Call it the Curse of Schottenheimer
By Billy Witz
Way back when on Sunday, just as the Colts were preparing to spiral down that old familiar Foxboro rabbit hole, coach Tony Dungy made a decision.
Here it was, early in the second half, and the Colts had been outplayed decisively and already wore their not-this-again looks.
Yet as unfortunately as events had unfolded, they still had plenty of good fortune. Thanks to Patriots tackle Matt Light jumping offside, which cost his team a touchdown, and safety Eugene Wilson dropping a sure interception in the end zone just before halftime, the Colts trailed just 6-3.
And here they were, after Peyton Manning completed a third-down pass to Brandon Stokley, sitting at fourth-and-a-short-1 at the Patriots' 49-yard line with 9:54 left in the third quarter.
It was their first opportunity to seize momentum, if not control, from New England, and give themselves and everyone else in the stadium an idea that this time might be different.
Even Manning, who was slump-shouldered most of the day, perked up. As he eyeballed the short yard the Colts had to make, he motioned to the sideline that he wanted to stay on the field.
True, if the Colts go for it and don't make it, the Patriots have just half the field to cover. On the flip side, if the Colts convert, they have an opportunity not only to tie the score or take the lead, but to change the tenor of the game.
What Dungy's decision boiled down to was this: Do you trust the most prolific offense in the NFL to gain 1 yard on one play, or do you believe your defense, which was 29th in the league in yards allowed, can keep New England pinned in its own end?
In other words, where do you place your faith?
It's the same question that Jets coach Herman Edwards faced Saturday after kicker Doug Brien missed by inches a 47-yard field goal that would have sent New York to the AFC title game.
The Jets, by their own good fortune, had another crack with a first down at the Pittsburgh 25 and 56 seconds left. They ran Curtis Martin over left guard for no gain, LaMont Jordan over left guard for 2 yards, then had Chad Pennington kneel down to run off a few seconds for a loss of 1.
This left Brien with a 43-yard field goal.
Or precisely 3 yards more than Nate Kaeding was left the week before, when Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer ran LaDainian Tomlinson into the line three times for no gain.
The result for Brien was the same as it was for Kaeding, which was the same as it was for the Colts, who punted and then watched New England drive 87 yards on 14 plays in eight-plus minutes for a touchdown.
They all kissed their seasons goodbye.
These decisions were made nine days apart, in three different cities, by three different coaches -- and the lipstick marks are all the same.
Call it the Spawn of Schottenheimer.
Schottenheimer may be the reigning NFL Coach of the Year, and he has won more games than any other active coach, yet when the playoffs roll around, any instinct to go for the jugular or simply give his players the freedom to make plays is suppressed with Dr. Strangelove-like resolve.
Perhaps it dates to 1980, when Schottenheimer, then an assistant with the Browns, watched as Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe, his team well in field-goal range in the final seconds, threw an interception in the end zone to Oakland's Mike Davis, sealing a 14-12 playoff loss.
It was the first playoff game of Schottenheimer's 28-year NFL coaching career, and whether it scarred him or simply served as a harbinger of other painful playoff losses, this much seems clear: It's contagious.
It's no coincidence that Edwards' first six seasons in coaching came under Schottenheimer in Kansas City. Or that Dungy spent three years on that same staff. Or that Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett coached under Schottenheimer with the Chiefs and with him in Cleveland.
What is telling is that when in came down to it, Schottenheimer and Dungy -- who had two of the three highest scoring offenses in the league -- couldn't betray their nature as defensive coaches and let their playmakers make a play.
Neither could Edwards, despite the fact that Pennington has never thrown an interception in the red zone his entire career .
All three coaches have proven themselves consistent winners because their teams play hard, are fundamentally sound and rarely beat themselves. If you do these things consistently, playing it safe is a fine strategy over the long haul.
It's also hard to get to a Super Bowl that way, let alone win one. When there's so little separating the best teams -- and there's never been less in the NFL -- the ones who win playoff games can't be the ones who are afraid to lose them. And don't think players don't feed off that vibe.
This may not be good news in Pittsburgh, where under Bill Cowher the Steelers have played host to the AFC Championship Game four times and won just once.
Whether he was scarred, or whether it was simply a harbinger, it may be worth noting that 19 years ago, Cowher got his first job in coaching. Under a young, hard-nosed, defense-first coach. In Cleveland. A fellow named Schottenheimer.
Billy Witz covers the NFL for the Daily News. He can be reached at (818) 713-3621 or firstname.lastname@example.org