Starr: 'Martyball' Goes Deep

A question to test your NFL knowledge: Who has won the most games of any active NFL head coach?

A) Bill Cowher

B) Joe Gibbs

C) Bill Parcells

D) Marty Schottenheimer

E) Mike Shanahan

The answer: Marty Schottenheimer, who has won 196 regular-season games, or 25 more than runner-up Parcells. No doubt many of you are surprised to find Schottenheimer's coaching record so prominent in the NFL's upper ranks. Perhaps the most surprising—and remarkable—fact about his NFL coaching career is this: despite being a head coach longer than all those other renowned, veteran coaches, Schottenheimer has the fewest losing seasons—just two in 21 years at the helm of Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and, now, San Diego.

Yet it is Schottenheimer who is widely regarded as a coach who doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those others. That’s because he is the correct answer to two other questions: Which of the above five never won a Super Bowl? (Gibbs has three, Parcells and Shanahan two each and Cower one.) And which of the coaches has a postseason winning percentage under .500? Gibbs leads the pack at 17-6, followed by Parcells at 11-7, Shanahan at 8-5 and Cowher at 12-9; Schottenheimer's playoff record is a dismal 5-12, including losses in his last five games.

As a result, Schottenheimer is not only viewed as something less than a great coach but also tends to be dismissed, by fans and sportswriters alike, as something of a plodder, a mediocrity. Sometimes the assessments are even less kind. He is the only one of those five coaches who has a style of played name after him, "Martyball," and the label is strictly a pejorative. It describes an unimaginative game plan that is … well, pick your own C word—conservative, cautious, constrained, cut-throat (your own, that is), cowardly.

There is a thin line between genius and ignominy, triumph and defeat. Bill Belichick parlayed the "tuck" rule and a brilliant clutch kicker into a championship that propelled a dynasty. Schottenheimer watched Browns running back Earnest Byner fumble away a Super Bowl berth on the two-yard line and his kicker shank a 40-yarder that would have kept the Chargers' title hopes alive in 2004. But Schottenheimer is not entirely blameless. You sense that he never could have orchestrated the Patriots' last-second win in their first Super Bowl triumph. When John Madden was counseling caution—take a knee for overtime—Belichick went for the victory. Schottenheimer, one senses, would have listened to Madden.

But it is possible that even Marty has tired of Martyball. Earlier this season, Schottenheimer sat on a lead against the Baltimore Ravens, allowing his inexperienced quarterback, Philip Rivers, to throw just four passes in the entire second half. When his team lost the lead, and the game, in the final seconds, critics said it was a classic Martyball fiasco. Since then, though, Marty has loosened the reins, allowing Rivers more autonomy and calling for more pass plays, to the point that today Schottenheimer presides over the highest-scoring, most exciting offense in the league. His Chargers have now won six games in a row and, at 10-2, are tied with the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears for the best record in football. With the Colts defense suspect and the Bears' sticking with the erratic Rex Grossman at quarterback, San Diego has emerged as the fashionable pick to win Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Is it possible to have a wake-up call in your third decade in the NFL?

Schottenheimer says there has been no great awakening, that he is just taking advantage of the weapons at hand. And he truly has weapons, starting with the best running back in the league, LaDainian Tomlinson. But the coach has also taken the shackles off Rivers, giving him something Schottenheimer doesn't bestow easily—trust. And Rivers has reward him by exhibiting the kind of steady and heady play that led some recent quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, also presumed to be too young and inexperienced, to Super Bowl championships.

There is much to admire about Schottenheimer. In Washington, he refused to humor owner Danny Snyder's football fantasies. As a result, he got dumped for first Steve Spurrier and then Joe Gibbs—more illustrious and more accommodating coaches, to be sure, but not more successful. In San Diego, Schottenheimer has benefited from management decisions that will stand as an object lesson for the rest of the league. Not once, but twice Chargers management has passed up a quarterback who was the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft—and both times has appeared prescient. In 2001, the Chargers traded Atlanta the rights to No. 1 choice Michael Vick, settling a few picks later for Tomlinson, who is on pace this season set an NFL record for touchdowns. That same year the Chargers nabbed quarterback Drew Brees with the first pick of the second round. Brees, far less touted and talented than Vick, proved to be a more polished professional quarterback before departing this year in free agency for the New Orleans Saints.

Three years later, the Chargers did it again. This time they traded the first pick, Eli Manning—in this case at his own insistence—to the New York Giants, for another first-round quarterback, Rivers, and several, extra draft choices. Had it been a deal for Rivers even up, the Chargers might be adjudged the winner. But one of those extras proved to be Shawne Merriman, last year's AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and the bona fide havoc-wreaker that every championship defense requires.

Arguably the four best teams in the NFL are all in the AFC and the others are all led by quarterbacks with considerably more big-game experience than Rivers. That makes for a particularly treacherous path to redemption for Schottenheimer. But at the same time it makes failure acceptable—just as long as the team doesn't succumb to another Martyball moment. The Chargers have the weapons to go all the way. But if they don't, they should, at least go out with a bang and not a whimper.

BCS Hype

We will never know if Michigan-Ohio State would have made for a better championship game contest than the BCS selection of Florida-Ohio State. But it really doesn't matter. This is not just about the game, which, after all, lasts less than four hours on a night in January. Far more important is the hype, which began this week and lasts for more than a month. And there's no doubt that a matchup between two regions of the country with a historical claim to football supremacy, two storied football conferences whose paths seldom intersect, and two illustrious football schools that have never before met on the gridiron, makes for far bigger and better hype.