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Newspapers often prepare for post-deadline deaths by writing obituaries of the living. Every major daily’s got a Joe DiMaggio story in the hopper, for example. The Washington Post database even has Katharine Graham’s obit ready to go when she does. Well, the professional demise of the current Redskins coach is, god willing, imminent. (Don’t read too much into that odd win in Oakland, or that DiMaggio had a birthday bash in his room last week.) That means it’s time for all responsible journalists to work something up for Norv Turner. Something like an appreciation. Only the opposite. And in this town, documents have a way of being thrown out to the public before their time….
Norval Turner coached the Redskins from ’94 to ’98, during what will be remembered as one of the most disappointing five-year stretches in franchise history. It all started when Ernie Zampese, then a Rams assistant coach, gushed to Skins general manager Charley Casserly about Turner, who had been a Rams underling prior to his short stint as Dallas’ offensive coordinator. Many of the plays Turner called for Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and the biggest and best offensive line in the history of the NFLall of whom preceded him in Dallasseemed to work, so he got tagged as an offensive Wunderkind.
It’s worth noting that with Turner as coordinator, Dallas never won when Smith sat out. Zampese apparently withheld that stat about Turner from the Skins.
The rest is, well, misery.
Jack Kent Cooke, in introducing Turner, hailed his new coach as an inevitable Hall of Famer.
Turner’s impact was immediate. He quickly became the first Redskins coach ever to go a whole season without a single home win (1994). He established himself as the first Redskins coach to lose to the historically laughable Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (His teams did so three times, including twice in a single year. All the losses were pre-Dungy.) He is also now known as the only Redskins coach ever told by a Cowboys coach (Barry Switzer in 1996) that a regular season game against Washington would be treated merely as “a bye week.” And, in his final season in Washington, Turner became the only Redskins coach ever to be used as the butt of jokes during Jay Leno’s monologues.
From the get-go, the townspeople were largely misinformed about Turner’s abilities. Although he never proved he could coach his way out of the bags that Skins fans took to wearing over their heads during his tenure, Turner showed that when it came to befriending and manipulating the powers that be in local media, he really was an offensive genius. In press conference after press conference, he blamed lesser players (special teamers were favored scapegoats) or referees for the steady stream of nonvictories. According to Turner’s refined whine, if only his players could “make plays” as he drew them up, then the Skins would win. And, thanks to the compliant beat reporters, “If only…” was the message that was relayed to the masses, loss after loss.
“He’s perhaps the best offensive coach in the NFL, certainly in the top two or three,” wrote the Post’s Richard Justice in 1997. “No coach has a better track record of grooming and developing quarterbacks, and Turner is as good as any coach in the NFL at making the most of the talent he’s given.”
At the time those words were scribbled, Turner’s record as Skins coachthe only head coaching job he’d ever hadstood at 18-30. As for his “track record” as a groomer of young quarterbacks, well, Turner had already proven himself an utter fraud by then. Each and every quarterback to take a snap in any of Turner’s first four years hereGus Frerotte, John Friesz, Jeff Hostetler, and, of course, Heath Shulerleft or will leave the Redskins a mere shell of what he was before falling prey to the coach’s blame games. Forget the ludicrous praise: History will remember Turner as somebody who “developed” quarterbacks the way Fat Man developed Hiroshima.
It could be argued, to be fair, that at certain moments Turner appeared as good a judge of young talent as he was a head coach. Though failing to ever bring the Redskins to the playoffs, Turner did once coach a team in the postseasona squad of college all-stars in the 1996 Senior Bowl. And while in that position, he pronounced quarterback Jake Plummer “not ready” for the NFL. That same Plummer almost singlehandedly staked the Cardinals to a 31-0 first-half lead against Turner’s Redskins in one of his last games as coach.
Turner clearly pined for Dallas while in the Redskins employ. To the detriment of the Redskins organization, he put pile after pile of Cowboy detritus into Skins uniform. None of the former Dallas players ever contributed more than a really bad attitude after coming north. His record on this count is staggering.
Among Turner’s Texas recruits: hyper-fragile offensive lineman John Gesek, who could be declared physically unable to perform as center, guard, or tackle; big-talking, little-blocking tight end Scott Galbraith; James Washington, an odd-bird safety who went after Skins fans with much more ferocity than he did opposing ball carriers; and Alvin Harper, a washed-up flanker with hands of stone who ended up averaging several hundred thousand dollars per catch while here. Turner even brought Jay Novacek to Redskin Park after back injuries left the onetime Cowboy great eligible for good parking spots at the mall. (To woo Novacek, Turner arranged for him to go on a duck-hunting trip with Shuler.) Quite fittingly, Turner’s tenure as Skins coach ended with a meaningless game against the Cowboys on Dec. 27.
It should not be ignored, finally, that the unquestioned stars of Turner’s fifth and last Redskins team were Darrell Green and Brian Mitchell, both holdovers from the Joe Gibbs years.
As for the guy who touted Turner to the Redskins: Ernie Zampese thrived as a result of Turner’s signing with Washington. When Turner left Dallas to come here, Zampese quickly fled a horrific situation with the Rams and filled Turner’s old job as offensive coordinator for Dallas. And with Zampese calling plays, Aikman, Smith, Irvin, et al. proved they could win as easily and often without Turner as with him. Zampese wears a Super Bowl ring now, and he, too, is tagged as an offensive genius. Look for his name to be dropped when the search for the next Redskins coach kicks off. Soon, in other words…Dave McKenna