The San Diego Chargers had not had a winning campaign in eight consecutive years when they opened the 2004 NFL season in Houston. Tension lined the walls of the training facility because everyone seemed to be on notice, from second-year general manager A.J. Smith, who oversaw a 4-12 finish in his first year, to quarterback Drew Brees, who was so underwhelming the previous season the front office sought to bring in his replacement via a draft-day trade for rookie Philip Rivers.
And yet no one seemed to be under greater pressure than Marty Schottenheimer, who was hired in 2002 to turn around the struggling franchise. Schottenheimer was considered as close to a guarantee as there could be, having had only one losing season in his first 14 years as a head coach. But an 8-8 finish, followed by a 4-12 disaster had people wondering if ownership had made a mistake. The question grew louder after that first game in Houston when Schottenheimer refused to change quarterbacks after the offense struggled against the third-year Texans, who had won just nine games total in their two seasons since entering the league as an expansion team.
"If I'm going to (mess) it up," Schottenheimer said of sticking with Brees, whom he had benched three previous times "I'm going to (mess) it up my way."
That moment, perhaps more than any other, personifies the essence of the man who died Monday of complications associated with Alzheimer's disease. Schottenheimer, 77, was a proud and forceful figure. He was known as much for his cliche-like mantras -- the most popular was "one play at a time" -- as he was for his emotional press conferences, where his voice would break and tears would well in the corners of his eyes.
"Our family and the entire Chiefs Kingdom mourn the loss of Marty Schottenheimer, and our prayers and heartfelt condolences are with his wonderful wife Pat and the entire Schottenheimer family today," Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said in a statement Tuesday. "Marty will rightfully be remembered as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, but his legacy extends far beyond his winning percentage. He was a passionate leader who cared deeply for his players and coaches, and his influence on the game can still be seen today on a number of coaching staffs around the league.
He believed the safest and truest road to success was with a strong running game, an attacking defense and a veteran quarterback who could limit turnovers. That style of play came to be known as Martyball, and while it was unpopular with some because it lacked pizazz and sizzle, Schottenheimer refused to stray far from it, even as rules changes created more opportunities for passing games to flourish. He would simply point to the results.
Over 20 full seasons coaching in Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and San Diego, his clubs won eight division titles and finished second on eight occasions, third on two, and fourth twice. He had just two losing seasons, posting a 200-126-1 regular-season record that ranks seventh all-time in victories. And yet that success was tempered by a 5-13 mark in the playoffs. Thrice his clubs lost in the AFC Championship Game, making him the only coach in the modern era with 200 or more wins to never reach a league championship game.
"I always believed that life is about taking one step at a time," Schottenheimer told NFL Films in 2013 for an episode of A Football Life. "Every time you take a step, you'd like to be able to take it forward, moving toward whatever it is your goals are. God gives you no assurances that you will get where it is where you aspire to be. If you go in that arena, there's only going to be one that comes out happy. ... Do I like it? Hell no, I don't like it. But that's what it is. You learn how to deal with that stuff, because that's what life is all about.
"One play at a time. It's like life -- you live today. Live it to the fullest, because you can't do a thing about yesterday.
Schottenheimer never ran from those disappointments. The former Bills and Patriots linebacker sometimes joked that he wasn't fast enough or athletic enough to evade them. But rather than dwell on the negative, he took great pride in his ability to turn around struggling franchises. It began with the Browns, who had gone to the playoffs just twice in the 12 years before his first full season. Schottenheimer got them there in each of his four years and twice advanced to the conference final, where in back-to-back seasons they lost to the Broncos in heartbreaking fashion, first on The Drive, then on The Fumble. He left Cleveland after the 1988 season over a dispute with ownership about his coaching staff, and the Browns subsequently reached the postseason just twice in the next 10 years.
In 1989, a Chiefs franchise hungry for success after advancing to the postseason just once in the previous 17 years, eagerly hired Schottenheimer. Again, he made them instant contenders, reaching the playoffs seven times in 10 seasons, including six consecutive years from 1990-'95.
Washington went to the playoffs only once in the eight seasons before Schottenheimer was hired, and while he did not reach the postseason in his only season there -- owner Daniel Snyder fired him in part because Schottenheimer's style of play was not sexy enough -- it arguably was his finest coaching effort as he rallied the team to an 8-8 record after an 0-5 start.
The Chargers had missed the playoffs six consecutive seasons before Schottenheimer arrived in 2002, two seasons after the club finished 1-15. They went 8-8 his first season and 4-12 the next. Then came that fateful year of 2004, when he chose to stick with Brees instead of feeding the critics by turning to Rivers. The decision was rewarded with a 12-4 record, the team's first trip to the playoffs in eight years, and his first Coach of the Year honor.
He remained with the team two more seasons but was fired after going 14-2 and losing his playoff opener in 2006. His departure was less about the loss and more about a dysfunctional relationship with Smith, the gruff general manager who never hid his dislike for the coach he didn't hire.
Schottenheimer never coached in the NFL again. In 2011, at the age of 67, he was hired by the Virginia Destroyers of the UFL to be their coach and general manager and led them to a league championship that year -- his first and only title as head coach.
In 2014, Schottenheimer was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. On Jan. 30, he was placed in a hospice facility near his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. When he passed Monday, he was surrounded by his family.
"I think the worst thing anyone can do is spend time worrying about something they missed out on," Schottenheimer said about not winning a championship in the NFL. "Disappointment? Sure. But I never let it consume me.
"It's been a great journey."
Schottenheimer is survived by his wife, Pat, their two children, Brian and Kristin, and four grandchildren.