Monday, January 18, 2010

If you're going to blame anyone for the Chargers' loss, blame Norv Turner

Philip Rivers took a good deal of criticism for the Chargers 17-14 loss to the Jets, never minding that he was facing the #1 pass defense in the NFL and arguably the best cover corner in the game in Darrelle Revis, as well as working with a terrible running game led by a washed up 31 year old LaDainian Tomlinson, whose performance in light of a so-so season was enough to begin the drumbeat to get rid of him.

Thankfully, some critics have noted that yesterday's loss was not Rivers' fault. And anyone watching with an indiscriminate eye would have noticed that Rivers and the Chargers were able to move the football with the medium-range pass against that vaunted Jets pass defense. It was sudden drive stalls that kept stopping the Chargers most of the time, not a consistent inability to move the football.

Peter King's claim that Rivers' 298 yard passing line was misleading isn't an accurate claim. Let's look at the Chargers' drives and Rivers' contribution to those drives.

1st quarter:

14:56... 6 plays, -2 yards, punt at 11:50... Rivers: 1-2 for 6 yards
9:59... 6 plays, 36 yards, Kaeding shank at 6:28... Rivers: 4-4 for 37 yards
5:29... 9 plays, 49 yards (but 20 yards penalties), punt at 0:46... Rivers: 3-5 for 47 yards

2nd quarter:

14:13... 4 plays, 69 yards, Rivers TD pass to K.Wilson at 12:17... Rivers: 3-3 for 51 yards
10:40... 4 plays, 9 yards, punt at 8:58... Rivers: 1-2 for 8 yards
2:18... 4 plays, 5 yards, punt at 1:44... Rivers: One incomplete pass on 1st down
0:36... 5 plays, 41 yards, Kaeding desperation 57 yard FG falls short... Rivers: 1-2 for 10 yards

3rd quarter:

10:40... 4 plays, 2 yards, punt at 9:41... Rivers: 0-2
6:38... 4 plays, 2 yards, Revis INT at 4:23... Rivers: 3-4 for 12 yards and INT with one completion wiped out by SD penalty
0:51... 2 plays, 1 yard, Leonhard INT at 0:02... Rivers: 0-1 on Leonhard INT

4th quarter:

13:24... 7 plays, 4 yards, punt at 9:27... Rivers: 3-3 for 18 yards, two sacks and a fumble
7:14... 7 plays, 30 yards, Kaeding shank at 4:38... Rivers: 4-6 for 30 yards
3:36... 7 plays, 63 yards, Rivers TD dive at 2:14... Rivers: 4-5 for 79 yards with his biggest completion wiped out by penalty

Rivers' 298 yards didn't come during garbage time. Save for a few sputtered drives, Rivers was completing short and medium range passes against the toughest pass defense in the NFL throughout the game, and his weakest drives came mostly in the 2nd half, well after it became clear that the Chargers running game was not a threat.

It's tough to accurately microanalyze a game due to the contextual variables in football, and how a series of playcalls, outcomes and adjustments sets up the next series of playcalls, outcomes and adjustments. It's easy to say Rivers himself is to blame... if the playcalling was his responsibility and he assuredly gets the job done every week against defenses like the New York Jets with minimal input from the running game.

But Philip Rivers doesn't call the plays, and it turns out Rivers himself did a pretty good job considering his opposition and the circumstances. Rivers appeared to turtle in the second half, but it's very likely that Rivers was just fine and simply ran into a toughened defense: Rex Ryan hammered home the point to his defense that LT and the Chargers' running game wasn't something to worry about. To wit, Norv Turner called a lot of safe inside and off-tackle runs on 2nd and long with LT and Darren Sproles, except LT can no longer make the moves and power runs to overcome when the defense knows he's coming, and Sproles' size makes him an easy tackle when he's running close to the front seven.

