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Chargers retain Turner, Smith
SAN DIEGO – The most successful head coach-general manager combination in Chargers history will stay intact in 2012.
The organization will retain Head Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith, the team announced Tuesday.
“Bottom line, I believe these two men give us the best chance to get back to the playoffs,” Chairman of the Board – President Dean Spanos said. “A.J. Smith is the best man to improve our roster, and Norv Turner is the best man to lead that roster on the field.
“We all have our quirks and faults, but I want A.J. and Norv on my side. They are the right men to help us win a championship.”
Turner and Smith’s teams are 49-31 in five seasons, averaging nearly 10 wins a year during the regular season. The Chargers made the playoffs from 2007-09 under their direction but fell one game short in each of the last two seasons, a disappointment for an organization that had won the AFC West five times in six years.
San Diego finished 8-8 this season and has not won a playoff game since ’08. Spanos views the 2011 Chargers as a middle-of-the-pack team, making his evaluation more nuanced.
“Is your cup half empty or half full? You have to decide which way your team is headed,” Spanos said. “If it’s headed down, which ours clearly has been the last couple years, what do you need to do to change it and how fast can you change it and what’s the best way to effectively make those changes?
“Keeping this intact gives us the best chance to win and change this thing as quickly as possible. I believe very strongly I did the right thing for this organization to help us get back on track.”
Spanos admitted he was “pretty down” after San Diego lost its sixth consecutive game Nov. 27 against Denver, but the team’s resiliency under Turner and its enormous effort during the last five games of the season when the players could’ve folded made a strong impression.
Spanos also cited personnel decisions from 2007-09 that didn’t work out as a reason the Chargers have missed the playoffs and said the team will take a hard look at game and clock management. He already has spoken with Smith and Turner, opening what will be a lengthy discussion on things he feels the organization can do differently next season and things he’d like the team to analyze and discuss.
“Now we will take a hard look at everything, from player evaluation to coaching to the rash of injuries we’ve suffered in recent years,” Spanos said. “We need to improve across the board and I’m going to make sure we do.”
The decision indicates Spanos believes Turner and Smith are the men who give San Diego the best chance to fix the trajectory of the team.
Only five NFL teams have more playoff appearances and six NFL teams have more playoff wins than the Chargers since Smith hired Turner in ’07. The two have a solid working relationship with Spanos as well as a combined 54 seasons of NFL experience.
“I think it’s extremely important to have the head coach and the general manager on the same page,” Smith said. “I respect (Turner) immensely. Particularly the head coach and the general manager, we build this thing together. We roll up our sleeves together. We deal with adversity. We enjoy the highs. We make it through the lows and stay the course.
“I feel very fortunate to be working with (Turner) on a day-to-day basis, and I do believe he’s someone that can take us to a championship.”
The Chargers have won 88 regular-season games and five AFC West championships in nine years with Smith as general manager and have not had a losing season since ’03. Smith has acquired 14 Pro Bowl players in that span, including a draft-day trade for Philip Rivers in ’04 and signing Antonio Gates and Kris Dielman as college free agents.
More recently, his 2010 draft is beginning to look strong. Ryan Mathews, a Pro Bowl alternate, topped 1,500 yards of offense in his second season. Donald Butler, a first-year starter at inside linebacker, earned respect around the league as one of the better players on the Chargers’ defense. Cam Thomas made major progress at nose tackle and finished second on the team with four sacks, and Darrell Stuckey was one of the team’s most valuable special teams players.
Spanos indicated the 2010 and 2011 draft classes are showing positive signs and said the team will not waiver from its long-standing philosophy.
“We’re not going to piecemeal a team together. I fundamentally believe this and I always have, and A.J.’s done this for nine years: you build your team through the draft. And we’ve got to get back to doing that (well).”
Turner, meanwhile, has kept a steady approach in two tumultuous seasons, earning a deep level of respect among his players. Rivers, Gates, Dielman, Nick Hardwick, Eric Weddle and Takeo Spikes were among the veteran leaders who gave strong vocal endorsements for Turner after the season, and San Diego’s play during the final five weeks backed their opinions.
At 4-7 and in danger of the team falling off the map, the Chargers instead won four of its final five games by an average of 20.8 points. The only AFC West team with a positive scoring margin in 2011, San Diego narrowly missed postseason for a second consecutive year, felled by a tough Week 16 opponent on the road.
San Diego’s offense continues to rank among the NFL’s elite under Turner, scoring more than 400 points in all five seasons. The Chargers are the only team in the NFL to pass for 4,500 yards and rush for 1,800 yards in each of the last two seasons.
“If this team needed a quick fix, maybe we wouldn’t be sitting here talking,” Turner said, blaming himself for being too trusting of players and assistant coaches at times and expressing a willingness to be open to Spanos’ recommendations. “We’re going to look at everything we can and see what we can do better.”
Spanos expressed great disappointment in the results of the last two seasons, but acknowledged the razor-thin margin of error in the NFL from season-to-season and believes Turner and Smith can get the team back to the good side of that gap. Spanos he has not given a playoffs-or-else ultimatum or put conditions on the pair’s future employment, but made it clear how important it is to him for the team to get back to the playoffs.
“The net bottom line is you have to win in this league. They know it. I know it. Everybody knows it,” Spanos said.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I can talk until I’m blue in the face that this is the right thing to do, but until we go out and win and change the course of where this team has been heading, get back into the playoffs and make a serious run for the Super Bowl, anything short of that isn’t going to change their minds.”