TAMPA, Fla. – After one of the most Norv-like losses in Norv history, San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner gazed into a pack of reporters and mumbled in his usual Norv-like way.
And then he snapped.
He didn't lose his composure after a question about quarterback Philip Rivers' game-killing interception, which was one of the worst passes you'll ever see in pro football. Rivers threw so directly at Tampa Bay Buccaneers defender Leonard Johnson that the cornerback later said "It caught me by surprise." Johnson grabbed the erroneous throw and then bolted straight past Rivers into the end zone for the game-clinching score. Asked after the Buccaneers' 34-24 victory what he thought Rivers might have been thinking, Johnson paused and said, "I have no clue. I have no clue."
Nor was the question that set Turner off about the mood in the Chargers' locker room after the team blew a good opportunity in the fourth quarter to fall to a season-on-the-brink record of 4-5. You'd think a question about the team's mood might get to Turner, as all the Chargers had to walk past the glassy-eyed stare of general manager A.J. Smith as they came off the field at game's end. Smith stood there by the locker room door, shifting back and forth, gazing at each player and coach. Nobody looked back. Smith declined a request for an interview, walked into the locker room behind his team, and then left by himself only a couple of minutes later, suitcase in hand and not a single word on his lips.
No, what hit a Norv nerve was a follow-up to his statement about the toughness of the players on his team. Turner was asked if the toughness the Chargers have showed matters every week if the team keeps losing. The beleaguered coach, who hadn't really been making eye-contact, locked in on his interlocutor.
"What do you think?!" he blared. "I mean, what do you think the answer to that question is? Answer it for me. Is it acceptable? No, it's not acceptable. You know the answer to that. What's the answer to that? No. Is it acceptable to have a blocked punt and an interception returned for a touchdown? No, it's not acceptable. That's not what we're trying to accomplish out there. We're trying to go out and win a game. Those things are keeping us from winning. No, it's not acceptable."
A longtime Chargers reporter said the head coach is "never, never, never" as visibly upset as he was after Sunday's loss. Maybe it's a positive turning point for the team and the franchise, but more likely it's another sign that Turner's frustrating time in San Diego may soon be coming to an end. His team came apart at the end of this game, much as it did in a home loss to the Denver Broncos last month. Those are two enormous losses that could have been wins, if it wasn't for inexplicable late-game errors. Members of the Chargers think the team has enough talent to make the playoffs, so clearly the problem is mental. "We stop playing our game," said running back Ryan Mathews, "and we start playing the game they do."
In other words: coaching is a problem.
"We made some bad plays in the fourth quarter," said defensive back Eric Weddle, "and that's what's been killing us all season."
Asked why the mistakes keep happening, Weddle sighed.
"I don't know," he said. "The mistakes are just magnified. All our games, we haven't been able to put it together. We're still trying to figure it out."
It's getting far too late to figure it out. The Chargers aren't the Bucs, a young team bound to make errors coming off a 6-10 season. That's what happened to Johnson, who missed a tackle on Chargers wideout Danario Alexander early in the game and watched him complete an 80-yard catch-and-run for a score on the game's opening possession. But Johnson recovered and made the play of the game when it mattered. He left the stadium with the ball in his red duffel bag and a smile on his face.
Rivers, on the other hand, had the opposite happen: He was terrific in the first half with three touchdowns and no interceptions. But then, when it counted most, he threw a bewildering pick-six that might end up being the signature highlight of the decline of the Turner era. Drew Brees has a Super Bowl ring, Michael Turner is on a one-loss, playoff-bound team, and Rivers and Antonio Gates are getting older one crushing loss at a time.
What happened on that interception? "The ball just kind of stayed in my hand longer than I wanted it to," Rivers explained, "and it took a nosedive right to him."
If you watch the replay, once or 100 times, it's clear the ball was headed right at Johnson from the split-second it left Rivers' hand. Johnson even had time to stop, set himself, reach his hands up, and grab the ball away from his chest. And worst of all, he was standing about a foot from the sideline. A field goal would have tied it up, but instead San Diego went down 10 points. Game over.
"Obviously he should have thrown the ball away," Turner said, moments before his temper flared. But that's the Chargers now. The blocked punt in the second quarter, which was also returned for a touchdown, was just as rare in its ugliness.
A block is normally just barely made, with a fingertip or maybe the top of a hand. Here, Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson blasted through the offensive line with so much authority that he barreled into punter Mike Scifres and left him writhing on the ground in pain. Like the Rivers interception, it went way past "mistake" and into the realm of "total breakdown." Like the Rivers interception, it was inexcusable for a so-called-playoff-ready team. And like the Rivers interception, it says way too much about the state of the Chargers in 2012 without saying anything at all.
That might be what got to Turner. There's nothing more to say. The Chargers made a statement on the field that says enough. His team was like its lightning bolt logo on Sunday: full of flash but then suddenly vanished.
If the Chargers don't play all four quarters in Denver next week, we'll probably be saying the same about Norv.
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