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Skinned Alive Coach Norv Turner is feeling the heat in Washington, where losses are mounting and Redskins fans are out for his scalp

Oct. 05, 1998
Oct. 05, 1998

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Oct. 5, 1998

Skinned Alive Coach Norv Turner is feeling the heat in Washington, where losses are mounting and Redskins fans are out for his scalp

His face was flushed, his words were rushed, and his voice was
shrill and defiant. The second-most-embattled leader in the
nation's capital was sick of being interrogated, and now
Washington Redskins coach Norv Turner got up from his desk and
issued a spirited defense of his administration: "I'm not going
to change the way I am because of some perceived pressure. I
believe in the way we do things, and I know our way works. If
people want to take a few isolated incidents and turn them into
some sort of character indictment, that's bull----. If someone
takes a shot at me, I'll get pissed. People who've seen me when
I get mad know it's not something they want to experience."

This is an article from the Oct. 5, 1998 issue Original Layout

The words conveyed a commanding presence, which Turner's critics
in the Redskins' locker room say has been lacking under his
leadership. Turner is under siege from Washington fans who, in
the waning minutes of a 38-16 loss to the Denver Broncos on
Sunday that dropped their team to 0-4, chanted, "Norv must go,"
and from his players, at least two of whom, wideout Leslie
Shepherd and defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, have made
scenes in front of their teammates in the past year. Turner
stayed mum during a Monday night game last month when
Stubblefield, one of Washington's high-priced off-season
free-agent acquisitions, tapped him on the shoulder and began
berating him during the fourth quarter of a 45-10 loss to the
San Francisco 49ers. Witnesses say Stubblefield, the NFC
Defensive Player of the Year while playing for the Niners last
season, screamed, "Look at these guys, Norv. They're getting
their asses kicked! They're like zombies out there. What are you
going to do about it?"

In his fifth season as the Redskins' coach, Turner is fighting
to keep his job and to preserve his dignity. Though his lowest
moments have been nowhere near as embarrassing as Bill
Clinton's, his numbers (26-41-1, no playoff appearances) aren't
nearly as good as the President's. After just missing a
postseason berth in 1996 and '97, Washington committed $57.4
million over six years to sign Stubblefield and trade for fellow
defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, heightening expectations within
an organization spoiled by consistent success. The 0-4 start is
the Skins' worst since 1981.

This is considered a make-or-break season for Turner in many
circles, but apparently none of them include Redskins president
John Kent Cooke, who last March extended Turner's contract
through the 2001 season. "The only circle that counts is the one
around this desk," Cooke said last Friday from his office at the
Skins' Ashburn, Va., training facility. "Norv has everything
that I'd like to see in a coach. I trust his judgment, his
experience, his talent and his motivational skills." Cooke later
added a caveat: "In order to win, we must be competitive. As
long as they keep trying, I'll remain confident we can turn this
around."

Cooke, though, might not have a say in Turner's future. He hopes
to prevail in a bidding war to purchase the franchise from a
charitable foundation established by his late father, Jack Kent
Cooke. John Kent Cooke, who turned 57 on Sunday, has already
assembled an ownership group and said last Friday, "I have every
expectation that I'll remain behind this desk until at least the
age of my father, and he died at 84."

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Turner. Fans at Jack Kent
Cooke Stadium booed the coach as he left the field following each
of the Skins' two home games, and last week Washington Post
columnist Michael Wilbon criticized Turner's leadership skills,
asserting that "there isn't enough fear of consequences at
Redskin Park."

Though Turner is regarded as a nice guy and an astute
play-caller, he has yet to quiet the critics who claim he does
not have the necessary juice to succeed as a head coach. "If you
talked to 100 coaches who knew Norv when he was an assistant at
USC and with the [Los Angeles] Rams and the [Dallas] Cowboys, 75
percent of them would say they're shocked he's an NFL head
coach," says a former NFL assistant coach who has worked
alongside Turner. Adds Chicago Bears running backs coach Joe
Brodsky, who worked with Turner in Dallas, "The guy's
well-organized, bright and articulate, and he's got a great
drive to be a winner. It's hard for me to believe he can't win,
but obviously something's wrong."

