It's so rare to see a team come together right before your eyes. Usually, those moments are behind closed doors, reserved for insiders only.
But with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter Sunday at the RCA Dome, with the San Diego Chargers trailing the
Indianapolis Colts 24-21, with LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers sidelined, with
Antonio Gates running on one foot, with the defending Super Bowl champs thinking they finally had put the pesky Chargers to rest, it happened.
San Diego's eight-play, 78-yard, Billy Volek-led touchdown drive was one of the gutsiest, coolest, most inspiring football moments of the season. And one of the reasons it resonated was that, in a year in which coach Norv Turner has been rightly questioned about his ability to lead the Chargers, he came through in San Diego's seminal moment.
This brings up the larger issue surrounding Turner: He might be winning a lot this season, but really, he can't win. It's the tragedy of his job, a curse he knew he would have when he assumed the head coaching crown of what most deem "the NFL's most talented 53-man roster." It's good and bad, fair and unfair, to take over the league's most talented team.
The questions Turner received upon taking over in February 2007 weren't about how he would put his mark on the team; they were about how, with his 58-82-1 career record, he wouldn't derail this talented team's chances. And right now, as the Chargers prepare to face the 17-0 New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, Turner either has validated his hiring or has gotten the Chargers to where they should have been all along. Or neither. Or both.
It's easy to say Turner has proved wise the decision by Chargers president Dean Spanos and general manager A.J. Smith to fire Marty Schottenheimer. Many very smart people have. But it's a sentimental time right now, with both Turner's Chargers and Tom Coughlin's New York Giants plucking their way from Wild Card Weekend games to the conference championships.
Both have been through 2007 seasons rife with criticism, and many media types want to force common ground between the two coaches by claiming that any doubters didn't have the foresight to see this coming -- that the lasting lesson of Coughlin's and Turner's success is how the media rushes to judgment too quickly, that in this 24-hour news cycle, we fail to see the big picture, so on and so forth.
But Coughlin and Turner, when you look at it, actually have little in common. Coughlin wasn't blessed with a four-year contract and coaching "the NFL's most talented 53-man roster." No, he was dangling all season, a lame duck charged with fixing his inconsistent franchise quarterback. The Giants gutted their way through almost every opponent during the regular season and overcame the Dallas Cowboys when it mattered most. Nobody expected the Giants to make it to the NFC Championship Game, and even if the Green Bay Packers roll over them, the Giants' season will go down as a successful one to build upon.
Not so in San Diego. While many have marveled at the road the Chargers have taken to Foxborough, Mass. -- overcoming a 1-3 start, turning it on after being 5-5 -- others characterize it as underachieving. Finishing 11-5 in an awful AFC West isn't so impressive, considering Turner's team is littered with young Pro Bowlers, not to mention the greatest tailback since Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson. You could argue that with that roster, San Diego is supposed to be playing for the Super Bowl, and the only reason the current situation seems extraordinary is the lessened expectations following the Chargers' terrible September.
So, Turner is in an impossible position. When the Chargers win -- well, isn't the NFL's most talented 53-man roster supposed to win? When the Chargers lose -- why didn't the coaches put those talented players in the right positions? It seems like a reach right now to claim that based on his 18 games as San Diego's coach, Turner is clearly -- without a doubt -- the man who will lead this team to a Super Bowl.
But you know what?
He is only one win away. His team might be banged up, but a year ago, it dominated the Patriots and would have won had Marlon McCree simply dropped down after intercepting Tom Brady instead of trying to score. Sure, that was a different Patriots team -- the current one creamed San Diego in September, at a point in the season when New England was its angriest and San Diego was confused. But based on that 78-yard drive against the Colts, you never know when an outmanned team -- even the NFL's most talented 53-man roster -- will prove everyone wrong.
Turner has shown that he can make it happen.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.