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Yesterday’s hiring of Norv Turner as the new head coach in San Diego was a serious blow to the continued offensive progress that the San Francisco 49ers had hoped to built upon. It was a deal that left 49ers fans, Chargers fans and the rest of the NFL media scratching their collective heads. Why hire a man who has, despite his success as an offensive coordinator, proven nothing as an NFL head coach?
After spending three seasons as the offensive coordinator in Dallas and helping the team to back-to-back Super Bowls in the early 90’s, Turner was given his first opportunity to prove himself as a head coach when the Washington Redskins hired him in 1994. Turner went 49-59-1 during the seven seasons that he spent with the Redskins, making the playoffs only once. His second opportunity came in 2004 when the Oakland Raiders made Turner their head coach. In two seasons with the Raiders, he won only nine games.
Following the 2005 season, San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who served as Turner’s defensive coordinator in Washington, gave him the opportunity to take control of the team’s offense. The result was an improvement for quarterback Alex Smith over his rookie campaign and a record breaking and Pro Bowl season for second year running back Frank Gore. Both Smith and Gore pleaded with Turner to remain with the team and finish what he started when Dallas’ head coach search began just weeks ago.
So who will replace Turner? Nolan has already stated the team would not change its offense should Turner leave. Whoever comes in would have to be familiar with the offense that Turner built in San Francisco. This, combined with the timing of Turner’s departure, makes it likely that the 49ers will hire from within. The logical successor would then be the team’s wide receivers coach, Jerry Sullivan. He is very familiar with Turner’s offensive system and he is the only person on the current staff that has experience running an NFL offense. Sullivan was the offensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals in 2003. However, the Cardinals were ranked a pitiful 27th in total offense that season.
Other candidates that Nolan may look at within the organization include quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler, running backs coach Bishop Harris, offensive-line coach George Warhop and tight ends coach Pete Hoener. Hostler and Hoener have college offensive coordinator experience while Warhop was an offensive coordinator in NFL Europe. Harris was the head coach of North Carolina Central in the early 90’s.
Should the 49ers look outside the organization, they may ask the Cincinnati Bengals for permission to interview their current quarterbacks coach, Ken Zampese. Zampese has served as an offensive assistant in Philadelphia, Green Bay and St. Louis.
The loss of Turner will be a tough transition for young Alex Smith, who will now be taking orders from his third offensive coordinator in as many years. While the offensive system will remain the same should Sullivan be promoted, the way it is taught and explained will be different.
Nolan on the other hand has a way of looking at the glass as half full. "I said last year when we went through a similar situation that I view it as an opportunity to get better. I have confidence in the structure of our organization and our ability to attract and recruit the best for our team," said Nolan upon learning of Turner’s decision to leave the team. Even though VP of Player Personnel Scot McCloughan’s obsessive college scouting techniques will help, Nolan and company will have the added pressure of the NFL Combine which begins Thursday in Indianapolis. Free agency, a busy time for any coaching staff, begins on March 2nd.
No matter the choice, the 49ers will begin the 2007 season with new coordinators on offense, defense and special teams. The 49ers fired defensive coordinator Billy Davis after the season and hired former San Diego linebacker coach Greg Manusky as his replacement. The 49ers also lost special teams coordinator Larry Mac Duff and replaced him with former Saints special teams coordinator Al Everest. Mac Duff left to become the Texas Longhorns’ assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. This is a tough transition for a team that many thought would inflict some serious damage in 2007 and might even make a playoff push.
Even though the 49ers were not drastically better on paper, the improvement felt by the players was obvious. It is a testament to this improvement that Turner, a man no one wanted as a head coach last season, became such a hot commodity after just one season in San Francisco. It was also a season where the team failed to reach the playoffs and ranked 26th in total offense.
While the 49ers try to sort out the mess that has been left on their doorstep, Turner takes over a heavily loaded playoff caliber team in San Diego where anything short of a Super Bowl championship next season would be considered a disappointment. While others have done this in the past, let’s be honest here. As far as head coaches go, Marty Schottenheimer is no Bill Walsh and Norv Turner, whose offense remains in San Diego from his days there, is no George Seifert.