After rough start, Turner has paid dividends for San Diego

Among the many letters that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune after the Chargers' stunning playoff victory over Indianapolis last week was one from a reader in La Jolla, Calif., that began like this: "Where does the line form to apologize to Norv Turner for (criticizing him for) his early-season miscues?"

Turner deserves all of the apologies he can get, but it isn't only because of the massive amounts of criticism directed his way for the Chargers' 1-3 start. Turner-bashing has been a favorite pastime of fans and media alike since the moment the Chargers named him their head coach last February.

Part of the reason was their outrage over the team's decision to fire Marty Schottenheimer on the heels of a 14-2 finish and one-and-done postseason. Part of the reason was Turner's dreadful record as a head coach at two previous stops, Washington (50-60-1, from 1994-2000) and Oakland (9-23, from 2004-05).

After the Chargers' 28-24 win over the Colts, a lot of people had to feel foolish, regardless of whether they would admit as much publicly. I'm guessing some of those people were in Qualcomm Stadium after the Chargers dropped to 1-3 with a 30-16 loss to Kansas City. They were the ones chanting, "Marty! Marty! Marty!"

It wasn't merely a case of an underdog knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions on the road. It was the fact the Chargers won the sort of game for which coaching deservedly gets a great deal of credit. Knee injuries caused their star running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, and starting quarterback, Philip Rivers, to miss substantial parts of the Colts game, while a dislocated toe suffered in the wild-card round limited the contributions of their all-world tight end, Antonio Gates. Backup quarterback Billy Volek led the drive to the winning points against Indianapolis, while the defense twice stopped Peyton Manning in the final five minutes.

Adapt and adjust. Accomplish more with less. That's what good head coaches do.

Turner is a good head coach.

He has guided San Diego to 10 wins in its last 12 regular-season games and all the way to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1994 (when they beat Pittsburgh on the road before losing to San Francisco in the Super Bowl). He also has led them to their first playoff victories since then.

This remarkable journey to redemption figures to come to an abrupt end on Sunday, when the Chargers face the New England Patriots. Even if it does, Turner's first season in San Diego will still have to be viewed as a rousing success.

Raising Rivers

He delivered on a promise he made to the Chargers' brass during his interview: Rivers would become a better quarterback under his tutelage.

From Turner, that shouldn't have been considered a bold declaration. Improving quarterbacks has always been his forte. You could knock his record in the top job, but there was no questioning Turner's skill when it came to working with passers. He did a superb job with Alex Smith when he was San Francisco's offensive coordinator, the post he vacated when San Diego came calling. Another of his former pupils is Troy Aikman, with whom Turner worked during the two Super Bowl-winning seasons he spent running Dallas' offense.

Rivers' progress was far from immediate. He struggled through the first half of the season, and the Chargers struggled right along with him. As Rivers became more comfortable with Turner's guidance, his performance stabilized and he began to show greater consistency. He still has room for development, but showed plenty by throwing three touchdown passes against Indianapolis before leaving the game with a knee injury.

Another problem for the Chargers earlier in the season was the players' transition from Schottenheimer's ultra-serious, ultra-intense approach to the more relaxed atmosphere Turner created with his easy-going demeanor.

At first, some players didn't quite know what to make of him. They saw an absent-minded professor so preoccupied with the Xs and Os in his head that he sometimes seemed unaware of his surroundings. He didn't give the fire-and-brimstone speeches that were Schottenheimer's trademark. He talked numbers and he made jokes.

"It took me a while," linebacker Shawne Merriman said. "I think it was probably easier for the offensive guys. Me, being a defensive guy, I kind of get rowdy and get up for a game and yell and scream and everything else, and Norv wasn't like that. He'll talk to you and he'll talk numbers: 'If you take the ball away this many times, you'll win the game. If you do this, or plus-two on the turnover ratio, you should win the game.' I'm waiting to hear him tell me to get up and run through that wall over there, and it never happened."

Eventually, Merriman and other Charger players got used to Turner's style. It wasn't Schottenheimer's way, but it wasn't the wrong way.

Just different.

"He seems to never get uptight," Tomlinson said of Turner. "Sometimes leading up to a big game, coaches get uptight. Players may do the same thing because of the coach. Norv always seems to say something to lighten everybody up. He makes everybody take a deep breath and say, 'You know what? We'll be fine.'"

That came in handy as Tomlinson and Rivers made early exits from the divisional-round game against the Colts … as Gates was hobbling around on a sore toe … as the Chargers' defense was trying to preserve the outcome.

Turner's ability to keep everyone loose again figures to be vital to the Chargers' fortunes on Sunday. When facing a 17-0 team, it helps to have someone convey the message, "We'll be fine."

Even if that isn't truly the case.

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