It didn't help that Norv's playcalling isn't at all deceptive and a bit conservative: Lots of 1st down and 2nd down runs, with the occasional cross-your-fingers surrender runs on 3rd and 5. A diverse mix of run and pass plays on 1st and 2nd down may have allowed the Chargers to keep the Jets defense honest, in the way that allowed them to move the football during the 1st half. Instead, Turner played it safe when the Chargers held their tenuous 7-0 and 7-3 leads, and tried to control the clock with very beatable running plays that didn't put the tailbacks in space, the one situation where they can still produce. Thus your end result is a bunch of 1 and 2 yard gains and a bunch of 3rd and longs or 3rd and mediums where the #1 pass defense can camp the linebackers at the first down marker, put their All Pro corners on each of San Diego's receivers and dare a tiring Philip Rivers to make perfect throws.

Once the Jets saw that the Chargers running game not only wasn't a threat to move the football, but that the run would come in predictable situations and often close enough to the front seven to make covering the rusher easy, they were able to clamp down on the Chargers receivers and took away what deception and openings Philip Rivers had in the 1st half. Add in the Jets' eventual migration to a heavy running game in the 2nd half (their strength in this game), and the game was in the bag once they took the lead.

Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, howver, should have been able to hit at least one of those two 30-40 yarders, though ultimately this loss isn't really his fault either. If the Chargers had spread the defense more with their running game, LT, Sproles and the Chargers runners could have given them a meaningful contribution, and allowed the receivers room to get open so that Rivers could continue making plays against a defense that conventionally wasn't going to give him any room to throw once they adjusted.

Norv Turner may coach an effective 1st level passing game, but when it comes to game decisions, he sides too often with conservative, safe calls. It's no wonder that his teams frequently fall short: Football is a momentum game, and when you play not to lose instead of playing to win, the other team hits you in the mouth as soon as you lean on your heels.

One of my most vivid memories was an NFL Films clip of Norv's time with the Raiders, during the one year that Randy Moss played for them. The Raiders marched down the field in a tight game needing a TD and got 1st and goal. Norv pulled his star receiver and ran a power-run package on all four plays, getting stuffed all four times he ran. The money shot on the sideline came when Randy Moss exploded in anger after the 4th and goal stuff, screaming, "YOU DON'T TAKE YOUR PLAYMAKERS OFF THE FIELD."

That end to that drive said it all about how Norv Turner coaches, how he falls short as a head coach, and I would be shocked if this man ever coached a Super Bowl as a head coach in his lifetime.

The Chargers have themselves a good passing offense, and even though the defense needs to be retooled and they need to improve their running game, they've got the tools to be an excellent team that can compete for Super Bowls on the basis of their passing game alone, akin to the run and shoot Houston Oilers. However, the team needs a better coach than Norv Turner. To his credit, the 3-wide passing game is in part his creation, but his playcalling in key situations hamstrings its explosiveness. Many coaches can devise a strong passing game: Few can maximize its potential.

Until this sudden 13-3 season (aided in the win column by duo games with the swooning Oakland Raiders, a terrible Kansas City Chiefs team and matchups with duds like the Browns, Redskins, a scuffling Cowbosy team before they recovered and an Eagles team at their lowest form of their good season... good for the 27th toughest schedule out of 32 teams according to the Sagarin Ratings)... Norv had won 10 or more games in a regular season only twice, posting five losing seasons in a 12 year career and three seasons of 8-9 win ball. Last year's Chargers team finished 8-8 with essentially the same personnel and a more average-strength schedule.

It's normally unheard of to fire a head coach after a great season... except this Chargers team did the exact same thing to Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006. Schottenheimer's team took a 14-3 humbling from the New England Patriots in the 2006 Divisional Playoff and Marty was dismissed immediately afterward. So far be it from the Chargers to can a coach for his shortcomings despite posting one of the NFL's best records. There's no reason they can't offer the same dismissal to a weak-kneed coach who can't fool a defense, adjust his gameplan or make brave calls in big playoff games. A better coach could have gotten this team to the AFC Championship and possibly beyond, even with a below average defense, a non-existent running game and a nervous kicker shanking two relatively tough field goals he normally can hit.

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