KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This is how completely the game can get into your head. This was Jan. 5, 1998, and downstairs at Arrowhead Stadium the Chiefs had just gone through the sad ritual of “Baggie Day,” the day-after routine when all the sweat and toil of a season, all the tchotchkes and trinkets of the year are gathered in plastic bags and hauled away.
A day earlier, the 13-3 Chiefs had lost an AFC Divisional Playoff game to the Broncos, and a season that felt destined for the Super Bowl in the San Diego sun had ended in a jolt in the Missouri frost, like someone had kicked out a plug from the wall. Now, in a room adjacent to the old press box at Arrowhead, Marty Schottenheimer gathered a gaggle of reporters in a cafeteria.
“Boys,” Schottenheimer said, his voice soft and earnest, “put your notebooks away.”
We did that. He certainly had our attention. What did this mean? Was he resigning? Firing a coordinator? Ripping his quarterback? Shredding a referee?
“I have a simple question,” Schottenheimer said, and he looked all of us in the eye. “What the hell am I doing wrong? How can I fix it?”
It was among the most extraordinary moments any of us had ever seen. In his career, Schottenheimer would coach 327 regular-season games and he would win 200 of them. That .613 winning percentage was better than, among others, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh. But on that morning at Arrowhead, Schottenheimer’s playoff record stood at a ghastly 5-11.
And he was out of answers.
It would probably never occur to Andy Reid to seek the counsel of a council of sportswriters on … well, on just about any subject. But in many ways, Reid has been Schottenheimer’s professional descendant, not simply because he occupies his old office in Kansas City, but because he has been a significantly more successful coach in the regular season (195-124-1, .609) than in the playoffs (he’s now 12-13 after the Chiefs’ convincing 31-13 win over Indianapolis Saturday).
Nobody can deny Reid is among the elite coaches of his generation. But unless he figures out a way to win a Super Bowl before he’s through, then Reid — like Schottenheimer — seems destined to be denied entry to the Hall of Fame. And, like Schottenheimer, that would be a shame.
The six most winningest coaches of all time are Don Shula (328), George Halas (318), Bill Belichick (261), Landry (250) and Curly Lambeau (226). That’s five Hall of Famers and one who will walk in when he’s eligible, and those six men have 21 championships between them. No. 7 is Schottenheimer. No. 8 is Reid. They have zero between them. It matters.
“I don’t get caught up in any of that,” Reid said Saturday. “I’m into history. I love history if it makes you better. You learn from it and you move forward. That was the important thing for our guys today: don’t get caught up in all the stuff that’s happened in the past.”
It is good that Reid feels that way. Coaches should be unburdened by their legacy while they’re busy establishing it. But the truth is, Reid deserves better than that. He deserves at least one season that ends with him waving confetti out of his face, lifting a Lombardi Trophy to the sky. His has been one of the honorable careers in the profession, starting with the way he turned the Eagles into a perennial power (eight double-digit win seasons in 14 years, six NFC East titles).
Of course, for all that success there was only one Super Bowl appearance in Philly, and an ugly one at that, a 24-21 loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. As brilliant as his career has been he, like Schottenheimer, is best known for his playoff shortcomings and Reid has become something of a flag bearer for all coaches who have wrestled with timeouts and time management and the like. It also had to sting for him to watch Doug Pederson end a 58-year Eagles title drought last year in only his 35th game as a coach.
A longtime NFL executive once told me this: “It isn’t fair. But in a playoff game, I feel the same way about Andy as I always did about Marty when their teams have a big lead: The only coach who could lose this game is coaching this game.”
Schottenheimer never overcame it. He coached for seven more seasons in Kansas City, Washington and San Diego after that summit with the writers in the cafeteria, won 64 regular-season games in 112 tries … and went 0-2 in the playoffs, once with a 12-4 team, once with a 14-2 squad. He retired with a 5-13 postseason record. We clearly didn’t have the secret he was looking for.
Reid? If the Chiefs can beat the Patriots next week at Arrowhead, it’ll drag his playoff record to 13-13. It’ll give him another crack at a Super Bowl. It may pave his pathway to Canton. Which would be right. A career like Reid’s deserves a destination like that.