Some Redskins say Turner has lost respect in the locker room
because he has been hesitant to challenge Stubblefield and other
vociferous players. Several of the Skins also complain that
Turner often loses his composure during games, detracting from
the flow of his well-crafted offensive game plans. And Turner,
who established a reputation as a quarterback mentor by helping
Troy Aikman achieve stardom with the Cowboys, has failed in that
department in Washington.

There are also rumblings from some Redskins that Washington's
work ethic isn't what it ought to be. Stubblefield often exhorts
teammates to pick up their effort in practice. He also gave
videotapes of 49ers practices to Redskins coaches to show the
staff how he believes practices should be run--shorter but more
efficiently, less physical but more mentally challenging. One
veteran gripes that Turner repeatedly criticizes some players on
the practice field and in meetings, while the mistakes of others
are ignored. "I'm going to handle situations the way I feel is
best for the individual involved," Turner says.

One potentially inflammatory situation occurred last October
during halftime of a 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Oilers. Upset
over the Redskins' performance and that not enough passes had
been thrown his way, Shepherd threw his helmet and began blasting
teammates for their lack of effort. Turner tried to calm him, but
Shepherd had to be ushered off by several players. Turner and
Shepherd then had a private discussion, and Shepherd started the
second half. The following day Turner met with Shepherd and
informed him that another such outburst wouldn't be tolerated.

"We were losing to a team we were better than, and I was open for
three passes without being thrown to," Shepherd says. "I got mad
at the team and was yelling at everyone, telling them, 'You need
to get your heads out of your asses. This can't happen. You've
got to look at yourselves in the mirror and play better.' It was
Norv's time to talk, and I got pulled away by some players. I
wasn't trying to disrespect Norv." Turner says Shepherd "was out
of line in terms of the way he was yelling. But these kinds of
experiences aren't unusual, even when you're winning."

Shepherd is hardly Turner's biggest headache. Wideout Michael
Westbrook, a talented but temperamental fourth-year player who
leads the Skins this season with 17 receptions for 418 yards and
three touchdowns, including a 75-yarder in garbage time on
Sunday, has hurt Washington on several occasions by losing his
cool. Trailing 21-10 during the second quarter of the loss to the
Niners on Sept. 14, Washington had a touchdown called back after
Westbrook was penalized for yanking the face mask of San
Francisco defensive back Antonio Langham. That was one of many
plays that set off Stubblefield, who says he apologized to Turner
after his sideline blowup.

However, Turner's only public move after the San Francisco game
was to cut kicker Scott Blanton, who had missed a pair of
first-half field goals. His replacement, David Akers, was
released after missing two field goals in the following week's
24-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. "Norv tries to scare guys and
act like he'll get rid of them if they don't perform, but nobody
believes him," says one Redskins veteran. "Who did he cut? The
kicker? Wow, guys are shaking."

Long snapper and backup center Dan Turk, a 14-year veteran in his
second season with the club, appreciates Turner's approach. "He
gives his team a lot of leniency, and I think that's good," Turk
says. "Do some guys take advantage of it? You can see that
sometimes."

Brodsky, who coached with Turner in Dallas from 1991 to '93,
disputes the perception that Turner is too soft on players.
"Whatever the word for it is--being [tough] or whatever--I think
Norv has a lot of it, especially with quarterbacks," he says.

Turner's boldest move this season came after a 31-24
opening-week loss to the New York Giants when he benched Gus
Frerotte, the starter since 1996, and replaced him with Trent
Green, a '93 eighth-round draft choice of the San Diego Chargers
who has been with the Skins since 1995. The failure to make
Frerotte a first-rate quarterback is widely cited as evidence of
Turner's shortcomings. Five years ago, as the Cowboys' offensive
coordinator under Jimmy Johnson, Turner emerged as a hot
coaching candidate largely because of his work with Aikman.
Johnson says he spoke with Aikman shortly after leaving the
Cowboys in the spring of '94 and asked about the transition
under new offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese. "Troy said, 'I
wish Ernie would get on me more when I screw up,' because that's
what he was accustomed to with Norv," says Johnson, now the
Miami Dolphins coach. "The reason he's so demanding is because
he's so demanding of himself."

