His face was flushed, his words were rushed, and his voice was shrill and defiant. The second-most-embattled leader in the nation's capital was sick of being interrogated, and now Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner got up from his desk and issued a spirited defense of his administration: "I'm not going to change the way I am because of some perceived pressure. I believe in the way we do things, and I know our way works. If people want to take a few isolated incidents and turn them into some sort of character indictment, that's bull—. If someone takes a shot at me, I'll get pissed. People who've seen me when I get mad know it's not something they want to experience."
The words conveyed a commanding presence, which Turner's critics in the Redskins' locker room say has been lacking under his leadership. Turner is under siege from Washington fans who, in the waning minutes of a 38-16 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday that dropped their team to 0-4, chanted, "Norv must go," and from his players, at least two of whom, wideout Leslie Shepherd and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, have made scenes in front of their teammates in the past year. Turner stayed mum during a Monday night game last month when Stubblefield, one of Washington's high-priced off-season free-agent acquisitions, tapped him on the shoulder and began berating him during the fourth quarter of a 45-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Witnesses say Stubblefield, the NFC Defensive Player of the Year while playing for the Niners last season, screamed, "Look at these guys, Norv. They're getting their asses kicked! They're like zombies out there. What are you going to do about it?"
In his fifth season as the Redskins' coach, Turner is fighting to keep his job and to preserve his dignity. Though his lowest moments have been nowhere near as embarrassing as Bill Clinton's, his numbers (26-41-1, no playoff appearances) aren't nearly as good as the President's. After just missing a postseason berth in 1996 and '97, Washington committed $57.4 million over six years to sign Stubblefield and trade for fellow defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, heightening expectations within an organization spoiled by consistent success. The 0-4 start is the Skins' worst since 1981.
This is considered a make-or-break season for Turner in many circles, but apparently none of them include Redskins president John Kent Cooke, who last March extended Turner's contract through the 2001 season. "The only circle that counts is the one around this desk," Cooke said last Friday from his office at the Skins' Ashburn, Va., training facility. "Norv has everything that I'd like to see in a coach. I trust his judgment, his experience, his talent and his motivational skills." Cooke later added a caveat: "In order to win, we must be competitive. As long as they keep trying, I'll remain confident we can turn this around."
Cooke, though, might not have a say in Turner's future. He hopes to prevail in a bidding war to purchase the franchise from a charitable foundation established by his late father, Jack Kent Cooke. John Kent Cooke, who turned 57 on Sunday, has already assembled an ownership group and said last Friday, "I have every expectation that I'll remain behind this desk until at least the age of my father, and he died at 84."
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Turner. Fans at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium booed the coach as he left the field following each of the Skins' two home games, and last week Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon criticized Turner's leadership skills, asserting that "there isn't enough fear of consequences at Redskin Park."
Though Turner is regarded as a nice guy and an astute play-caller, he has yet to quiet the critics who claim he does not have the necessary juice to succeed as a head coach. "If you talked to 100 coaches who knew Norv when he was an assistant at USC and with the [Los Angeles] Rams and the [Dallas] Cowboys, 75 percent of them would say they're shocked he's an NFL head coach," says a former NFL assistant coach who has worked alongside Turner. Adds Chicago Bears running backs coach Joe Brodsky, who worked with Turner in Dallas, "The guy's well-organized, bright and articulate, and he's got a great drive to be a winner. It's hard for me to believe he can't win, but obviously something's wrong."
Some Redskins say Turner has lost respect in the locker room because he has been hesitant to challenge Stubblefield and other vociferous players. Several of the Skins also complain that Turner often loses his composure during games, detracting from the flow of his well-crafted offensive game plans. And Turner, who established a reputation as a quarterback mentor by helping Troy Aikman achieve stardom with the Cowboys, has failed in that department in Washington.
There are also rumblings from some Redskins that Washington's work ethic isn't what it ought to be. Stubblefield often exhorts teammates to pick up their effort in practice. He also gave videotapes of 49ers practices to Redskins coaches to show the staff how he believes practices should be run—shorter but more efficiently, less physical but more mentally challenging. One veteran gripes that Turner repeatedly criticizes some players on the practice field and in meetings, while the mistakes of others are ignored. "I'm going to handle situations the way I feel is best for the individual involved," Turner says.
One potentially inflammatory situation occurred last October during halftime of a 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Oilers. Upset over the Redskins' performance and that not enough passes had been thrown his way, Shepherd threw his helmet and began blasting teammates for their lack of effort. Turner tried to calm him, but Shepherd had to be ushered off by several players. Turner and Shepherd then had a private discussion, and Shepherd started the second half. The following day Turner met with Shepherd and informed him that another such outburst wouldn't be tolerated.