Monday, March 24, 2008

Remebering ERock, What if...

Sometime the mind does strange things. Maybe it was reading another scathing review of Mike Huff, or seeing some mention of the Ravens Super Bowl win, or reading how the Raiders have been looking for a hard hitting strong safety since Ronnie Lott's brief tenure. Who know what it was, but the name Eric Turner came to mind earlier today.

I have no idea the ages of the few who frequent this site. So you may remember Eric Turner well, or, if you are younger, you may not even know the name. NFL.Com barely even acknowledges his existence past his draft status. And that is truly a shame, as Turner, by all accounts, was as respected off the field as he was on.

Turner was drafted out of UCLA with the 2nd pick in the 1991 draft by the Cleveland Browns. The highest a defensive back has ever been selected. He got off to a slow start with Cleveland only appearing in eight games his rookie season. The pick was questioned as Turner at times appeared either a step slow or too focused on making the big hit to ever provide the impact that was expected.

IN his 2nd season Turner started to find his grove, he still looked for the big hit too often, but he had adjusted to the speed of the NFL game. In his sophomore year Turner racked up 119 tackles, and it only got better. In his 3rd season Turner put it all together and became one of the leagues premier defenders. With 159 tackles and 5 interceptions he had arrived. He built upon that success in 1994 with his 1st Pro Bowl and only All pro selections, he added 105 tackles and 9 interceptions to his career totals that year, including the one returned 93 yards seen in this clip.

Turner Struggled with injuries the next two seasons, including a fractured vertebra, setting up his exit from what was now the Baltimore Ravens, and his eventual signing with the Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders brought Turner in to add the fear factor that had been missing from the secondary since Ronnie Lott’s two seasons in Silver and Black. Turner has grown up in California and had always dreamed of being a Raider. It seemed like a perfect match. Turner started 15 games his first season with the Raiders and added another 111 tackles to his impressive career totals. He quickly became one of the team leaders, and while he never returned to the form that made him a star in ’94, his leadership more than made up the difference.

The injury bug hit again the next season. And his 3rd season with the Raiders was also marred by injuries, and many were left to question how what seemed like a minor calf injury kept him from finishing the year. Was his body breaking down from years of being one of the leagues hardest hitter?

Here is where the story turns tragic. Around the time of the draft stories started to surface that Turner was ill and that he may have experienced drastic weight loss. However, as Turner was an extremely private man, the truth did not come out until later. On May 28, 2000 Eric Turner passed away from intestinal cancer.

The news rocked the football world. A man who had seemed like the picture of health and was putting together a borderline hall of fame caliber career had been struck down in what should have been the prime of his life.

Stories of Turner’s charity and the respect that his had for him poured out. His hard hitting style had made him a fan favorite in both Cleveland and Oakland, but this was overshadowed by the off the field respect that his fellow players had for him. By all accounts Turner was the kind of teammate and player you wanted playing with or for you.

The Raiders brought Turner with them into the ’00 season. Hanging his jersey and nameplate at an empty locker before every game.

"We just don't want to forget about him," coach Jon Gruden said of the Raiders' traveling tribute to Turner. "He was an inspiring player and a great man. It was a tragedy and we don't want to forget what he meant to us. It was sudden and sad, and it's still a very emotional thing. We want him to always be in our thoughts and our prayers."

As a fan, when it was announced that the Raiders had signed Eric Turner, I felt that they had added the missing piece to turn the Defense into a top-flight unit. Visions of Super Bowls danced in my head. He was on the team as Gruden turned around a moribund unit and had them on the cusp of the playoffs. And while everyone knew that Turners death would hurt the franchise, I doubt any of us had any idea of the far-reaching effects of his untimely demise.

I hope where I am going here does not trivialize the death of Eric Turner. Honestly I’m struggling to make the transition from eulogy to speculation. Usually this site is sarcastic and irreverent; I’m better at that. Serious, not so much.

But as a fan I am left with the question…what could have been? What if Eric Turner had not gotten sick, what if he had put together 3-4 more years of excellence on the field. Was he the missing piece in the Raiders run those last couple Gruden years and the first Callahan year.

We all remember the 2000 season. The Raiders became a force to be reckoned with in the AFC. They had the top running game in the league and looked to be peaking as the team entered the playoffs. However the team had one glaring weakness, the safety position where Marques Pope and Anthony Dorsett aimlessly wandered the field. The loss of Turner may have galvanized the unit, but his presence was sorely missed on the field.

This weakness reared its head at the worst possible time. In a close battle with the Baltimore Ravens, both Pope and Dorsett failed to contain the Raven’s offense’s only weapon, Shannon Sharpe, and allowed him to get free to streak down the field for the game’s loan TD. Would the outcome have been different with Turner in the Game? We will never know, Gannon had been injured and points were hard to come by, but I have to believe that Sharpe would not have gotten free with Turner roaming the Secondary.

Following that heartbreaking loss, the Raiders addressed the safety position in the draft. Selecting Derrick Gibson late in the 1st round. I have never been a Gibson basher; he was a good tackling safety that did an adequate job covering the TE for the Raiders. But he never lived up to fan expectations, as he didn’t bring the intimidation factor that Raider fans covet. You have to think that if Turner was still on the roster, the Raiders would never have made that pick, and instead may have addressed the TE position as Gruden reportedly wanted. With either Todd Heap, or Alge Crumpler.

Following that draft, things are no longer so clearly linked to the tragic loss of Turner. NFL teams do loose players unexpectedly all the time, and while few have the impact that Turner did, teams do have to react to this kind of thing regularly.

But the questions remain, had Al not overruled Gruden in taking Gibson instead of Heap, would the rift between them grown to the point that Al traded Gruden following the ’01 season? With Turner’s leadership still on the team would they have avoided the let down at the end of the ’01 season and not had to play in NE in the snow? Could the death of one player really prevented the Raiders from becoming the dominant franchise of the decade? Was the death of Turner the true turning point where the Raiders went from a top team to a laughing stock? How big a domino effect did the loss of Turner start in terms of both leadership and talent on the Raiders roster?

As fans we are left to wonder…what if?

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