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Late Charge

Schottenheimer's firing should have come in January

Posted: Monday February 12, 2007 11:02PM; Updated: Monday February 12, 2007 11:02PM
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By the time the Chargers realized Marty Schottenheimer wasn't the right coach, four assistants already bolted to other teams.
By the time the Chargers realized Marty Schottenheimer wasn't the right coach, four assistants already bolted to other teams.
Robert Beck/SI

As shocking as it was to learn of San Diego's firing of Marty Schottenheimer Monday night, looking back now, the real surprise was that the Chargers head coach survived in his job into the second week of February to begin with.

When Chargers president Dean Spanos pulled the plug on the guy who won more games than anyone in the NFL this past regular season, booting him to the curb less than four weeks after announcing Schottenheimer would return to lead the team in 2007, it was an admission of a mistake. And the miscue was Spanos thinking last month that the tenuous relationship between his coach and his general manager -- A.J. Smith -- was worth saving, or even could be salvaged.

In truth, the arrangement of Schottenheimer working in the final year of his contract -- after turning down the club's half-hearted offer of a one-season extension -- for a GM who didn't want him had virtually no chance to succeed. Spanos merely recognized it in mid-February, and cut his losses, before the miscalculation ruined San Diego's entire year.

It was the inevitable conclusion to a saga that should have ended in January. What Spanos should have seen four weeks ago was the Schottenheimer-Smith marriage couldn't be fixed, and wasn't worth the extra energy and time spent that could have been used to move the Chargers organization forward.

Think about this: Four weeks down the road, all San Diego is now is worse off for its dawdling and poor decision-making. The Chargers have lost both of their respected and talented coordinators -- Cam Cameron and Wade Phillips -- to other teams' head-coaching searches. Either Cameron, now in Miami, or Phillips, saddling up in Dallas, would have made a quality replacement had Schottenheimer been dismissed in mid-January, after San Diego's divisional-round home playoff loss to New England.

With both of their strong in-house candidates gone, the Chargers are starting from scratch in their coaching search, less than 10 days before the opening of the NFL Scouting Combine, and not even three weeks prior to free agency cranking to life. San Diego would have been far better off ending Schottenheimer's tenure when Spanos was wrestling with the issue the first time, giving the organization time to regroup and get a jump on its 2007 planning.

Now, wherever the Chargers go from here, they're almost certain to be behind the curve compared to their fellow AFC powers as this offseason unfolds. Deciding Schottenheimer's fate used up valuable time and energy, and in the end, San Diego lost out on many fronts, not the least of which limits their choices in regards to their next coaching hire. As Spanos belatedly realized, if he was going to start over with almost an entirely new coaching staff -- the Chargers also saw tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski leave to become Cleveland's offensive coordinator, and linebackers coach Greg Manusky resign to accept the San Francisco defensive coordinator position -- he might as well start over from the top down. Because chances were at least decent that San Diego was going to be going through the same coach hiring exercises in early 2008 any way.

For the life of me, I still can't figure out why Schottenheimer deserved another chance in 2007 to begin with. As I wrote in the wake of the Chargers' upset playoff loss to the Patriots, when was Schottenheimer ever going to have a better chance to finally end his playoff woes than he did with his Chargers of 2006? They had the best record in the NFL, homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, the league's reigning MVP in running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and were loaded with Pro Bowl talent on both sides of the ball.

And yet, San Diego for the second time in three years squandered it all, losing in the divisional round at home to drop Schottenheimer's career postseason record to a galling 5-13. Cut it any way you'd like, Schottenheimer had gotten his shot in San Diego, and he hadn't gotten it done. Given the most talented team in Chargers franchise history, Schottenheimer failed to win even a single playoff game. Seems to me the Chargers were entirely justified in seeking a fresh face in the attempt to break their pattern of postseason underachievement.

Somebody's going to get the opportunity in the coming days to inherit one heck of a football team in San Diego. But they should have inherited it nearly a month ago. This shouldn't have been Schottenheimer's job to lose Monday night. That's a domino that should have long since fallen.

At this point, better late than never is the best the Chargers can hope for.