Marty Schottenheimer’s five defining moments during 21-year career as NFL head coach

Marty Schottenheimer looked like a proud parent as he watched LaDainian Tomlinson give his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2017 in which he called Schottenheimer “the best coach I ever had.” Several years earlier, when Tomlinson formally announced his retirement from pro football, he shared a conversation with Schottenheimer about not being able to win a Super Bowl, the one thing missing in an otherwise glittering career. 

Schottenheimer, who died on Monday at age 77 following a six-plus-year battle with Alzheimer’s, left an indelible impact on Tomlinson and the many other players and coaches he shared a sideline with during his 21-year run as an NFL head coach. 

“Everybody can’t win a championship,” Tomlinson said during his 2012 retirement ceremony. “I was talking to who I consider a father figure, Coach Marty Schottenheimer. He said, ‘L.T., there were many days that you had, that your friends had, that your family had, that were championship days. Just because you didn’t win an ultimate Super Bowl championship, I know we’ve got many memories that we can call championship days.” 

Schottenheimer had many championship days during his career. From 1985-87, he led the Browns to three consecutive division titles and two AFC title game appearances. During his decade in Kansas City, Schottenheimer’s teams won three division titles, made the playoffs seven times and reached the AFC Championship Game in 1993. In San Diego, Schottenheimer led the 2006 Chargers to a 14-2 record, the best mark in franchise history. All told, Schottenheimer won eight division titles while recording 13 playoff appearances. His 200 regular-season wins are the eighth-highest total in league history. Schottenheimer’s .613 winning percentage is better than Hall of Famers Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Bill Parcells, Chuck Noll, and Jimmy Johnson. 

Here’s a look at the five defining moments in Schottenheimer’s career. 

Early success in Cleveland

Schottenheimer hit the ground running after replacing Sam Rutigliano eight games into the 1984 season. With the Browns sitting at 1-7 at the time of the coaching switch, Schottenheimer won half of his games games that season. Cleveland nearly went 7-1 under Schottenheimer, losing a two-point game against the Saints, in overtime against the Bengals and by three points to a Steelers team that would play for the AFC championship. 

After leading Cleveland to a division title in 1985, the 1986 Browns won 12 regular-season games, the franchise’s highest total since joining the NFL in 1950. In the playoffs, second-year quarterback Bernie Kosar led the Browns past the gritty Jets in the divisional round and helped the Browns to a 20-13 lead over the Broncos late in the AFC title game. John Elway famously led Denver on “The Drive” that ultimately led to the Broncos’ overtime victory in Cleveland. 

Despite the heartache of an AFC title game loss, along with playing in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions, the Browns managed to win the AFC Central for a third straight year in 1987. Cleveland pummeled Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson and the rest of the Colts in the divisional round before losing another heartbreaking AFC title game to the Broncos. This time, it was Ernest Byner’s late-game fumble that sealed the Browns’ fate. 

While those losses stung, that era of Browns football remains the most successful in franchise history since Cleveland’s last championship in 1964. 

Seven playoff trips in an eight-year span with Chiefs 

From 1972-88, the Chiefs had just one playoff appearance to their name upon Schottenheimer’s arrival in 1989. After posting a winning record during his first season in Kansas City, Schottenheimer’s 1990 team was the first of six straight Chiefs teams that qualified for the playoffs. 

From 1990-97, Kansas City went 86-42. In the early ’90s, the Chiefs’ offense was led by the “Nigerian Nightmare,” running back Christian Okoye, who won the NFL rushing title during Schottenheimer’s first season in Kansas City. Kansas City’s defense was anchored by pass rushers Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith. A Hall of Famer, Thomas set an NFL record with a seven-sack game against Seattle in 1990. A fellow member of the NFL’s All-1990s team, Smith made five Pro Bowls in Kansas City and led the NFL in sacks in 1993. 

It was around this time when the term “Marty Ball” began to surface, an ode to Schottenheimer’s conservative, yet effective, coaching philosophy: run the ball, play sound, physical defense, win the turnover margin and field position. It isn’t the most entertaining way to win, but “Marty Ball” has proven to be a highly effective way to win football games on a consistent basis. 

In a twist of irony, it was Elway who convinced his coach to play “Marty Ball” during a 1997 divisional round playoff game between the Broncos and Chiefs. Instead of going for it on fourth down at a pivotal point in the game, Elway convinced former Denver coach Mike Shanahan to punt. 

“I remember saying to Mike, ‘Beat Marty at his own game,'” Elway recalled. “Beat Marty at his own game, which meant punt the ball, push them back, and let’s play defense.” 

