Who's on your list of the best NFL coaches? The names you're most likely to hear, from casual football fans to noted pigskin "pundits," are those of Belichick, Dungy, Parcells, Reid and Shanahan.
You'd have to search long and hard to find a list that includes San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer.
Yet Schottenheimer has won more games than any of his more acclaimed colleagues. In fact, if Schottenheimer's Chargers beat Denver Sunday night, it will be his 194th career victory and will propel him into sole possession of the No. 5 spot on the list of coaches with the most wins in NFL history. He and Pittsburgh legend Chuck Noll are currently tied with 193 victories.
The four men who have won more games than Schottenheimer read like a Who's Who of NFL legends: Don Shula (328), George Halas (318), Tom Landry (250) and Earl "Curly" Lambeau (226). (Paul Brown has 213 professional victories, but won 47 of those games in the All-America Football Conference before his Browns jumped to the NFL in 1950. These games are not recognized by the NFL.)
Among active coaches, Parcells is a distant second to Schottenheimer, with 168 career victories.
All of which begs the question: Why does Schottenheimer rate so low in the perception of the pigskin public?
The near-legend of George Allen
History, as always, provides a precedent, and that precedent's name is George Allen.
Allen won 70.5 percent of his games
(116-47-5) in 12 NFL seasons (1966-77) with the L.A. Rams and Washington Redskins. Only John Madden (75.0 percent) and Vince Lombardi (72.8 percent) boast a greater winning percentage than Allen (among coaches with 100 or more career games).
But, like Schottenheimer, the guy with the third-best winning percentage in NFL history is rarely mentioned when the discussion turns to all-time great coaches.
The reason why is simple: Both Allen and Schottenheimer share an ignominous dishonor. Neither won an NFL championship in a sport that values team accomplishments and postseason productivity more than any other. (The Hall of Fame, for example, is filled with marginal regular-season performers, such as Lynn Swann to name one, who excelled in the postseason.)
The lack of a title has left a void in the legacy of two of the great winners in NFL history. It may or may not be fair. But the truth is that we judge football leaders – coaches, quarterbacks, even owners – by the rings on their fingers. And, for all their historic regular-season success, the teams of Allen and Schottenheimer have failed to live up to that success when it mattered most: in the postseason.
Here's a look at the Cold, Hard Football Facts that connect two of the winningest coaches in history – at least on paper. In the hearts and minds of a pigskin public that refuses to recognize them among the better coaches in the game, they may be cut from the same weak cloth.
1. Both consistently fielded strong regular-season teams
Schottemheimer boasts a 21-year NFL head coaching career that's included stints with four teams (Browns, Chiefs, Redskins, Chargers). Only his 1998 Chiefs (7-9) and 2003 Chargers (4-12) posted losing records. The 2006 season is shaping up to be Schottenheimer's 11th in which he's won 10 or more games.
2. Both fielded poor playoff teams
Allen went just 2-7 in his seven playoff appearances in 12 years (and remember, there was no wild-card round back in Allen's era). His teams failed to win a single game in six of those seven postseason visits.
That great 1967 Rams team? It was humiliated at home by the 9-4-1 Packers, 28-7. The Packers would win the famous Ice Bowl over Dallas the following week, and then capture their third straight NFL championship in Super Bowl II.
Schottenheimer has gone 5-12 in his 12 playoff appearances. Despite his standing among the winningest coaches of all time, he hasn't tasted a postseason victory since his wild-card 1993 Chiefs made it to the AFC title game before falling to Buffalo.
Schottenheimer's 1995 and 1997 Chiefs each won 13 regular-season games. Both lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. His most recent playoff team, the 2004 Chargers, went 12-4 in the regular season and won the AFC West. But they were bounced in the wild-card round, at home, by the 10-6 Jets.
3. Both were treated as whipping boys by the Gridiron Gods
Allen had his best postseason with the 1972 Redskins, who made it to Super Bowl VII courtesy of the only two playoff victories in Allen's career. Finally, ultimate success seemed within his grasp.
Yet who'd they meet?
That's right. The undefeated 1972 Dolphins. The Redskins were actually favored over a Miami team that squeaked out several wins against an incredibly easy schedule that year. But the Dolphins again prevailed on Super Bowl Sunday, 14-7, shutting out the Washington offense in the process. Allen's Redskins made the playoffs three more times before he retired in 1977, each year with a 10-4 record. They lost in the first round each time.
Schottenheimer led the Browns to the AFC title game in both the 1986 and 1987 seasons, only to suffer two of the more excruciating defeats in playoff history
. The 1986 Browns were victimized by John Elway and a series of plays so legendary it's simply known in football lore as "The Drive." The following year, it was "The Fumble." Cleveland appeared ready to return the favor when running back Ernest Byner fumbled just 3 yards shy of the end zone, costing the team a trip to the Super Bowl.
4. The legacy of each demands a championship
Allen retired in 1977 and passed away in 1990. He was inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002. Despite his success, it's doubtful he will ever achieve the popular acclaim accorded the few other coaches who had similar regular-season records and then capped those performances with a championship.
For Schottenheimer, it's easy. He simply needs to win a Super Bowl to finally earn recognition as one of the better coaches in the league – if not among the all-time greats, at least among his contemporaries, most of whom are unlikely to match his win total. (Schottenheimer's overall record is 193-126-1; .605.)
The curse of "Marty Ball"
Schottenheimer's 2006 Chargers could go down as his best team yet. They have a 7-2 record, second only to the undefeated Colts in the AFC. And only the Bears, in the weaker NFC, have posted a greater scoring differential than the Chargers at this point in the season (the Chargers are +112; the Bears, +152).
But to ignite a legacy befitting a coach who has won more games than all but four other coaches in history, he'll have to avoid playing the conservative style of football that has earned the derisive nickname "Marty Ball." That charge may or may not be true, but critics certainly have plenty of evidence in their arsenal.
In overtime of that 2004 playoff loss to the Jets, the Chargers drove from their own 30 to the New York 24, largely on the strength of quarterback Drew Brees's passing arm. When they reached that point – which put them in position for a game-winning 41-yard field goal – the offense went into shutdown mode. Brees dove ahead for a fist down on 2nd-and-1, a favorable down-and-distance coaches often use to go for the kill with a big play. Then, Tomlinson was stuffed on three straight run plays that netted -1 yard. A chance to give his kicker some insurance yardage was missed – and so was rookie Nate Kaeding's field goal attempt.
The Jets won with a field goal on the ensuing drive.
There's a good chance Schottenheimer will find himself in the playoffs again this year, for the 13th time in his career. He might consider being a little more aggressive.
His season, along with his legacy, hangs in the balance.