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Once punching bag, now genius

Norv Turner hasn't changed in eight weeks. Perceptions of him have.

By GARY SHELTON, Times Columnist
Published January 20, 2008


FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

The smartest man in the world walks into a room, and the lights flicker.

Deep thoughts cascade through the suddenly beautiful mind of Norv Turner like pass patterns, bouncing off the walls, expanding the universe. You have never seen brilliance such as this, and still, Turner is getting smarter by the minute. Soon, entire cities will be able to run off of his brain power.

Odd, isn't it, how much Turner looks like the nitwit who was wearing his shoes two months ago.

It is amazing how a victory or two can smarten a coach up. Eight games ago, the common perception of Turner is that he was one of those lost souls who wanders around strange neighborhoods asking for pie. He was bewildered, the critics said. He was confused. For crying out loud, he was Norv!

Then the Chargers won a playoff game against the Titans, and Norv was Plato. After that, they upset the Colts, and Norv was Edison.

Today, Turner attempts to provide an answer to the New England Patriots.

If he can accomplish that, he will be promoted all the way to Einstein.

None of this is new, of course, and none of it is unique to Turner. In the NFL, losing brings out an unrelenting meanness. Victory, on the other hand, can turn yesterday's dolt into today's genius. The closer a coach gets to the mountaintop, the more he looks as if it should be the wise man on top of it.

In the case of Turner, the transition has come so abruptly that it says more about the critics than it does the criticized. Perhaps there is a lesson there. Looking back, perhaps a lot of people need to get smarter, too.

For Turner, these days must be particularly sweet. Everyone enjoys vindication, even an NFL coach. Forgive Turner, then, if his mind wanders today when he walks into Gillette Stadium for today's AFC title game. All in all, he has had worse ways to spend an afternoon.

There was the day in late September when he was mocked during a Chargers' loss to Kansas City. That left San Diego with a 1-3 record, and yes, the fans noticed that was more games than former coach Marty Schottenheimer lost all of last year. And so Turner stood there, listening to fans chant "Mar-ty, Mar-ty." A half-dozen games later, and the Chargers were 5-5 and seemed to be on their way to nowhere special. Four games into his career, fans wanted him fired. A web site - FireNorv.net - was created.

It was a hard time to be Norv. His resume - a bit of success in Washington, none at all in Oakland and a career record of 58-82-1 entering the season - made him an easy target. No one wanted to hear how he was a new coach with two new coordinators. No one wanted to acknowledge that the first two losses came to New England and Green Bay, pretty good teams themselves.

Turner was described as passionless, as miscast, as the scatterbrained coach who was responsible for unraveling the promise of a franchise. Yes, the Cowboys had won two Super Bowls with Turner as offensive coordinator, but supposedly, the multiple responsibilities of a head coach were too much for him.

Then the winning streak started. Once it continued into the postseason - as it never did with Schottenheimer - Turner found acceptance. Instead of vacant, Turner looked prescient. Instead of detached, he looked controlled. Along the way, Turner accomplished the rarest of things; he won back a team that might have slipped away with another loss or two.

Oh, and that Web site called FireNorv.net? There is a new one now. It is called GiveNorvaRaise.com.

All of this is silly, because the truth is that Turner is the same guy. He has not discovered another letter besides an X and an O. He has not found a new route to the end zone. If the late-season success indicates that Turner is a fairly intelligent guy, well, that was true in the early-season disappointment, too.

Today, of course, Turner is going to need his smarts. No one else has solved these Patriots. He's going to have to solve the riddle of Tom Brady and the enigma of Randy Moss and the mystery of Wes Welker. He is going to have to cure the uncommon cold.

Along the way, Turner might have to pick up a medical degree. If the Chargers were healthy, they might have a shot at this game. But LaDainian Tomlinson has nursed a knee, and Philip Rivers is a gametime decision, and Antonio Gates has a bad toe. There are a lot of touchdowns on the injury report.

How does Turner win this game? He has to run the ball enough to make Brady a spectator. He has to get a couple of turnovers. He has to cover Moss deep. He has to win most of his third downs.

Yeah, it's a lot for a coach to figure out.

Good thing Norv is such a smart guy, isn't it?