SAN DIEGO — San Diego Chargers President Dean Spanos didn’t feel he had to issue any ultimatums when he made the unpopular decision to bring back coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith despite the team missing the playoffs for the second straight season.
“Everybody knows in this business that you’ve got to win. OK?” Spanos said Tuesday. “That’s the net bottom line. You don’t have to say that.”
The Chargers haven’t been winning enough lately, which is why Spanos was forced to decide the future of his top football men. The Chargers are 17-16 since the end of the 2009 season, including an embarrassing home playoff loss to the New York Jets in January 2010 that was the Chargers’ last postseason appearance.
San Diego went 4-1 at the beginning and end of this season but was undone by a six-game losing streak in the middle. One more win would have earned the Chargers (8-8) the title in the mediocre AFC West.
Feeling that he has a good team with a marquee quarterback in Philip Rivers, “Keeping this intact gives us the best chance to win and change this thing as quickly as possible,” Spanos said.
Spanos said he was heartened by the players’ response to Turner in winning four of five down the stretch. The one loss, though, a rout at Detroit, eliminated the Chargers from playoff contention.
“I was confident that I had a good chance to stay here,” said Turner, who has two years left on his contract, at $3 million a season.
Turner has a 49-31 regular-season record in five years in San Diego but is only 3-3 in the playoffs.
“I would expect we’d have to make the playoffs” to stay employed, Turner said. “If we manage things right and have some good fortune, I imagine we will.”
Turner was an unpopular hire in February 2007 after Marty Schottenheimer was fired following a 14-2 season and a home playoff pratfall against New England.
When the news came that Turner would be back for a sixth season, fans reacted angrily on radio talk shows and the Internet. Some threatened to cancel their season tickets.
“Obviously, I’m very sensitive to what the fans have to say,” Spanos said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I can talk until I’m blue in the face that this is the right thing to do. But until we go out and win and change the course of where this team has been heading, get back into the playoffs and make a serious run for the Super Bowl, anything short of that isn’t going to change their minds. We have to go out there next year and win.”
Rivers, who supported Turner in the closing days of the season, said he was “glad we are staying the course.”
“Sometimes the course isn’t always smooth,” Rivers said. “We’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride the last two years, but there is plenty of history other places that if you just stick with it, stick with it, stick with it, you get to the top and that is what we are trying to get done.”
Rivers said there’s not much anyone can do to talk the fans out of the way they feel.
“You’ve got to win,” he said. “You tell them we’ll take the offseason like we are going to take it, and get geared up again. When September rolls around, I am quite confident they will be excited about us again.”
Turner is 107-113-1 in three stints as a head coach, including with Washington and Oakland. Both of those teams fired him.
“A lot of the fans never gave him a chance when he came here,” Spanos said. “I think it’s unfair. When you look at his record albeit, we’ve fallen off and we’re in the middle right now and it’s not where we want to be, but we are not the dregs of the league. And believe me, we were there. I’ve seen it. I don’t ever want to go there again. But I think he’s been treated unfairly. Until we all win, it’s probably never going to change.”
Spanos said coaching, player personnel decisions and other factors have contributed to the Chargers’ plight.
“I take it personal on player personnel,” Smith said. “I do believe that the coach is the right coach.”
From the beginning, many outsiders believed Smith wanted a puppet of a head coach after butting heads with Schottenheimer for two years before Spanos fired the coach because of what he called a “dysfunctional” relationship with the GM.
“They don’t understand the working relationship we have,” Turner said.
“I’ve heard it, but he’s not a puppet,” Smith said. “We work well together. He’s a major part of what we’re doing here together. There are no philosophical galaxies apart.”
Many fans feel Turner is a great offensive mind but not a good head coach.
“Again, that’s such a cliché, I don’t respond to it because it’s easy to say,” Turner said.
Turner got the Chargers to the AFC championship game in his first season before losing at New England. Since then, though, there’s been a steady decline in postseason success, with just one victory in four seasons.
Smith has come under fire for the erosion of talent from a roster that at one time was considered among the NFL’s best.
Smith’s best draft was in 2004, when he took Eli Manning with the first pick despite Archie Manning’s request that he not do so, then swapped the player’s rights to the New York Giants for Rivers and additional picks he used on kicker Nate Kaeding that year and Shawne Merriman the following year.
Smith’s recent drafts have produced more busts than impact players. Spanos said Smith’s drafts from 2007-09 “were not as good” as earlier drafts.
The Chargers ended the season with only three of their last seven first-round draft picks on the active roster.
Besides his tiff with Schottenheimer, Smith’s iron-fisted dealings with players have turned off some people. He mocked LaDainian Tomlinson toward the end of the running back’s time in San Diego and used hardball negotiating tactics against tight end Antonio Gates in 2005 and wide receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill in 2010.
“I am aware that the owner was not happy,” Smith said. “I was also aware that we’ve missed the playoffs two years in a row, which means two lost opportunities to chase the championship.”