by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Peyton Manning is hardly the only storyline in this season’s AFC West. Head coach Norv Turner’s future in San Diego similarly intrigues.

We find Norv’s remarkable ability to avoid the dreaded “turk” with the Chargers to be one of the more fascinating storylines in all of the NFL.

Indeed, like a cat, Turner seems intent on using up all of his allotted nine coaching lives. We'll never know if more dynamic leadership over the past five seasons would have reaped more than the Chargers have sown since 2007, but it is a fair question to ask.

Las Vegas oddsmakers, who have spent many of the past few years posting premiums on San Diego, do not seem to be as inclined to do the same this season. For the first time in recent memory, the Bolts are not considered an overwhelming favorite in the AFC West, or hardly a favorite at all; San Diego, at 13/8 to win the West, is basically rated even atop the division along with Denver.

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And after being one of the top choices to win the AFC and get to the Super Bowl in recent years, the Bolts are now priced among a collection of second-tier contenders, rated at 12/1 to win the conference and 28/1 to win the Super Bowl. The season-win total of 9 is also beneath projections from recent campaigns.

Which brings us back to the curious case of Turner. Most NFL insiders acknowledge that Norv's strength is as a coordinator and offensive game-planner; he is too introverted and passive to provide the fire-and-brimstone angle, one that the Bolts could have used the past few years. San Diego's motivation usually comes from within the player ranks, and it annually seems to manifest only after the many slow starts the Chargers have endured under Turner.

Now the talent gap, so overwhelming in San Diego's favor against AFC West opposition the past several years, has apparently dissipated.

Only once in the "Norv years" have the Chargers really hit their stride, and that was in 2009 when they wasted their best chance at the Super Bowl with a flat playoff effort vs. the beatable Jets and their rookie QB. The Chargers have spent most of the past five years struggling to reach .500 under Turner; imagine what success Philip Rivers & Co. might have had with a coach like Bill Cowher, or Jim Harbaugh, running the show.

Now, Rivers seems to be regressing (as his 20 interceptions last year would indicate), top downfield target Vincent Jackson has left via free agency, and the defense is full of holes that need to be plugged after conceding an NFL-worst 49% conversions on third downs last season. Moreover, the Chargers have missed the playoffs the past two seasons in arguably the NFL's weakest division.

Whatever made owner Dean Spanos decide to keep Turner for another year after last season's 8-8 finish escapes us; if there were EVER an NFL situation that demanded a coaching change, it was San Diego's after last season. Sources say that Spanos became convinced to give Norv another shot after the Chargers played with spirit in the regular-season finale at Oakland and denied the host Raiders a playoff berth with a 38-26 win at the Coliseum. Apparently, Spanos had forgotten the previous week’s 38-10 loss at Detroit, another laid egg by Norv’s team in a big game that effectively ended the Charger playoff hopes.

Also being spared from the crossfire has been much-maligned GM A.J. Smith, who has not gone out of his way to make friends with the local press corps and would seem likely to take a fall along with Turner if and when Spanos decides a change is forthcoming.

The more-cynical among San Diego’s fan base suggest that Turner is willing to work more cheaply than other head coaches around the league, hence his appeal to Spanos. Although already there is a mounting buzz from Oceanside to Otay Mesa that Philadelphia HC Andy Reid is going to be lured from the Eagles back to his West Coast roots, and perhaps San Diego, next year. Stay tuned for further developments.

Even the once-raucous support base seems to have seen enough; as of late August, no home games had yet to sell out. The Chargers are even making fans who want to buy tickets for the visit of Peyton Manning and the Broncos to purchase a like number for the home opener against Tennessee on September 16. Again, something that hasn’t been an issue in recent years.

No matter, regarding 2012, Charger fans cannot say they haven't been forewarned; those who want to look “over” those nine wins do so at their own peril. The “Norv factor” remains alive and well.

Although the Bolts won their first three preseason games (hardly in artistic fashion, it should be noted), the exhibition slate has hardly been a smooth ride. Injuries have proven an issue; there are concerns at RB after starter Ryan Mathews (right) went down with a broken collarbone in the opener vs. Green Bay, and likely to miss the start of the regular season. San Diego, already minus one of last year’s running contributors, Mike Tolbert (who left for Carolina in free agency), is likely going to work 30-year-old vet Ronnie Brown with the first string as it attempts to compensate for Mathews, who could be sidelined into October. Ex-Syracuse RB Lorenzo Brinkley is now competing with Brown for feature-back duties in Mathews’ absence.

Moreover, Norv is also concerned about his OL, especially the crucial LT spot as projected starter Jared Gaither has been limited because of back issues. Center Nick Hardwick (concussion) and LG Tyronne Green (foot) have also been sidelined for much of the preseason, though both hope to return for the regular-season opener at Oakland on Monday, September 10.

The receiving corps, seeking to compensate for the departure of Vincent Jackson, has also endured an up-and-down summer. Holdover Vincent Brown was flourishing in early preseason work before suffering an ankle injury that likely keeps him out until midseason. Eddie Royal, an offseason addition from Denver and regarded as a potential gamebreaker, missed much of training camp while dealing with a groin strain. Robert Meachem, a free-agent addition from New Orleans, still has some work to do to get comfy with his new QB Rivers.

Meanwhile, longtime TE Antonio Gates (left), while still effective, is no longer the dominating force he was a few years ago.

The defense hasn’t been immune, either, as first-round draft pick OLB Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) was felled by a deep thigh bruise in the third exhibition game at Minnesota, and his status for the regular-season opener is up in the air.

On the plus side, if OLB Ingram (right, in August preseason action vs. Dallas on August 18) gets healthy, he’s expected to improve a pass rush that was rather limp a year ago. And another free-agent addition, LB Jarret Johnson (ex-Ravens), likely helps the front seven and helps the run defense. But the defensive front lacks star power, while the secondary was haunted by inconsistencies from cornerbacks Quentim Jammer and and Antoine Cason last season, a shortcoming not addressed in the offseason. Free safety Eric Weddle, however, has emerged as one of the NFL’s best.

Another plus is the return of PK Nate Kaeding, one of the most accurate in NFL history, after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Punter Mike Scifes is also among the upper-tier in the league at his position, and, assuming Eddie Royal is beyond his preseason groin strain, the Bolts added one of the league's better kick returners in the offseason.

Norv Turner, however, remains the coach.

Summary...We have become used to anticipating breakthroughs from the Norv Turner Chargers, only to eventually be disappointed, in recent years. The one season in which the Bolts seemed to put things together since Norv’s arrival, 2009, ended in abject failure in an unexpected playoff loss to the Jets, and San Diego hasn’t returned to the postseason since. We hardly recall a regime that has so failed to live up to expectations, yet continues to endure, as has Turner’s in San Diego.

Despite whatever early successes the Bolts might have had in preseason, this hardly has the look of a serious contender to us, and with the AFC West appearing as if it might be a tougher neighborhood these days, we aren’t holding our breath for any resurgence by the Chargers. Another playoff miss should signal the end of the Norv era in San Diego...but we were saying the same things last year at this time. By now we are used to the reruns at Qualcomm Stadium.


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