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Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007 | As the Chargers rolled along to a 14-2 season, many around the NFL thought this might be the year Bolts head coach Marty Schottenheimer experienced the redemption Bill Cowher enjoyed by winning Super Bowl XV last year.

Cowher had suffered agonizing playoff losses as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach, including losing four AFC Championship games at home, before he finally earned the label of a “great coach” with the Steelers’ win over the Seattle Seahawks last year.

Turns out the football gods had in mind absolving another coach who has been tormented by playoff losses: Tony Dungy.

Dungy, the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach, is taking his team to Super Bowl XVI to face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XVI Feb. 4 in Miami after the Colts came from behind to beat the New England Patriots Sunday in the AFC Championship game, 38-34.

Dungy lost his job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2001 season because he was labeled a coach who couldn’t win the big game in the playoffs. Then, as cruel fate would have it, the Bucs won the Super Bowl the first year they replaced Dungy with Jon Gruden in the 2002 season.

That was the year John Lynch, the Denver Broncos safety from Torrey Pines High, enjoyed a special homecoming while still with the Bucs by winning the Super Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium against the Oakland Raiders.

“One of my biggest disappointments when we won the Super Bowl is Tony wasn’t there to partake in it,” Lynch said. “He did so much to help us earn it. We all knew we were in the midst of turning it around as an organization with Tony. Watching the game Sunday, I was so happy for Tony.”

It’s Lynch’s job, as an AFC West rival with the Broncos, to block Schottenheimer’s path to the playoffs, but he recognizes Schottenheimer suffers from the same unfair label of not being able to win the big one that Dungy carried prior to his Super Bowl trip.

“There is so much parity in the league in this day and age and so many factors go into winning playoff games,” Lynch said. “The fact of the matter is, anybody in this league has tremendous respect for (Schottenheimer and Dungy) for winning as many games as they’ve won.”

No matter what the national media tells you, Schottenheimer’s playoff record is nothing more than bad luck. It’s not that he can’t win the big game. Too many of his players, past and present, will tell you that for you to dispute it.

Marcus Allen, the Lincoln High alumnus, played for Schottenheimer with the Kansas City Chiefs. He once explained to me Schottenheimer was a coach who put his players in positions to win games, but they have to make the big plays.

“The label is so unfair,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, that label has never applied to Marty. He’s been to the playoffs several times, and he deserves to have one bounce his way.”

If Marlon McCree hangs onto the interception he fumbled away, the Chargers beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round. But the Bolts were upset 24-21 because of that bad break and numerous earlier mistakes by his players.

Are you going to define a coach who can or cannot win the big game on a play like that?

A year after Denver’s John Elway, a Hall-of-Famer, beat Schottenheimer and the Cleveland Browns with “The Drive,” Schottenheimer and the Browns played in the AFC Championship at Denver. Browns running back Ernest Byner was rumbling into the end zone for a game-tying touchdown that would have sent the game into overtime.

But when Browns receiver Webster Slaughter, a San Diego State alum, failed to run out his pattern into the end zone as the play was designed, Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille remained in position to strip the ball from Byner before he crossed the goal line. That’s bad luck. Webster wasn’t coached to stand there and watch the play and draw in the defender, but he did.

In today’s world, the national media members are “camp followers.” One guy writes that Schottenheimer can’t win the big game, and they all write the same thing. It’s a simplistic story to tell in print or with TV sound bites.

Cowher was fortunate Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal in last year’s playoff loss to the Steelers. Otherwise he might still be considered by camp followers as a coach who can’t win the big game.

Dungy was fortunate the Patriots upset the Chargers. Otherwise the Colts would have had to play at San Diego, and NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson might have run for 300 yards against the Colts’ rush defense.

Also, remember that Miami’s Pete Stayonovich missed a last-second field goal, or the Chargers and Bobby Ross wouldn’t have advanced to Pittsburgh to win the AFC Championship in the 1994 season (at Cowher’s expense).

The next year Ross’ Bolts were bounced from the playoffs in an upset by Jim Harbaugh and the Indianapolis Colts. Was Stayonovich’s missed field goal the difference between Ross being a coach who can or cannot win the big game?

Schottenheimer’s playoff record is simply bad luck. Remember that if the ball, as Marcus Allen hopes, finally bounces his way next year.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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