Using Schottenheimer’s philosophy, the Broncos punted, and ultimately hung on for a 14-10 win en route to their first Super Bowl victory. The loss was one of two disappointing home playoff defeats in a three-year span for the Chiefs. But the fact that Kansas City was in those games without the luxury of a franchise quarterback was an impressive feat in itself. Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, three of Schottenheimer’s playoff losses came against Elway. Another came against Jim Kelly and a Bills team that played in four consecutive Super Bowls. His final playoff loss came against Tom Brady, who this past Sunday won a record seventh Super Bowl and fifth Super Bowl MVP. 

Changing free agency 

Following a wild card playoff loss to the Chargers, Schottenheimer and then-Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson looked to upgrade the quarterback and running back positions. Instead of doing so via the draft, Schottenheimer and Peterson decided to take advantage of the NFL’s first-ever free agency. During the 1993 offseason, the Chiefs acquired 37-year-old Joe Montana, who missed most of the previous two seasons due to injury. Kansas City also signed 33-year-old running back Marcus Allen, who had started in just two games during his final two seasons with the Raiders. In both players, Schottenheimer and Peterson saw talented veterans who were eager to prove their naysayers wrong. 

Montana and Allen did exactly that. Both players were named to the Pro Bowl during the ’93 season, with Allen being named Comeback Player of the Year. In the playoffs, the Chiefs defeated Bill Cowher (Schottenheimer’s former assistant in Cleveland and Kansas City) and the Steelers in the wild card round.  Kansas City then went to Houston to face an Oilers team that had beaten them 30-0 in Week 2. The Oilers, who at the time were coached by defensive guru Buddy Ryan, entered the postseason with an 11-game winning streak. 

Trailing at the start of the fourth quarter, two Montana touchdown passes gave the Chiefs a 21-13 lead. But after a Warren Moon touchdown pass cut the Chiefs’ lead to a single point, Allen’s 21-yard touchdown run punched Kansas City’s first ticket to the AFC Championship Game in 24 years. 

Allen enjoyed four more productive seasons in Kansas City, where he capped off his Hall of Fame career as the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns. Montana led the Chiefs to another playoff appearance in 1994 before calling it a career. Montana had one last signature comeback that season when he led the Chiefs to a road victory over Elway’s Broncos. The Chiefs’ 31-28 win on “Monday Night Football” was recently named the 55th best game in NFL history. 

During his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2000, Montana thanked the coach that allowed him to end his career on his terms. 

“I got an opportunity to go to what I thought was another great, great organization with the Kansas City Chiefs,” Montana said. “Marty Schottenheimer, with that opportunity to continue a career that many were ready to give up on.” 

“Marty Schottenheimer, thank you,” Allen said during his 2003 Hall of Fame induction speech. “One of the kindest, most generous, most thoughtful men I had ever met in my entire life.” 

Dominance over the Raiders 

There was no love lost in those days between the Chiefs and the Raiders. A Raider during the first 11 years of his career, Allen was eager to face his former team upon joining the Chiefs in 1993. Perhaps the only other person on the planet who wanted to beat the Raiders as badly as Allen was Schottenheimer, as the player and coach shared a mutual dislike of their rival. The duo went 9-1 against the Raiders during their first years together in Kansas City. 

“I always, always, always referred to it as Raider Week,” Schottenheimer said during an NFL Films documentary. “Raider Week was different than any other week. Everybody in the locker room, everybody in the stadium, I’m sure, knew this was not just another game for Marcus Allen. But if it was the Raiders, it wasn’t just another game for Marty Schottenheimer, either. I hate to personalize it, and I have great respect for Al [Davis]. But I always felt that he thought that the Raiders were everything. 

“Marcus and I were like brethren when it came to looking at the Raiders saying, ‘If we’re going to win one game, this is the team we want to beat.'” 

Schottenheimer went 18-3 against the Raiders during his time in Kansas City. He went 8-2 against the Raiders during his five seasons in San Diego. Schottenheimer’s 27 total wins (in 34 games) against the Raiders are the most victories by an opposing coach over the silver and black. 

More success in Washington and San Diego 

In what Schottenheimer called the greatest coaching job of his career, Washington started the 2001 season 0-5 before winning eight of out its final 11 games. In San Diego, Schottenheimer made the playoffs with two different starting quarterbacks: Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. The 2006 Chargers posted the NFL’s best record during the regular season. That season, Tomlinson won league MVP after scoring a record 31 touchdowns. 

How was Schottenheimer able to have success in four different NFL cities? His coaching ability surely played a significant role. His strong bonds with his players and coaches, however, may have been the real ingredient behind one of the most successful coaching careers in NFL history. 

“It’s hard for me to put into words what Marty Schottenheimer meant to me,” Cowher said on Tuesday. “I played for him, I coached for him. He mentored me from the moment I met him. He was an amazing coach, teacher, leader, and most importantly, my friend. … I will always be indebted for the guidance and support he provided. The NFL lost a legend, but heaven has been blessed with a leader.” 

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