Motivated Turner visits Cowboys
Chargers coach, passed over in favor of Phillips, brings personal agenda to Arlington
The offensive genius with two Super Bowl rings whose play-calling delivered Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin -- and soon Emmitt Smith -- from football hell to the Hall of Fame makes his first big-game appearance at the football palace known as JerryWorld.
With him, San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner will bring his own team of 53 winners and one decidedly personal agenda Sunday. Because he is not the Cowboys' coach, Turner will be motivated to prove that he should have been.
But when Bill Parcells resigned in 2007, Jerry Jones chose the head coach who was fired in Denver and Buffalo rather than the one fired in Washington and Oakland.
So in a game the Cowboys absolutely have to win Sunday, Turner's competitive zeal will demand that he use the occasion to remind Jones of the monumental mistake he committed in hiring Wade Phillips, an opinion more than a few people have even before kickoff.
According to people who know him, Turner will possess an enormous urge to demonstrate that he's a better head coach than Phillips, that he's a better offensive game planner and playcaller than Jason Garrett, and that he has developed Philip Rivers into a quarterback who can statistically outperform Tony Romo and win on the Cowboys' field when it really matters.
But Turner does not want to seem spiteful. He downplayed the personal vengeance angle, noting that San Diego and Dallas are first-place teams competing for playoff berths.
"That really is a nonissue with me," Turner said of Jones' decision. "You could only hire one guy, and it went to Wade, and I thought they made a great selection."
At the time Jones was making his decision on a replacement for Parcells, Turner was confident that his incredible reputation for developing quarterbacks would be ideal for Romo. Convinced that Romo needed to be coached, Turner thought the timing seemed perfect, especially given that the quarterback was recovering psychologically from his crushing playoff bobble in Seattle.
Romo demonstrated after taking over for Drew Bledsoe that he could improvise and create, but his game required refinement. Turner is a technician. He emphasizes proper mechanics and probably would have convinced Romo long before now to abandon some of his sandlot instincts and to understand the importance of protecting the football.
One thing that undermined Turner's candidacy was that Jones had already hired Garrett to an undetermined position. Ironically, before interviewing with Jones, Garrett asked Turner to prep him for the meeting. It went well enough that Jones hired Garrett for a position to be determined by whomever the Cowboys appointed to be head coach.
Turner tried in vain to convince Jones that Garrett wasn't ready for the vast responsibility of preparing an entire offense because he offered no previous experience as the playcaller. Turner proposed that he would develop Romo and simultaneously mentor Garrett, whom Jones viewed as someone who would eventually be the team's head coach.
Turner also had to contend with the fact Jones wanted more return from all the huge money and high draft picks the team invested in defensive players, and he was committed to the 3-4 defense. In addition to being the last to have an audience with Jones during the hiring process, Turner thought revealing to Jones that Ron Rivera -- who also interviewed for the top job -- would come to Valley Ranch as defensive coordinator would be the masterstroke that would clinch his own return to Dallas.
Ultimately, Jones decided that he would essentially be paying two offensive coordinators if he paired Turner and Garrett, and he doubted Rivera's ability to coach the 3-4 because his background was in the 4-3.
"I think Wade's track record, success he had, his expertise defensively, a lot of things went into it," Turner said. "I wasn't surprised, so when you're not surprised, the disappointment is different."
The Cowboys owner eventually decided the team was more likely to achieve his goals with Phillips and Garrett than with Turner and Rivera. Now, all four have their usual sources of motivation as well as some unique personal component Sunday.
It is undeniable that Phillips has improved the defense, just as he did in San Diego. The Chargers led the NFL in sacks with Phillips as defensive coordinator in 2006; the Cowboys led the league in the same category last season.
But that could merely make the point that Phillips is one of those people quite capable of being a coordinator but lacking the ability to be a successful head coach.
As he has observed from the owner's suite that resembles a luxury apartment, Jones has begun to accumulate his own doubts about Phillips. Vikings coach Brad Childress and Eagles coach Andy Reid have signed contract extensions recently. Jones remains unwilling to commit to Phillips beyond the four remaining games on the schedule.
That's as it should be, at least in my opinion. Jones nearly fired Phillips after that 44-6 debacle at Philadelphia last season, so why prematurely decide his fate, especially with the first-place Cowboys facing an ominous closing December schedule against which even a quality team might fail to win a single game?
Whether the Cowboys' woes indicate a psychological obstacle or the simple reality that they're not as good as their December opponents, Turner has not had such mystery to solve in San Diego. Turner's team is undefeated in 10 December games and has won three postseason contests. The Cowboys are 3-6 in December under Phillips, and he has yet to win a single postseason game even with John Elway, Doug Flutie and Romo as his quarterbacks.
Jones has often claimed that the Cowboys can have the best there is in terms of head coaches. So why does it seem as if they are not provided that key advantage? Phillips will never provide the leadership that his players deserve and that predecessors such as Jimmy Johnson believe is essential. He told me that very few NFL players can motivate themselves properly and that that's why the position of head coach exists.
It is not surprising that players generally defend Phillips, who has lowered expectations for and insulated from criticism players who are making fabulous sums of money. It is no different from when Cowboys players sought to protect Barry Switzer. He provided his teams with the easy life, a stark but comfortable contradiction to Johnson's approach of keeping the locker room on edge.
It is apparent now, as it was then, that the Cowboys must win despite their head coach. The 1995 team achieved that. It was a team of overwhelming talent that overcame being even more internally fractured than last year's team, which collapsed from the weight of a toxic locker room.
Jones has made it apparent that he will consider hiring yet another head coach this offseason -- unless the coach he did hire duplicates the late-season success of the coach he didn't hire.
Turner didn't get the job he wanted. Sunday's result will help determine how much longer Phillips keeps it.
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.
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