Around the NFL, they're saying seven little words that catch the attention of football fans in Washington: Marty Schottenheimer for coach of the year.
He has accomplished what no one thought could be done in his third year with the San Diego Chargers. At a point in the season when NFL observers figured the seven little words they'd be saying would be "the Chargers have fired Coach Marty Schottenheimer," he has the 9-3 team pointed toward the AFC West Division title and the playoffs.
According to Schottenheimer, he had no doubts about his ability to turn around a team that finished 4-12 last year; in fact, he said he could have done so with the team that finished 8-8 in Washington in 2001.
"I do believe I could have done the same thing" in Washington, said Schottenheimer, who was fired by owner Daniel Snyder after one season. "I'm not one to look back that way. I honestly enjoyed my time in Washington. The best coaching job I ever did was that one year in Washington, and I really mean that. But when I met with the owner, he wanted me to give up the responsibility over personnel, and I wasn't comfortable with that. He said we had to part ways.
"What you learn in this business is that there are no overnight fixes. It takes time to build a football team, especially when you've been losing. It takes time to get the mind-set of the players right. We were on the way to doing that in Washington. Joe [Gibbs] is a friend and a neighbor [in Charlotte] of mine. I know he'll turn it around there."
At the outset of the 2004 season, Schottenheimer's job security was in grave danger, but the Chargers have won seven of their past eight and lead the Denver Broncos by two games in the AFC West.
"The attitude is different this year, and that's a product of our decision to change the face of it in the offseason," he said. "At the end of last season, I said everything and anything was subject to change. We got a number of veteran players in here who were a key to this turnaround. . . . We had some players last year who were an issue, and we made changes. When things get tough, and they always will in this game, good players won't win for you, but good people will."
Schottenheimer won't name names, but they're not difficult to figure out. Defensive lineman Marcellus Wiley was eventually cut after publicly calling out starting quarterback Drew Brees in the middle of the 2003 season and saying that veteran backup Doug Flutie should be playing. Wide receiver David Boston made it known that he was unhappy with Brees, and was traded to Miami.
Schottenheimer also fired defensive coordinator Dale Lindsey and hired Wade Phillips, who changed from a 4-3 front seven to a 3-4 defense that is ranked second in the league against the run. General Manager A.J. Smith, who does have control of personnel decisions, helped his coach by signing free agent linebackers Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey, who now start. He used a second-round pick to take defensive end Igor Olshansky of Oregon, a big-time run stopper and native of Ukraine who didn't start playing football until his junior season in high school in San Francisco.
Still, the most significant improvement has been at quarterback, where Brees has played at a Pro Bowl level. His performance has kept No. 1 draft choice Philip Rivers, the fourth overall pick in April who was selected by the Giants and then traded to San Diego, planted firmly on the bench as Brees's backup.
Brees will become a free agent at the end of the season and almost certainly will command great interest around the league. But he said again this week that he wants to stay in San Diego, and the Chargers likely will have to make him a large offer or designate him as their "franchise" player to keep him from leaving. Few expected this type of season from Brees, who is in his fourth year.
Smith envisions a scenario in which the Chargers have Brees and Rivers on the roster next year, even if the team has already committed $40 million over eight years to Rivers. But San Diego is $21 million under the salary cap and may be able to afford both in a league in which quarterback injuries are common. "It's an absolutely terrific situation to be in," Schottenheimer said.
Drafting Rivers initially was clearly a blow to Brees's ego, but he insisted that it also became a motivating factor. When Rivers stayed out of training camp in an ugly contract holdout through most of the preseason, Brees seized the opportunity and gained the respect of his teammates and offensive coaches.
"Just to go through what he went through had to be tough," said Chargers Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who arrived in San Diego the same year Brees entered the league. "Whenever someone is drafted in your position, you have to be thinking, 'How long will I be here?' You could be thinking, 'I'm not going to be here, so maybe I'll go through the motions and tell people don't talk to me.' But Drew said, 'This is my team. I was brought in here first and you have to take it from me.' You've got to respect that."
Brees said bitterness was not quite the word to describe his emotions on draft day in April, but that the selection of Rivers from North Carolina State "was a disappointment, obviously. Any time they draft anyone else with the fourth pick of the draft, come on, it's pretty obvious what they're thinking. . . . The only thing [the team] told me was when Marty called and said, 'The competition is on.' "
Rather than sulk or simply concede the position, Brees fought for his old job.
"Shoot, you'll get knocked down in this game," he said. "There will be times in your life when people don't think you can do something. My attitude was that I'm going to be a successful quarterback and be a champion. That's going to happen. You need to go through those kind of experiences to take your game to the level you want it to be. It's not my nature to just go in the tank."
A 59 percent passer his first three years, Brees is completing 64.7 percent of his passes this season, has thrown for 21 touchdowns and has only four interceptions. He's also the best fourth-quarter passer in the NFL, with a 124.9 rating, 30 points higher than Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Brees also set a team record by completing 194 passes without an interception.
"He is considerably more efficient than he was last year," Schottenheimer said. "Things have slowed down around him and we've been able to protect him better. A year ago, I couldn't say that."
Brees is surrounded by such big-play talent that Schottenheimer could hardly lose. Tomlinson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season, has scored 13 touchdowns and is his team's second-leading receiver with 43 catches for 332 yards. Second-year tight end Antonio Gates, who never played college football at Kent State, has emerged as Brees's favorite target, with 72 catches for 826 yards and 11 touchdowns. And the addition of veteran wide receiver Keenan McCardell in an early-season trade with Tampa Bay in October has provided a reliable possession receiver.
Brees is being protected by an offensive line that includes two rookies -- center Nick Hardwick, a third-round choice from Purdue, and right tackle Shane Olivea, a seventh-round pick from Ohio State -- and second-year man Toniu Fonoti. The unit is anchored by veteran left tackle Roman Oben, who grew up in Washington and played high school football at Gonzaga.
"Shane kind of surprised me at halftime" of last Sunday's victory over the Broncos, Tomlinson recalled. "He stood up and started yelling that we've got to be passionate about this game. I'm like, 'Wow, this is a rookie.' But all these guys come from winning programs in college, and they know what it feels like to be successful. . . . The difference this year is we've got guys who want to play football. Last year, we had guys who wanted to do other things."
All the more reason for Brees to say he wants to stay where he is.
"Absolutely," he said, "I want to be here."