- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

SAN DIEGO Marty Schottenheimer paused and considered. Should he respond with a few choice words to the stinging put-downs from Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, or should he remain on the high road?

Schottenheimer smiled and did what he's done every time the subject of the Redskins has come up since he took over as coach of the San Diego Chargers this year: no comment.

Why talk about the past when the present is so sweet?

The Chargers are a franchise that knows how to lose: They lost more games over the past five seasons than any other team in the NFL. Schottenheimer taught them to win. The Chargers are 6-2 this season and tied for first place in the tough AFC West.

But, still, can Schottenheimer just forget about last season in Washington?

Schottenheimer is a proud man, a coach with only one losing record in 15 full seasons in the NFL. He arguably did the best coaching job of his career last year in his only season with the Redskins in rallying them from an 0-5 start to an 8-8 finish.

Snyder apparently didn't share that view: He fired Schottenheimer in the offseason. That cleared the way for him to hire Steve Spurrier, the Florida Gators coach whose pass-happy offenses were as exciting as Schottenheimer's run-oriented system was dull.

It should have ended there, with the men peacefully going their separate ways. But Snyder didn't let bygones be bygones. In a Newsweek article last summer, he took several shots at Schottenheimer, saying that he made a "mistake" in hiring him. Snyder added, "I got a 1960s football team, and 1960s football teams don't really do well these days."

Schottenheimer hasn't responded, and he's made it clear that he doesn't want to talk about Snyder or the Redskins or his firing or last season. He doesn't even want to talk to anyone from Washington. Through the Chargers public relations department, Schottenheimer said he would not return calls from any reporters from the Washington area.

The Chargers, however, have been perfectly happy to comment on their new coach.

"Marty's brought direction, he's brought discipline and, more importantly, he's brought leadership," said Junior Seau, an 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker. "An identity was something that we needed in San Diego with our organization, and what he's been able to do in approximately six months is amazing."

What Schottenheimer has done is shake the lethargy and apathy from a franchise that began the season with a league-low six wins over the previous two years and a league-high 57 losses from 1997 to 2001. If there was a way to lose, the Chargers knew about it. They turned over the ball with astounding frequency and folded so many times in the waning minutes that it became the rule rather than the exception.

But rather than focus on the negatives, Schottenheimer considered the positives. He saw the foundation for a promising offense in running back LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Drew Brees, second-year pros who are emerging stars. He also saw a defense that sent four players to the Pro Bowl last season.

Then he considered this: Nearly half of the Chargers' 57 losses over the past five seasons were by eight or fewer points, including 16 by three or fewer. Schottenheimer realized the Chargers simply needed someone who could show them how to win, which he and a talented staff have done.

His one-play-at-a-time, one-game-at-a-time mantra has been dismissed by outsiders as Coachspeak 101, but the Chargers have bought into it. They have seen the truth in the man's words, as cliched as they may seem to others.

In September, when the Arizona Cardinals had a chance to tie the score with a touchdown and two-point conversion on a first-and-goal from the 9, Schottenheimer walked out to the huddle during the two-minute warning and held up one finger. One play at time, he reminded his troops, who kept the Cardinals out of the end zone on four consecutive plays to assure the victory.

And when the New England Patriots appeared to be heading toward the tying touchdown Sept.29, after Tom Brady drove the Patriots from their own 4 to the San Diego 45 with under two minutes to play, Schottenheimer repeated his mantra. The game ended with New England losing a fumble on an attempted lateral.

"Marty has changed our whole attitude," said Tomlinson, who before Sunday ranked third in the league in rushing with 785 yards. "Last year I just saw a team that wasn't really sure about the things they could do and weren't really sure about winning. What Marty brings is that whole attitude of, 'Hey, we'll win. And I'm going to show you how to win. I'm going to show you how to beat people.'

"You start believing him, and then when you do start winning, it just makes you that much more confident."

Schottenheimer is doing it his way in San Diego. He is relying on a strong running game and an opportunistic defense, and he's winning the turnover battle consistently.

It may not be sexy or entertaining "I'm going to send NFL football back to the Neanderthal ages," he joked after his team attempted just 18 passes in the win over the Patriots but it is successful, and that's all that matters to him and his players.

Schottenheimer says he wants to look ahead rather than behind. He won't bad-mouth Snyder or the two or three veteran players who groused about his ways last year in Washington, and he won't say whether he's taking any satisfaction in the fact that Spurrier resorted to playing MartyBall after his passing game struggled.

All he will say is that he is happy to be in San Diego.

"This is really a great place for him because we have guys that really work their tails off," said tight end Stephen Alexander, who played for Schottenheimer last year and signed with the Chargers in the offseason as a free agent. "That's his M.O. to have guys that are willing to go out and get it done, to go out and work hard.

"Last year we had some guys that were resistant to what he was doing. It was only two, maybe three guys, really, but they were influential people on the team. Unfortunately, we had guys that started sitting in the corner with them and started listening, and it just spread.

That hasn't been the case in San Diego.

"But here I don't want to say that guys were desperate to win but they had had a couple of rough seasons in a row. and I think they were willing to do whatever it took to get it done," Alexander said. "So I think that they were going to give Marty every reason to come in here, and they were going to get in line and follow his system, or at least try it out. So far, so good."

Alexander said Schottenheimer showed him a lot when he made a visit as a free agent to San Diego.

"He said nothing but great things about Mr. Snyder," Alexander said. "If I was in his shoes oh, my gosh. But he said, 'Hey, he's a great man.' That was big of him because he had every reason to say something bad."

He had even more reason after the Newsweek article, but life on the high road has been good for Schottenheimer and he plans to stay there.

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