Monday, January 15, 2007

Marty Ball

If there were any doubts that Marty Schottenheimer is a lousy coach they should have been erased Sunday as Nate Kaeding’s 54 yard field goal attempt fell about two yards short and three yards right of tying a game the Chargers should have won handily. It might seem convenient to pin the blame on Marty even though the players made more than their share of mistakes on the field. After all it was timely turnovers and penalties that gave the Patriots extra chances to keep the game within reach, but it was a Schottenheimer trademark, poor two minute defense, that made the upset possible. Tom Brady was brilliant at the end of each half when he calmly directed his offense down field to score. It was like déjà vu. John Elway’s legacy was fashioned around the creampuff coverage Schottenheimer employed when he coached the Browns and Tom Brady’s legend was bolstered yesterday.

Ultimately the biggest mistakes were made by the coach. Players often react in a manner that reflects the attitude of their coach and in spite of being heavily favored the Chargers played like underdogs. They seemed desperate even when they had a lead. Could that be because anytime Marty is in the postseason he’s an underdog?

Look at the final play: A 54 yard field goal attempt to tie the game. That’s a long distance for any kicker in that situation but for Kaeding it matched his longest. With 15 seconds left on the clock it would have been advisable to run one more quick play in hopes of picking up a few more yards. Just one yard might have been enough to give the young kicker a sense of confidence going onto the field. The difference between 53 and 54 yards is huge when 54 yards represents the longest kick you’ve ever made. Perhaps it’s only psychological but when it comes to kicking its all about the head. That’s why coaches still see fit to “ice” kickers if they have a time out to burn.

Of course that entire drive might have been different if the Chargers hadn’t burned their time outs prior to taking the field with just over a minute to play. Phillip Rivers was forced to waste one on the previous drive but the biggest waste of a time out, possibly in the history of the game, was when Schottenheimer challenged a turnover early in the quarter. Actually it was a double turnover but there was no reason to suspect that the officials had gotten the call wrong. Even at full speed it was clear Marlon McCree coughed up the ball after picking off Tom Brady. It provided the Patriots with a second chance and they capitalized by scoring, however the lost time out is what really cost the Chargers the game. The challenge reeked of desperation. Schottenheimer was hoping that there would be something on the replay he just wasn’t sure what it would be.

But even before that Schottenheimer demonstrated unnecessary levels of desperation. With plenty of game to play and an easy field goal on the table, Schottenheimer threw caution to the wind and went for it on 4th and 11. Phillip Rivers was sacked providing the Patriots with excellent field position on what should have been only a moral victory in holding the Chargers to three points…Three points that would have forced a tie. Instead the Patriots took advantage of the play and scored three points of their own. Schottenheimer looked ill at ease.

Bill Belichick, on the other hand, was cool and collected the whole time. Even as the underdog facing a ferocious defense and an unstoppable running back, Belichick stayed calm and called his plays. His team took advantage of every mistake and didn’t allow their own miscues to change the way they played. Instead of stuffing the line of scrimmage with players in hopes of stopping Tomlinson, Belichick treated the superstar they way he would treat any other back and resigned his defense to the fact that the Chargers would move the ball. They just had to keep it close. The offense played the same way, knowing that they would take a beating and need to pounce on every opportunity. They avoided costly penalties and stayed focused on the task at hand. In the end, the Patriots did what they had to do and won the game because they played smarter.

It’s too bad. By all accounts Marty Schottenheimer is a great guy. Players love him and he’s one of the more accessible coaches in the NFL. He’s polite and professional with the press and affable with fans. At times he does rub the front office the wrong way and he has been at odds with San Diego’s brain trust. This loss won’t endear him to the management team. Because of the loyalty Schottenheimer inspires in his players and the regular season success he enjoys, San Diego might have to keep him, but will they be able to do it without front office fireworks? Somebody will have to be held accountable for this loss and Schottenheimer might bristle at the prospect of being forced to hand an assistant coach out to dry. There might be no way to salvage this relationship.

And that’s how it has to be. It’s not luck. Schottenheimer is just a lousy postseason coach. The problem seems to stem from employing regular season preparation with post season strategy. Historically speaking, Schottenheimer’s teams consistently fail to match the intensity of their opponents in the playoffs. They don’t make adjustments and fail to execute on critical plays. His playoff teams also make a lot of foolish mistakes. Perhaps the biggest difference between regular season and post season Martyball is the so-called “killer instinct”. During the regular season Marty’s teams will seem dominant achieving victory early and using aggressive defense to quell the threat of a comeback. In the postseason, Martyball gets conservative and his teams seem to play not to lose. Many of his post season losses have come late in games when his opponents have been forced to play from behind.

This Chargers team might be the best Marty has ever coached. Many experts believe that Tomlinson is the best football player ever. That might be premature but he’s certainly a dominant force and unlike Barry Sanders, Tomlinson is surrounded with quality talent. Outstanding talent, in fact, which makes it hard to believe he’s in the same league as Barry Sanders, Jim Brown or Walter Payton. Nevertheless, the guy is good and he demonstrated that yesterday. For some reason, Schottenheimer seemed reticent to put the game on Tomlinson’s back which is another cause for concern. Clearly the Patriots couldn’t stop Tomlinson with their standard defense, so why not hand the MVP the ball 35 times until Belichick had no choice but to load up with a goal line set? It’s not as though you have to keep his legs fresh.

With the NFL being what it is, this might have been the best shot the Chargers and Marty would have had at a Super Bowl win. San Diego’s front office spent heavily in hopes that this team would win it all and free agency will take a toll on this team. If the Chargers clash with Schottenheimer the team will struggle next year (Marty has been self destructive after his ego’s been bruised) and if they fire him you can expect transition to be cruel. Who will replace him? Even if Tomlinson can replicate his performance in coming years, teams are going to find ways to minimize his impact and victories will be harder to come by. It also doesn’t help matters much that the Chargers will be playing a tougher schedule next season. And then you have the steroids issue haunting the defense. Can Merriman stay clean under the rigorous testing he’ll be subjected to over the coming months? Lights out indeed.

A lot of people will have high hopes for the Chargers next year. Analysts and fans alike will believe that this is the beginning of something special but it seems more like the beginning of the end. The Chargers had their chance and fell short. They can thank Marty Schottenheimer for that.

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