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Tense time for Schottenheimer in postseason

SAN DIEGO -- Schottenheimer: v. transitive. 1 to manage a football game in order not to lose, as opposed to managing a football game to win. e.g. He Schottenheimered them out of the playoffs. n. 2 the act of managing a football game not to lose, as opposed to managing a football game to win. e.g. They were one Schottenheimer away from the Super Bowl.

That's how some people see it, anyway. Holy Halas, is Marty Schottenheimer really such a horrible person?

The record says he is a good coach. With 200 regular-season victories, Schottenheimer is fifth on the all-time list. But the regular season is one thing, and the postseason is another, and when people think of Marty Schottenheimer, there is a significant, "Yeah, but" attached.

Consider the opening paragraph of his Wikipedia bio.

"He holds the dubious honor of being the NFL coach with the most wins who has never been to the Super Bowl."

Hey, Wikipedia isn't the gospel. But Wikipedia, the Everyman's online encyclopedia, reflects consensus thought. It tells you what people think. And here, again according to Wikipedia, is the way the coach of the 14-2 San Diego Chargers is perceived by many people who follow sports:

"Schottenheimer is considered to be a conservatively minded coach with a majority of his focus on defense. The term 'Martyball' is generally considered a pejorative because, at times, Schottenheimer will steadfastly continue to emphasize this form of offensive attack to hold on to a thin lead or when playing from behind -- often with negative results."

And what is "this form of offensive attack"? Simply put: run, run, pass, punt.

Makes for a good story. Is it true?

Let's just say it is grounded in partial truth, or what used to be truth. People point to Schottenheimer's 5-12 playoff record, and a five-game postgame losing streak dating to 1993, and they say Schottenheimer's inherent conservatism is a fatal flaw of Greek tragedy proportions in an otherwise exemplary pigskin character. And if it isn't his inherent conservatism, then it's his inherent uptight nature that prevents a Schottenheimer team from just letting it flow in the big games. Many people maintain that, while he is a proven excellent regular-season coach, what he should do is recuse himself when the playoffs start and go sit in a nice seat on the 45-yard line, sipping beer and eating hot dogs.

Well, I gotta tell ya, he was anything but uptight yesterday, standing there in his blue warm-up suit with the nice straw hat perched on his head. And he was quite willing to -- for what was probably the 411th time this week -- address his playoff woes.

"Does it bother me when people bring the record up?" he inquired. "No, it doesn't. It is what it is. You can analyze it and research it, but really what it comes down to is that in 12 of those games we had the opportunity to make plays and we didn't, and in five of them we made those plays and we wound up winning the game. It is what it is. I've had people apologize to me for asking, and that's not necessary."

Fair-minded pigskinologists recognize luck has had something to do with it. Can Schottenheimer be blamed because Earnest Byner made the most damaging (most memorable, anyway) fumble in the history of the NFL postseason (1987)? And was it Schottenheimer's fault when John Elway took the Broncos on The Drive a year earlier? Think about it. We celebrate Denver's 98-yard drive as one of the great positive acts in American sports history, and well we should. It would be absurd to blame Schottenheimer because his Browns couldn't get Elway & Co. off the field. Oh, and does anyone think Schottenheimer told Lin Elliott to miss three field goals in that 10-7 loss to Indianapolis back in 1995?

The Schottenheimer saga has been exacerbated by the fact that two of his beaten Kansas City teams were No. 1 overall seeds who lost in their first playoff game. The '95 team lost that aforementioned game to Indy, while two years later his top-seeded Chiefs lost to Denver, 14-10, in a game after which Schottenheimer's critics no doubt identified at least 20 examples of play-calling cautiousness.

The critics have it all cataloged; don't you worry about that. He's 0-3 in conference championship games, and he's lost five fourth-quarter leads, and yada, yada, yada. He's a smart man. He knows what people think, and he's not exactly beaten down by it.

"I really don't research them or inspect them or dissect them," he said. "It's about a failure to take advantage of the opportunities you had that day, for whatever reason -- the fates? It's such a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. It's why it's such a popular sport."

If it sounds as if he's simply shrugging it all off by placing his failures in the lap of the gods, there is one big goof he's more than willing to discuss. That took place in his last playoff appearance, a 20-17 loss to the Jets after the 2004 season. He thought he saw a roughing-the-kicker penalty, and when it wasn't called, he launched a strenuous enough protest to earn a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. He would later learn he had made a mistake. There should not have been a flag.

"When I did that particular act," he said, "I compromised our ability to win that game. It was . . . "

"Inexcusable?" prompted one media inquisitor.

"Yes, inexcusable," he agreed. "That's a good word. It was inexcusable."

But he has no intention of second-guessing a decision made three, 10, or 20 years ago.

"As both a defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator," he said, "I've made calls that, by all reason, were perfect, and got nothing. And I've made calls that were inappropriate to the situation and they've worked. So go figure. Pro football is a strange game."

Marty Schottenheimer can no longer win the PR battle in this matter. He now brings to the tournament football's best all-around team, one that leads the league in point differential with a whopping plus-189. If the Chargers win, people will say, "Well, even Marty can't mess up that team."

And if they lose, even if it's an overtime game for the ages? See Wikipedia's current take and multiply it by a thousand.

It will all be Marty's fault.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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