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Sunday, October 31, 2010
Turner inspires Chargers to end skid

By Bill Williamson

Philip Rivers
Following a passionate halftime speech from Norv Turner, Philip Rivers helped rally the Chargers to victory over the Tennessee Titans.
SAN DIEGO -- The outside world had given up on the San Diego Chargers, tired of their maddening mistakes.

Yet, Norv Turner let his team know he hadn’t given up on it, but it was time for it to start playing up to its potential and stop the self-destruction. Turner, who has a reputation for being laid back and lacking fire, delivered the most impassioned halftime speech of his four-year tenure in San Diego. The theme of the loud, colorfully worded address was belief.

“I’ve never seen him like that before,” San Diego safety Eric Weddle said. “He told us how much he cares about us and he’d do anything for us. ... But he also told us it was time to get going. It was basically ‘now, let’s go freaking get it done.’ ... I think that speech was a big reason why we came out like we did in the second half."

Losers of their past three games, the Chargers were in serious danger of seeing their AFC playoff hopes vanish Sunday. Tennessee was up by 12 points at one point in the first half. But spurred on by Turner’s words from the heart, San Diego took over in the second half and beat the Titans 33-25.

The Chargers are now 3-5. They trail Kansas City (5-2) and Oakland (4-4) in the AFC West. The Chargers have come back with a strong second half in each of Turner’s first three seasons, all of which ended with division titles. Yet, had San Diego not won Sunday, it would have been entering the second half of the season in a major hole.

“It’s not a sigh of relief -- we’re 3-5,” San Diego running back Mike Tolbert said. “It’s not like we’re 8-0, or 7-1. ... But it’s a start. We know we’re capable of winning again.”

And now so do all the critics. Along with Dallas, San Diego has been a major disappointment this season. The Chargers took a shellacking on ESPN’s "Sunday NFL Countdown" on Sunday morning.

Here is a sampling of the verbal beating San Diego’s players, Turner and general manager A.J. Smith took:

Keyshawn Johnson: “No players. And when you don’t have players, you can’t win in this league. ... I put the blame on the general manager. He’s the guy in the offseason that made a decision not to sign certain guys, run certain guys off.”

Tom Jackson: “It looks like the opportunity has passed them by and A.J. eventually is to blame.”

Mike Ditka: “The front office is horrible to make the decisions it’s made."

Chris Berman: “I’m embarrassed for the Chargers.”

The Chargers missed the nationally televised dressing down because they were preparing to face the Titans. Smith wasn’t available to react to the comments. But I had a chance to discuss them with some of the players after the game.

They were amused.

“No talent?” Weddle said. “OK, I’ll take this no-talented team any day of the week. That’s fine. It’s OK no one respects us. Our coach does and we do, too.”

Added Tolbert: “That’s what happens when you are 2-5. People have been killing us all season. But what matters most is what our coach and everyone in this room thinks about us.”

I didn’t get the chance to ask Turner about the comments, but in his news conference, he alluded to outside criticism.

“I’m truly excited for those guys in that room because they don’t blink,” Turner said. “There are some people that might doubt them. We know who we are.”

It was only one game, but if San Diego takes off, Sunday’s performance and Turner’s speech will be viewed as the turning point. San Diego has done this before. It won its final six games of the 2007 season, its final four games of the 2008 season and its final 11 games of the 2009 season.

“This is something to build on,” San Diego cornerback Antoine Cason said. “Let’s go build on it.”

San Diego cut the Titans’ lead to 19-14 with 1:55 to go in the first half. It evolved into a 20-0 run by San Diego, which led by eight points twice in the fourth quarter.

The catalysts, as usual, were quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates. Playing without his top four wide receivers (and playing with undrafted rookie Seyi Ajirotutu), Rivers threw for 305 yards. It was the fifth time he has thrown for 300-plus yards this season. He has passed for 2,649 yards this season. No other quarterback in the history of the NFL has thrown for more yards after eight games.

Gates, playing with a bum toe, had five catches for 123 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. It was a gutsy comeback performance by the two leaders on this team.

It wasn’t all perfect for San Diego. It had its fourth punt blocked this season (that gave the Titans a safety early in the game) and an extra-point attempt was muffed in the fourth quarter, which kept it an eight-point game. The San Diego defense, which like the Chargers’ offense entered the game ranked No. 1 overall, gave up way too many big plays.

But the Chargers found a way to overcome mistakes. That hadn’t been the case this season. This has to be looked at as progress in San Diego. Perhaps this will be the start of another turnaround. If it is, the Chargers will always remember a rare show of intensity by their coach.

“I can tell you the fire I was able to see in [Turner’s] eyes and what it meant to him,” Gates said. “It meant the world to me for a coach to have that faith and belief in his team.”