After Dallas won its second consecutive Super Bowl following the
1993 season, the Redskins hired Turner and asked him to find a
quarterback who could lead Washington into the future. At
Turner's urging, Redskins general manager Charley Casserly used
the third pick of the '94 draft on Tennessee's Heath Shuler.
Frerotte, a little-known player from Tulsa, was selected as a
seventh-round afterthought. But Frerotte outplayed Shuler, and
Turner had the guts to cut his losses and name Frerotte the
starter heading into the '96 season. Frerotte played well enough
to make the Pro Bowl, although the Skins, after a 7-1 start,
lost six of their next seven games and missed the playoffs.

Frerotte had his moments last season as well, but he was
inconsistent, completing only 50.7% of his passes. He missed the
last three games with a broken hip, and a couple of months after
the Skins missed the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record, Turner paid
a visit to the West Virginia home of backup quarterback Jeff
Hostetler. In an effort to persuade Hostetler to return for a
15th season, Turner told him he would probably play if Frerotte
faltered again in 1998.

Frerotte felt his leadership was further undermined when, toward
the end of an up-and-down exhibition season, he was told by
quarterbacks coach Mike Martz not to talk football with his
receivers during practice. Frerotte had advised Westbrook to
alter a deep pattern so that he would be open in time for the
ball to be delivered. "You want communication between the
receivers and the quarterback," says Turner, "but you want the
information the receivers are getting to be right."

In the season opener, against the Giants, Frerotte had a nearly
flawless first half. But early in the third quarter an attempted
throwaway was intercepted, leading to a Giants touchdown.
Frerotte sprained his left shoulder while making the tackle on
the interception return, and his next pass was picked off by
defensive end Michael Strahan and returned 24 yards for a
touchdown. With Hostetler sidelined by a knee injury that
ultimately ended his season, Frerotte was replaced by Green, who
gave the Skins a spark by completing 17 of 25 passes for 208
yards and two touchdowns. The next day Turner named Green the
starter for the ensuing week's game against the 49ers. "I wasn't
surprised," Frerotte says, "because after I heard about Norv's
meeting with Jeff, where he told him he would have a quick hook,
I figured it was only a matter of time. But I thought I deserved
a little more of a chance than that, especially after I played a
pretty good first half."

Turner says the move was partly the result of Frerotte's
struggles from the previous season. "People say the change was a
hasty decision, but some decisions you might've been working on
for a year," he says. "Last October or November most people
evaluating the situation felt I stayed way too long with Gus. He
hasn't played with the same confidence that he did in 1996, and
we needed more consistency."

During Sunday's salty postgame address Turner told his players to
stop blaming their tough early schedule--and one another--for their
struggles. "It's personal now," he told them. "It's a team game,
but for us to get out of this, every guy has to look in the
mirror and say, 'What do I have to do to help us win?' Don't kid
yourselves that it's Denver or Seattle or San Francisco. It's
us."

An hour later the locker room was empty as Turner recounted his
words, slapping his right hand against his knee for emphasis. At
that moment he looked like anything but a pushover.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Capital Hell Bill Romanowski and the Broncos harassed Green all day, sacking him three times and intercepting him twice. [Bill Romanowski pulling down jersey of Trent Green]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS No Defense Stubblefield was brought in to anchor the middle, but the Redskins are still giving up a generous 4.8 yards per rush. [Dana Stubblefield being blocked by Denver Bronco lineman]
Stubblefield gave the coaching staff tapes of 49ers practices to
show them how he thought workouts should be run.
One veteran scoffed at a recent Turner move, saying, Who did he
cut? The kicker? Wow, guys are shaking."