“I think we took another step toward becoming a better football team with the hiring of Turner,” Lovie Smith said via teleconference Sunday.
The Bears couldn’t get much worse when it comes to talking about their offense. The Bears ranked dead last in total offense, points, third down percentage and set team records for sacks allowed (66) and penalties (124). The team had more lost fumbles (21) than offensive touchdowns (19).
Under Turner the Bears enjoyed some of their most successful offensive statistics. In 1995, Erik Kramer set a team record for passing yards 3,838 and touchdown passes (29). The team also had their only pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Jeff Graham (1,301) and Curtis Conway (1,037). The team also saw Rashaan Salaam rush for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The University of Illinois fired Turner in November after he went 35-57 in eight seasons. He contemplated taking a season off, but lured back by wanting to return to the NFL. He agreed to a three-year deal with the Bears worth approximately $1.5 million.
While Smith doesn’t consider Turner a savior, the decision better be correct or the next move the head coach makes could be on the unemployment line.
“As a coach coming in you normally like situations like that where you can really see what you can do for an organization,” Smith said. “This is important for us. This is an important position. At this time we really need someone like Ron to really give the guys some confidence and really take off to try to achieve some of the goals that we’ve set.”
For Turner, it came down to choosing between the Baltimore Ravens and friend Brian Billick or the Bears, who he spent four seasons with as offensive coordinator from 1993-96.
“I had two really good options and I just felt it was the best one for me and my family,” Turner said.
His son, Cameron, will be the senior starting quarterback at Centennial High School. Turner now has the option of moving his family to the Chicagoland area or commuting from Champaign.
Although Smith and Turner have no personal history, they do share a vision of what the offense needs to become.
“We want to run the football and that’s where it all starts,” Turner said. “But also, it will revolve a lot around high percentage passes that we did when I was there before. One thing that’s maybe changed a little bit is little more of the vertical passing game. I think that’s something that I’ve gotten over the years is mixing the vertical passing game with the ball control so called west coast offense. Because to win games you’ve got to score points. To score points you’ve to take some shots in getting the ball downfield.”
The Bears are looking for a balanced attack. In Turner’s last stint in Chicago the offense ran just 36 more passing plays than runs.
The question is if the team has the personnel on offense to succeed.
“I don’t think that our talent is that bad,” Smith said. “ I know people may have their opinions, but I think we have good talent. We need to upgrade, just like each year you try to upgrade your team and we’ll try to do that, but I think our talent is good enough to win in the league.”
Turner mentioned areas that need improvement as the offensive line and wide receiver, but ultimately the failure of the offense in 2004 came down to the injury of Rex Grossman.
The team will now be working with their third different offense in three years and Grossman has a fifth new offensive coordinator in five years.
“I think the things that he does will fit perfectly into what we want to do offensively,” Turner said of Grossman. “I know he’s a football guy. I know he has a great mind for the game. I think he has the intangibles that you look for in a quarterback and I’m real excited about having an opportunity to work with him.”
At this point, it appears Turner will likely bring one assistant with him from Illinois. The Bears fired offensive line coach Pete Hoener, which leaves an opening for Harry Hiestand, who held the same position under Turner at Illinois.