Best Coach Will Decide AFC West

What impact does a head coach have on the outcome of regular-season games? I've had this debate many times with both current and former NFL head coaches, executives and players. With five games to go in the 2006 season, and with the AFC West winner still in doubt, this division might not boil down to the games played on the field but the ones controlled from the sidelines.

To prove my point, you don't have to look any further than Sunday's AFC West showdown between the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. On one sideline you had Art Shell, and the other featured Marty Schottenheimer.

With the Raiders leading 14-7 in the fourth quarter, in a game they had dominated up to that point, head referee Mike Carey felt justified in rewarding the Chargers after wide receiver Vincent Jackson caught the ball, jumped to his feet untouched and spun the ball. It should have been ruled a fumble.

Instead, Carey allowed the Chargers to retain possession, claiming that it was an attempted forward pass. It wasn't, and the NFL should invite Carey and his entire crew to the league offices in New York on Monday, force them to take their severance checks and tell them to turn in their uniforms, whistles and yellow flags.

Schottenheimer was all over the play. He knew the rules far better than Shell, or Carey for that matter. You could ask Marty to explain the tiniest of rules and he could recite them to you verbatim and give you an example so you understood clearly.

Shell, on the other hand, couldn't articulate to himself about the rules, because he doesn't seem to care. He didn't fight as hard for his own team as some of his players did. Shell would rather play Randy Moss and watch him run one lackluster route after another instead of being the kind of coach he should have been Sunday.

The Chargers won that game because Schottenheimer is a better coach than Shell. It's not even close. During the regular season, Marty is still one of the best of all time. Shell was the seventh choice for Al Davis, who had to hire someone after being rejected by some of the top assistants in the NFL and college.

In Kansas City, there is no debate: after 11 games the Chiefs are in good hands with Herm Edwards. They are a better coached team today than they were at any point under Dick Vermeil.

If that play had occurred in a game with Edwards on the sidelines, I doubt the call would have gone that way. Edwards would likely have pled his case, throwing out the red flag to at least challenge the call.

It was clearly a fumble and clearly the NFL brain trust will see that today when they review the work of Carey's crew. It wasn't their only botched call of the game. They deserve an ‘F' for their performance.

But in the end, this was the Raiders, and they probably would have found a way to lose the game anyway. Schottenheimer knew what to do. Had he not been on the sidelines Sunday, the Chargers would have only a one-game lead instead of the two-game lead they enjoy now in the AFC West.

In Kansas City, Edwards believes the same as I do. It's not speculation. We talked about this very topic last May in our one-on-one interview. In the regular season, it's a head coach's job to get the right personnel on the field, make them understand what they are supposed to do and get them to execute. It's also their job to make all the calls and put a mark on the team so they're prepared to make the plays on both sides of the ball in crunch time.

In the postseason, the coaches don't do as much. Playoff games are won by playmakers. The regular season is nothing but a tutorial ground that prepares a team to be instinctive, smart and aggressive once the second season starts in January. At that point the head coach lives and dies by the players that have taken the team into the postseason.

Nothing else really matters.

The playoffs, now within KC's reach, are the only thing that drives Edwards. He has stressed over and over to his team that you have to play smart football. The Chiefs have won seven of their last nine games because they have an edge in knowing how to battle and win close games, not because of their talent level.

Edwards understands that the margin between KC's next opponent, the Cleveland Browns, and the Chiefs, is thin. Nobody knows better than Edwards that on any given Sunday one team can beat another. Sometimes you have to do things to get your team fired up, like he did after the Steelers loss. He did a great job of getting the Chiefs prepared to defeat the Raiders and Broncos over the last two weeks.

In Denver, head coach Mike Shanahan has benched Jake Plummer in favor of Jay Cutler. The rookie has a cannon for an arm, but what message does this send to the rest of the players? Everyone loves the backup, as we did in Kansas City with Damon Huard, but he came back down to earth.

Shanahan is putting the season on the shoulders of a young player who left college as the third-ranked quarterback behind Vince Young and Matt Leinart. Cutler might be the best of that bunch, but is he ready to lead the Broncos down the stretch?

With five games to go, the Chargers lead the division by two games. You'd think that Schottenheimer is in a good position to keep Philip Rivers from imploding, but this is foreign territory for Marty. In his previous coaching stints he's been able to rely on veteran quarterbacks.

Shanahan is going to have to balance an unhappy Plummer with his young gun. He's going to be criticized either way.

Edwards just needs his team to play up to their potential on the road. With two winnable road games in Cleveland and Oakland, the Chiefs can't afford to play passive. They have to come out firing on all cylinders from the opening kickoff. If they do that, they'll make both Denver and San Diego plenty nervous.

So, which team will win the division? Nobody knows for sure, but the one that does will likely do so because of their head coach.

I'll take my chances with Edwards, even if this team doesn't win the division. I'm certain he'll have the Chiefs prepared come January.

After that, his faith will rest on his players, and he believes in them as much as they believe in him. That was the recipe for the Steelers a year ago. It can certainly be the same formula that gives the Chiefs a legitimate shot to win some playoff games this year. Top Stories