Early on Saturday, the Associated Press proclaimed Marty Schottenheimer as NFL coach of the year for resurrecting the Chargers from a 5-11 season a year ago to AFC West Champions in 2004. It was one of the most remarkable of turnarounds for Schottenheimer considering the fact he was on the hot seat in San Diego and anything short of a miracle season would insure another season on the sidelines with the Chargers in 2005.
Two weeks ago the Chargers offered Schottenheimer an extension and it was rejected. After Saturday's playoff loss, that might have been a huge mistake. The former Chiefs head coach now has a 5-11 post season record that includes home losses in Cleveland, Kansas City and of course now in San Diego.
"I've been through this before that's been well documented," said a beleaguered Schottenheimer after the loss to the Jets.
That sounds all too familiar to Chiefs fans but this loss is easily resting on the shoulders of Schottenheimer. As has been his history, he just does not know how to coach in the playoffs.
I could recount the big games he lost as the Chiefs coach when he lost winnable home playoff contests to the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. In both of those losses, Schottenheimer made the same mistake relying on players like Steve Bono and Elvis Grbac when he could have used Rich Gannon. But in those losses, Schottenheimer changed the game plan and refused to use his strengths.
In the loss to the Colts, the Chiefs were running the ball down the throat of the Colts but instead, Schottenheimer wanted Bono to pass the ball and he turned it over three times. He brought in Rich Gannon late in the fourth quarter but his refusal to use Marcus Allen in the second half was the deciding blow not the three missed field goals by Lin Elliott. For that matter, the Chiefs should never have been in that position relying on a kicker with no tummy for the big play.
Years later Schottenheimer decided to start Elvis Grbac against the Broncos in a game that the Chiefs had no business losing. Gannon had led the Chiefs to a 13-3 season and it was clear to everyone, except Schottenheimer that he was the clear choice to start the playoffs. Grbac imploded in the last minute of the game and Schottenheimer had another loss in the post season.
On Saturday, it was the same old story. With the Chargers trailing by ten points in the fourth quarter, he finally put the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Finally quarterback Drew Brees found his boys, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Both players made the plays down the stretch and with just :16 seconds left Brees hit Gates in the end zone to tie the score at 17-17.
Granted the game would have been over the play before but a roughing the passer penalty by Jets linebacker Eric Barton that gave the Chargers new life. But the Chargers should not have been in this position. Gates only had two pass receptions until the final period and Tomlinson wasn't being used. The Chargers kept trying to run him up the middle instead of exploiting his speed on the outside.
That would prove costly in overtime as the Chargers were driving inside the Jets 30-yard line. But Schottenheimer in his infamous wisdom, instructed the offense to try three running plays up the gut. That produced three yards and put the game on the foot of rookie kicker Nate Kaeding. The former Iowa Hawkeye product did what rookie kickers do, they miss clutch game winning field goals. Kaeding was wide right on his 40-yard attempt and for all practical purposes, the game and the season would certainly be lost.
The Jets took advantage and drove the ball down the throats of the Chargers stunned defense. As is typical with Schottenheimer teams they could not overcome bad coaching, this time the Jets made the plays as Jets Kicker Doug Brien was all nails from 28-yards out giving the visitors from New York a huge playoff win.
For Schottenheimer the entire off-season will be marred by this loss. The Chargers might become the only team in NFL history to fire a Coach of the Year but its clear that all the positive things that Schottenheimer did in 2004 were wasted with his poor game decisions in Saturday's home overtime loss.
Rumors will start heating up once again about USC coach Pete Carroll, who I am convinced wants to come back to the NFL, but is lying low for the right job. He is not interested in the San Francisco 49ers vacancy because of the potential meddling of team owner John York.
The Spanos family who own the Chargers tried unsuccessfully to lure Carroll after last season but he decided he was in a better position staying in the college game. Bottom line is that if Carroll returns to the NFL; it will be on his terms and he will demand complete control over personnel.
That's not something the Spanos family are comfortable with nor are many teams who are desperate for his services. But that's probably a smoke screen because he does not want to coach for a team that needs three to five years to rebuild. He's looking for a team that has lots of upside. The Chargers have that with a $21 million in cap money available but have of that will be used to secure quarterback Drew Brees, unless the team allows him to pursue free agency.
With that said, Carroll would be the ideal candidate to become the heir apparent to Dick Vermeil who will retire after the 2005 season. Now that could change if Vermeil recants his decision to come back next season but from all accounts that's not likely to happen.
So in a strange turn of events, Schottenheimer by losing on Saturday, might have helped the Chiefs secure their coach of the future. The Chargers will no doubt give Schottenheimer one more season and that's good news for Chiefs fans. That means that it could be a tug of war between the two AFC West teams for the hottest coaching candidate in college after Carroll wins his third national championship in a row. He'll have little left to prove in College and he wants to erase his failures in the NFL.
Two weeks ago I would have sworn that Oklahoma Sooner Head Coach Bob Stoops was the clear favorite to become the Chiefs Head Coach in 2006. But after getting embarrassed in the National Championship Game to Carroll's USC Trojans, Stoops is starting to get the same label as Schottenheimer. Great during the regular season but not a good post season coach. One person who won't get the job is offensive coordinator Al Saunders. This organization needs fresh blood and someone younger who can relate to the younger players who will be guiding the Chiefs in the future.
For the Chiefs and the Hunt family in particular, they are entering the final year before a major overhaul of management and the coaching staff takes place after the 2005 season. Carl Peterson and Vermeil have indicated that they'll go out together and with Clark Hunt emerging from the shadows of his father; he'll be ready to put his stamp on this team.
That stamp could be to lure Carroll away from USC. If that happens, we all owe a debt of gratitude to our old friend Marty Schottenheimer.