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49ers offense back to fourth and long

Feb 22, 2007 at 7:59 AM


The San Francisco 49ers were dealt a devastating blow with the signing of offensive coordinator Norv Turner as the San Diego Chargers’ head coach. The entire NFL and all of its fans were shocked at the dismissal of Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer, after a very successful season and having bragging rights to the 2006 NFL’s Most Valuable Player in running back LaDanian Tomlinson. They also have a young and inspiring quarterback in Philip Rivers. You’d think that any head coach with the degree of success he had manufactured there would be relatively safe. Not in this case, to the dismay of Charger and now 49er fans alike.

Earlier this off-season, 49er offensive coordinator Norv Turner was considered the front running candidate to the Dallas Cowboys head coaching vacancy after Bill Parcells stepped down and retired. The Dallas Cowboys interviewed him at length, along with 49ers linebackers and assistant head coach Mike Singletary for the position.

It was instant stomach relief to find out later that the Dallas Cowboys went with a defensive coaching mind in Wade Philips. Despite his success as a Dallas Cowboy offensive coordinator, and being the very reason for Pro Bowl and Super Bowl quarterback Troy Aikman’s success, he was passed over for someone else.

Norv Turner, 54, has compiled a 58-82-1 record as head coach of the Washington Redskins (1994-2000) and the Oakland Raiders (2004-2005). It may just be the reason why Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones chose to go the other way. Instead they chose to go with former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Philips.

Norv Turner then turned his attention back to the 49ers even though there remained continued rumors that he’d be considered for future head coaching vacancies and offensive coordinator vacancies should they become available.

Turner left the Oakland Raiders after a horrible season there as a head coach and butting heads with a tyrant of an owner (Al Davis). Mike Nolan, a long-time friend from his days back in Washington, gave Turner his dignity back and the opportunity to do what he does best...resurrecting an offense on life-support with a second-year quarterback.

What happened soon after was nothing short of a revelation, in that second-year quarterback Alex Smith received the proper mentoring he so direly needed. The offensive schemes were simplified for a more decisive and balanced attack that highlighted second-year running back Frank Gore with a career-record of almost 1700-yards on the season.

San Diego Chargers President Dean Spanos fired head coach Schottenheimer shortly after the Dallas Cowboys saw Bill Parcells announce his retirement. Spanos cited Schottenheimer’s conflict behind the scenes with General Manager A.J. Smith and a recent exodus of some of his assistant coaches, including Wade Philips, his defensive coordinator, to the Dallas Cowboys and his linebacker’s coach in Greg Manusky to a defensive coordinator position with the San Francisco 49ers.

Norv Turner and Mike Singletary became two of six candidates that the San Diego Chargers set-up for lengthy interviews. Turner already has had ties with San Diego, having served as the Charger’s offensive coordinator back in 2001, when he helped to develop then-rookies LaDanian Tomlinson and Drew Brees.

As the interview process proceeded, so did the collective breaths of all 49er fans and team coaches. Norv Turner had made a dramatic positive impact upon this team in just one short year. He had resurrected an offense suppressed by the maniacal philosophies of former offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy. Turner became the friendly voice in quarterback Alex Smith’s ear, in that he created a calming influence upon him leading to improvement over his rookie year in both accuracy and confidence. Turner was also responsible for helping running back Frank Gore to become the most underrated back at the position to suddenly transform into a league superstar.

Everything about the 49er offense improved… from the play of the line to the renewed focus on highlighting the abilities of tight ends Vernon Davis and veteran Eric Johnson. Although there were clearly flaws in our wide receivers, we saw legitimate improvement from Notre Dame’s Arnaz Battle and a better utilization of Penn State’s quarterback/running back Michael Robinson.

Norv Turner, now the new San Diego Chargers head coach, inherits a team that has sent 11 players to the Pro Bowl after going a league best 14-2 last season. San Diego was heavily favored to reach the Super Bowl only to lose to the New England Patriots at home in the second-round of the playoffs.

“This is a great opportunity for Norv,” Nolan said in a statement released by the 49ers.

“Expectations for this team obviously are high,” Turner said in San Diego. “I couldn’t be more excited to coach here. The players and a chance to win a championship are what attracted me to this job.”

Certainly the inner spirit of every NFL coach is to be a part of a championship-caliber team. To have an opportunity to coach such a team has to be a real treat for Norv, but it is at the detriment of the San Francisco 49ers as he leaves.

Now the process for Mike Nolan to find a replacement this late into the off-season will be challenging. He is inspired to hire his next offensive coordinator within the ranks of his own coaching staff after firing his former defensive coordinator and line coach and replacing both earlier in the off-season.

Mike Nolan is taking everything into careful consideration in looking for his new offensive coordinator, which includes getting direct input from his offensive players in conversations with Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer and even Frank Gore. He is also insistent on keeping what Norv Turner has already established as an offensive scheme and knows that the remainder of his offensive staff is well versed in the terminology Turner brought to the team this past season.

Of the coaches that are also well versed and in consideration for the coordinator position, the two that come to the forefront are wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and tight ends coach Pete Hoener. Jerry Sullivan though has had only one season as an offensive coordinator and that was with the Arizona Cardinals back in 2003. That, in fact, was the only season he coached an offense rather than wide receivers since 1971.

Jerry Sullivan is a well-respected wide receivers coach throughout the league with a very impressive resume for developing some of the league’s best wide receivers in the game. To offer him a shot at becoming the offensive coordinator makes some sense because he knows the terminology of Norv Turner and his way of thinking after spending time with him last season. And even though he may not have a direct link to Alex Smith’s ear right now, he had one with wide receiver Arnaz Battle last season that had proven results on the field.

Pete Hoener, 52, has 15 years experience as an offensive coordinator at Texas A&M (2000), Iowa State (98-99), TCU (91-97), Purdue (89-91) and Illinois (86-88). He has coached the offensive line with the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals in (03) and (04) after spending two years as Arizona’s tight ends coach.

It seems that calling plays is something Pete is very accustomed to doing on a regular basis and was as close to Norv Turner as Jerry Sullivan was last season. In fact, Mike Nolan may be reluctant to promote Jerry because of his outstanding credentials as a wide receivers coach where ours is still in a state of flux at this present moment.

I am at a loss as how to comprehend what route is the right route in this coordinator search being conducted by Mike Nolan and how to know which way to go. I wouldn’t be at all opposed to bringing back former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who left us for the Atlanta Falcons with Jim Mora Jr. However, that would be a total contradiction to Norv Turner’s offensive system and philosophies, because it would be the reintroduction of the West-Coast offense favored by Knapp who ran that under Jim Mora Jr. and Steve Mariucci.

Time is really of the essence now with the NFL Scouting Combine here and the start of free agency looming nearer. It becomes almost a sure bet he’s looking at someone on his present staff to fill the large void left by Turner.

I am confident that Mike Nolan will find the best candidate for this position. He is articulating in everything he does as a head coach and wants to project an image of continuity and consistency. Never in his dreams did he think that Norv Turner would up and get an opportunity again this fast.

The cutthroat business that is the NFL is all so surreal sometimes with coaches coming and going from one door to the next. The time to win is always about the now and not the later. We lost someone with a superb track record in developing and transforming offenses. It will be instrumental to the 49ers to try and duplicate that as best we can.

Turner’s fortune has left this offense in a fourth and long situation on any practical playing field. Finding someone to make that long connection for another first down will be one of the greatest challenges facing Mike Nolan right now.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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