Congratulations, Norv Turner and Wade Phillips. You’re smart again.
In the over-analyzed NFL, the thin line between indisputable guru and undeniable failure is too often drawn by perceptions based more on a coach’s situation than his ability. It can change from week to week, season to season, city to city, job title to job title.
As head coaches, Turner and Phillips have been fired from Washington to Oakland to San Diego to Denver to Buffalo and Dallas. At 63 and 68, respectively, neither is likely to be given a fourth sniff at a top job.
As coordinators, well, that’s another perception entirely. They’re beloved by fans, given unusual benefits of doubt by reporters and work for owners who hope they don’t retire anytime soon.
Sunday, Turner and Phillips will face off in Denver with teams that are a combined 5-1 overall and 4-0 the past two weeks. Turner’s power-running Vikings offense vs. Phillips’ quarterback-breaking Broncos defense figures to be one of the NFL’s more intriguing early season interconference matchups.
As Vikings offensive coordinator, Turner has helped coach Mike Zimmer establish his sought-after Team Toughness identity the past two games. In a pair of double-digit wins, the Vikings have run the ball 73 times for 362 yards (5.0) and five touchdowns. Adrian Peterson has 49 of those carries for 260 yards (5.3) and two touchdowns.
As Broncos defensive coordinator, Phillips’ No. 1-ranked defense has kept Denver undefeated through a tumultuous period offensively. The overhauled offensive line is porous with no push, the system under new coach Gary Kubiak is evolving and quarterback Peyton Manning is unfairly under fire for not having the arm strength to make the many weaknesses around him disappear.
Turner played quarterback at Oregon, where he backed up Dan Fouts in the early ‘70s. Phillips played linebacker at the University of Houston, setting a school record for assisted tackles (228) that stood from 1968 to 2011.
Turner’s first coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Oregon in 1975. Phillips was Houston’s grad assistant in 1969. Turner broke into the NFL as receivers coach in a city (Los Angeles) that no longer has a team. Phillips joined his dad Bum’s staff in 1976 as linebackers coach on a Houston Oilers team that now resides in Nashville and calls itself the Titans.
Phillips’ career path has been more winding that Turner’s. He has replaced his dad as interim coach in New Orleans. He’s been replaced by a Jim Mora and a Jim Mora Jr. And he’s now the star assistant for the same team that fired him as head coach 23 years ago.
In 2007, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones interviewed 10 candidates to replace the retired Bill Parcells. Two of those candidates were Turner, who won two Super Bowls as Cowboys offensive coordinator, and Phillips.
Phillips got the job and went 34-22. But a 1-2 postseason mark, which included a one-and-done showing with the NFC’s top seed in 2007, is what he’s remembered for.
Turner ended up with the Chargers top job in 2007. He made it to the AFC Championship game, but couldn’t overcome the host Patriots or injuries to LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers, who played the title game on a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Turner went 56-40 as head coach of the Chargers, but ended with three non-playoff years after a one-and-down as the AFC’s No. 2 seed in 2009.
Phillips is 83-66, but 1-5 in the postseason. He was fired in Buffalo after going 29-19, but 0-2 in the postseason. Fifteen years later, the Bills still haven’t been back to the playoffs since losing the “Music City Miracle” on Jan. 8, 2000.
Judging by body language, both men are in happier places today. Turner has Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson together for the first time. Phillips is back on top of the league a year after Kubiak’s staff was fired in Houston.
The Broncos lead the NFL in five defensive categories, including pass defense (176.3) and third-down efficiency (18.8 percent, 6 of 32). They’re also No. 2 in takeaways (10) and No. 1 in turnover differential (plus-6).
“It’s been a lot of fun,” defensive end Malik Jackson said. “When you’re winning, it seems to add a lot more fun. Kubiak came in here and rejuvenated us. Coach Wade brought a defense where everybody can play and thrive.
“They allow us to be who we are in return and give us little bones. It’s been a great relationship and we just want to keep the ball rolling.”