Marty time?

If you think the administration’s Iraq policy is coming under heavy scrutiny, you should have seen the recent inquest into the Washington Redskins season. The Skins recently completed a 5-11 year and the Washington Post, along with the local sports talk establishment, isn’t taking it lying down. Joe Gibbs, a Hall of Fame coach who was the toast of Washington at this time last year following a very successful season, is portrayed as an inept old uncle figure who, among other errors, made too many changes to last year’s set-up. The question of how he went from “the toast” to “toast” in one year seldom is asked. When it is, we are told that last year’s team was lucky — a “weak 10-6.” But if that’s so, then why was it a mistake for Gibbs to make changes?
The team’s defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, is taking far more abuse. Williams has a fabulous track record but his defense was terrible this year so some criticism is warranted. But one might hope for more perspective than the Washington Post provided in a piece that portrayed him as clueless and perhaps a bit crazy. After all, Williams is the guy that last year everyone was praying would remain here as an assistant and then take over for Gibbs in a few years.
Some of the specific criticisms of Williams seem to have been leaked by reserve safety Adam Archuleta. Archuleta just completed the worst season I can remember a Redskin having since the team agreed to racial integration. Yet the local sports mavens generally excuse his performance and blame the coaching staff for asking him to do things he was incapable of doing — like staying with 265 pound tight ends in pass coverage.
In all of this, the one mistake the Redskins made that probably cost them a playoff spot this season goes unmentioned. I’m referring to the decision to fire Marty Schottenheimer after the 2001 season and replace him with Steve Spurrier. Schottenheimer is one of five coaches in NFL history with more than 200 regular seaons wins. In 2001, he took over an overpaid, underperforming Redskins team and slashed the roster and payroll in an attempt to remake the club in his image. At first, the Skins were so bad that it didn’t look like Marty would survive the season. They lost the first three games by a combined score of 16-112. But after an 0-5 start, the team won 8 of its last 11 to finish 8-8. This had special resonance for Skins fans because that’s exactly what had happened in Joe Gibbs’ first season, 20 years earlier. The next year we won the Super Bowl.
There was no next year here for Schottenheimer — team owner Dan Snyder decided to replace him with a coach who had no professional coaching experience. Amazingly, local sports pundits were virtually unanimous in approving the move. A very few questioned the wisdom of bringing in Spurrier; I recall no one who questioned firing Marty.
Schottenheimer took his act to the moribund San Diego Chargers franchise. He immediately transformed the Chargers from doormats to a .500 team. The next season was a bad one, one of only two losing seasons he’s experienced, but since then San Diego has been on the rise. This year the team went 14-2. And Spurrier? After two losing seasons he resigned. He’s now coaching college ball again.
This afternoon, Schottenheimer’s Chargers will take on the New England Patriots in the playoffs. The playoffs have been Marty’s downfall — his record is 5-12. He’s had his share of bad luck (a fumble on the goal line cost him a trip to the Super Bowl) and when a coach wills a team into the playoff (as he probably did a few times) the odds of a quick exit are high. Nonetheless, Chargers fans have to be concerned because Patriots coach Bill Belichik has a playoff record of 12-2. More importantly, Belichik has the great Tom Brady (the hero of three Super Bowls) at quarterback. Marty has Phillip Rivers who is completing his first season as a starting quarterback in the NFL.
I don’t follow the NFL closely enough to have a good sense of how the Chargers will fare today and, with luck, going forward. But I do know that the Redskins made a huge mistake when they sacked Schottenheimer Maybe one day someone who covers sports in Washington for a living will notice.
UPDATE: More playoff heartbreak for Schottenheimer. An error-filled second half leads to a Patriot comeback win, 24-21, on a late field goal.

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