The name of Marty Schottenheimer doesn't rattle around one's head in the tones of John Facenda, nor is he normally mentioned among the NFL's elite coaches. In a league that produces stars almost instantly, Schottenheimer has coached for 20 full seasons without acclaim.
His name is, however, connected with a catch phrase, Marty Ball, which characterizes the teams he coaches. Among their attributes are a cautious approach to game management, commitment to the running game, good defense, 10 wins per season and early exits from the playoffs. At this time of the year, events cross his name off the list of coaches still contending for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
No coach has ever hung around for so long without appearing in a Super Bowl. And the surprise, looking back, isn't so much that Schottenheimer hasn't won a Super Bowl but that he's hung around for so long. After all, who hangs around for so long without winning the Super Bowl?
He survives, though. And he wins.
On Dec. 31, Schottenheimer's San Diego Chargers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-20, bringing the coach's regular season career NFL win total up to 200, making him fifth on the all-time list. The coaches ahead of him all are Hall of Famers: Don Shula (328 wins), George Halas (318), Tom Landry (250) and Curly Lambeau (226).
All won NFL championships. But Schottenheimer has not.
Some day, perhaps, that will change. Perhaps it'll change within a month, because Schottenheimer has the team to do it this year. The 14-2 Chargers clearly are the NFL's best team this season, a group that can run the ball and stop the run, entering the playoffs this weekend with a 10-game winning streak and home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
All of that never seems to be enough, though. Cleveland Browns fans know it all too well.
Schottenheimer is the coach done in by "The Drive" and "The Fumble." Browns fans must remember Schottenheimer fondly, considering he took them as close to the Super Bowl as they've ever been and the team hasn't sustained equivalent success since earning three AFC Central championships and four playoff berths in his four full seasons there. But they also remember the heartbreak.
Heartbreak looks pretty good now for Browns fans, who must be tired of bland incompetence. Last time the Browns suffered bland incompetence, Schottenheimer saved them. OK, he and Bernie Kosar saved them.
The Browns were 1-7 in 1984 after quarterback Brian Sipe jumped to the USFL. Browns owner Art Modell stopped the bleeding by firing Sam Rutigliano and promoting Schottenheimer, his defensive coordinator, to head coach. The Browns played out the season 4-4 under Schottenheimer. Then a break came their way.
Kosar, the Youngstown native who guided the University of Miami to its breakthrough national championship in 1983, graduated with a double major in finance and economics with a year of eligibility remaining after the 1984 season. And he really wanted to play for the Browns.
Rather than declare for the regular draft, which might have landed him somewhere else, Kosar waited until the supplemental draft. The Browns traded four draft picks to Buffalo for the top selection in the supplemental draft, then took Kosar.
Struggling early in Kosar's rookie year of 1985, the Browns rallied to 8-8 and won a weak AFC Central. The next year, Kosar emerged as one of the NFL's best passers, and the Browns finished 12-4 and won home field through the playoffs. The Browns led the AFC Championship Game in their own stadium when Denver took over at its own 2 with 5:32 left. Then, of course, came "The Drive," at the end of which Broncos quarterback John Elway threw a game-tying touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining. The Broncos won in overtime.
The next year, Schottenheimer and Kosar again took the Browns to a dominating regular season and the AFC Championship Game, this time in Denver. This time, the Browns trailed with five minutes left and staged an apparent game-tying comeback, but running back Earnest Byner fumbled, Denver recovered and the Browns stopped short again.
After one more season and another playoff berth, Schottenheimer took off for Kansas City, tired of Modell's meddling. Within a couple years, Modell hired Bill Belichick. Typically, in view of the Browns' past 40 years, the coach who subsequently won three Super Bowls in New England couldn't win in Cleveland. On top of that, Belichick authored one of the most unpopular decisions in Browns history, releasing Kosar during the 1993 season and citing "diminishing skills."
This year's first playoff game for Schottenheimer arrives Sunday afternoon, with no one other than Belichick and his New England Patriots traveling to San Diego. No one going today holds a better playoff record than Belichick, and no one is more defeated in the playoffs than Schottenheimer, who hasn't won a postseason contest since 1993, when he lost for the third time in the AFC Championship Game.
It says here that the fellow who released Kosar has had it way too good for too long, and the guy who won with Kosar is in time for his due. But that's not the way it works.
This year's Chargers are Marty Ball-plus. They don't merely have a running game — they have LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL's Most Valuable Player. They have the NFL's 10th-ranked defense, seventh against the run.
And they've got the home field advantage, which is huge in the divisional round of playoffs because it comes with a bye week. Over the past 10 years, playoff home teams are 73-31, including 4-0 last weekend. But the percentage for home teams in the divisional round is an overwhelming 32-8.
Should the Chargers survive this weekend, the AFC Championship Game is likely to feature Tomlinson against the Baltimore Ravens' second-ranked run defense. The road for Schottenheimer is still long, but this could be his best — and last — chance to cross it.