It was early 1991 and Jimmy Johnson, the third-year coach of the Cowboys, and his first lieutenant, Dave Wannstedt, were looking for an offensive coordinator to breathe life into an attack that had finished 28th in the league the previous season.
"We talked to a few guys," recalls Wannstedt, now the coach in Miami. " Gary Stevens, Joe Pendry, a couple I didn't even know. Then I said, 'How about Norv Turner?' I'd coached with him at USC. When Jimmy and I were at the University of Miami in the 1980s, we visited the L.A. Rams' camp. Norv was the receivers coach there. We had a few drinks and talked football."
Turner was hired in Dallas, and the rest is history. In his first season overseeing the offense, wideout Michael Irvin caught 93 passes (a club record at the time), Emmitt Smith won the first of his three straight NFL rushing titles, and Troy Aikman went to his first Pro Bowl after his passer rating spiked more than 20 points. In Turner's second and third seasons, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
Now Turner gets the call again. Wannstedt has brought him to Miami to turn its offense, which has played in the shadow of Dan Marino since the quarterback retired after the '99 season, into something that will have defenses on their heels.
"You can't typecast Norv," Aikman says. "What he'll do in Miami will be different from what he did in Dallas or when he was in Washington. But his real strength is gearing his offense to his personnel, using those people in ways they're most comfortable—and then creating mismatches."
Some of the personnel was already in place when Turner arrived. The biggest addition is premier running back Ricky Williams, acquired in a trade from the Saints a month after Turner was hired. "I don't think I could have come to a better situation," Williams says. "Number 1, playing on grass is always nice. Number 2, I love playing in the heat. Number 3, Coach Turner isn't bashful about pounding away when the situation is right, and number 4, we have a great defense. I feel that the stage is set."
Deep threat Chris Chambers, who burst onto the scene as a rookie last season, will be Jay Fiedler's go-to guy. Chambers averaged a league-best 18.4 yards a catch last year while learning the offense, and he should jump-start a deep passing game that hasn't scared anybody since the days of the Marks brothers, Clayton and Duper. "They've got me moving all over the field, trying to get me open," Chambers says, "kind of like the way the Rams do it with Marshall Faulk."
In 1996 in Washington, Turner's system produced 1,014 yards for 35-year-old Henry Ellard and a league-leading 19.5 yards per catch. Last season Turner oversaw a Chargers offense that had three receivers who averaged at least 15.6 yards a reception. Twenty-one teams didn't have even one.
For Miami, of course, the key is Fiedler, who's been a tough competitor since Marino retired but not exactly a precision passer. "We'll play to his strength," Turner says. "He'll break containment. He'll throw off bootlegs, off rollouts. When we have to, we'll use maximum protection with tight ends and a fullback. But the ball will be coming out quickly."
"The beauty of Norv's system," Fiedler says, "is that he likes to go downfield, but you're not going to drop back and hold the ball forever. It's all on the break, it's all timing. For me, it's perfect. I just hope the receivers are on the same page."