coaches that he didn't have enough assistants who knew his offense. And now he he has made Cottrell the fall guy for a situation that clearly is not all Cottrell's doing.
Again, I would love to see just how effective the San Diego offense would be if Rivers or running back LaDainian Tomlinson were taken away for a season. Sure, Tomlinson has been slowed through the first eight weeks with a toe injury, but he's still on the field, still a focal point of defensive coordinators. The same cannot be said of Merriman, who had 39.5 sacks through his first three seasons.
"It's fair to evaluate that," says Turner. "But are these things ever fair? At some point you have to evaluate the situation and say, What's the best thing to get us turned around?
"I've been in that situation. In Washington we lost Brad Johnson for a month and lost three of four, and I lost my job."
That dismissal still makes Turner cringe as if a dentist's drill has hit an exposed nerve. The Redskins, one year removed from their first playoff appearance in seven years, started the season 6-2 and were tied for first midway through the season.
But after a loss to Tennessee, Washington had to play the month of November without Johnson, a Pro Bowl QB the previous season. The Redskins lost two of the three games he missed. Worse, Johnson was not sharp when he returned and was replaced by Jeff George in a 9-7 loss to the Giants that prevented the Redskins from gaining a share of first place. The next week, Turner was fired.
He bombed on his next coaching stop in Oakland -- but doesn't everyone in recent years -- and appeared to change perceptions of himself as a good coordinator and poor coach last season when he guided the Chargers to the AFC Championship Game. But the fact remains that San Diego's eight consecutive wins after a 5-5 start was due more to Tomlinson's leadership than Turner's.
The team did not get right until Tomlinson stepped out of character and called a players' only meeting and drove home the message that former head coach Marty Schottenheimer, 14-2 in his final season but one-and-done in the playoffs, was not coming back. He also challenged his teammates by asking if they wanted to be winners or losers.
The change in coordinators represents the biggest decision Turner has made in his short time in San Diego. If the move works -- and it should initially, as Rivera's first game as the Chargers' playcaller will come against the woeful Chiefs two Sundays from now -- all will be forgotten. But if it doesn't, then Turner will have a tough time erasing the perception that he sacrificed a good man and good coach to take the heat off himself.