Friday, January 7, 2005 Updated: January 8, 12:01 PM ET
Wins, playoff berths raise expectations
By John Clayton ESPN.com
It's hard to imagine that the 12 playoff coaches have anything to prove, but they do.
As usual, the playoff list of coaches is impressive. There are Super Bowl winners -- Mike Shanahan in Denver, Mike Holmgren in Seattle, Bill Belichick in New England. You have others who have been to Super Bowls -- Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh and Mike Martz in St. Louis. And there are the perennial playoff coaches -- Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Tony Dungy in Indianapolis.
A lot of history and success ride with this group of coaches. They aren't the Dirty Dozen; they are the Chosen Ones. Eleven have career winning records. Only Mike Tice of the Vikings and Jim Mora of the Falcons are newcomers to the playoff club. The combined records of the 12 coaches are 956-622-2. That's a .606 winning percentage for their regular season careers.
Putting that in perspective, that means every season they step on the field, they're hovering around a 10-win campaign. The problem with so many good coaches is that they bang heads in the playoffs. While this group has such an impressive regular-season winning percentage, the combined playoff records is 49-48. Such a fall off from regular season to the playoffs has resulted in some criticism and heat.
Here are the questions or concerns with each member of this distinguished list and the things these coaches need to prove:
1. Marty Schottenheimer, San Diego Chargers: Can he win the Big One? In 19 seasons, Schottenheimer has won 177 games for four different franchises. Give him two years to turn around a program and Schottenheimer is likely to have that team in the playoffs. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder only gave Schottenheimer a year. Though that Redskins team started slow, it finished 8-8, and there might be a string of playoff years for the Redskins had Snyder allowed him to stay. Now, the Chargers are the benefactor of Marty Ball. He's the NFL Coach of the Year and deserved the honor. But maybe he's too good. He coaches his team so well that the squad may exceed their talent levels every year. Because of that, Schottenheimer has the tag of not winning those championship games. John Elway was his albatross when he was the Browns coach. A long list of different starting quarterbacks never got him over the top in Kansas City. And here's a strange stat. Schottenheimer hasn't won a playoff game since 1993. A playoff loss shouldn't spoil this season. No one predicted this Chargers team would win more than five games except those within the organization. But for the Chargers, this game against the Jets is a Big One. It would be nice to win it.
Mike Holmgren has not won a playoff game during his tenure with the Seahawks.
2. Mike Holmgren, Seattle Seahawks: People tend to forget it's been 20 years since the Seahawks franchise has won a playoff game. That string of failures is one of the longest in all of sports. This is Holmgren's sixth season and third trip to the playoffs, and there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes. There is a thought Holmgren needs to win this game against the Rams to finish out the final two years of his contract. The mandate hasn't been stated to him. Even though the team made the playoffs for a second straight year, Holmgren needs a victory to get this franchise moving in a positive direction for the future. Of the 12 playoffs teams, the Seahawks have the most concerns. They have 16 unrestricted free agents, including about nine starters. Six or seven of those starters are going to be among the top three in their positions in the depleted free agency lists for opposing teams. For the Seahawks, this game is a matter of direction. If Holmgren wins, Paul Allen may invest enough to keep Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones, Shaun Alexander, Ken Lucas and others together. If not, the team could be broken up.
3. Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh Steelers: Cowher's mentor is Schottenheimer. Like Marty, Cowher believes in winning with good defense and with a strong running game. His concern is getting over the hump. Though he's been to a Super Bowl, Cowher hasn't won one. The Steelers have had home-field advantage in the AFC title game four times, but suffered three losses. It's tough being the Steelers coach. Chuck Noll was four for four in Super Bowls and the expectations are still raised. It might be an unfair assessment considering the team made a nine-game improvement from last year and has a rookie quarterback, but the season would be labeled a disappointment if Pittsburgh doesn't make the Super Bowl. That's the concern that Cowher carries over. He's almost forced to win the AFC title game because it would eliminate any criticism of being a coach who lost at home in a title game three times. Cowher has had a great season dispelling unnecessary criticism. Some wondered if the Steelers were wise to extend his contract. He's been the Steelers coach for 13 years. Some say that's two long. Well, Cowher came back with a rookie quarterback and won 15 games. Take that.
4. Mike Shanahan, Denver Broncos: It's like Groundhog's Day for the Broncos. Another year, another wild-card playoff berth. Fans and critics remind Shanahan he hasn't won a playoff game since John Elway retired after his second Super Bowl victory in 1998. Shanahan believes every year can be a Super Bowl season and every year there is no trip to the Super Bowl is considered a disappointment. He's been patching up the roster for years, getting the Denver to the playoffs. But once again, the Broncos open on the road in Indianapolis as a wild card. It's tough to be a wild-card team. After last season, Shanahan was willing to trade Pro Bowl halfback Clinton Portis to acquire a coverage cornerback, Champ Bailey. Bailey made the Pro Bowl, and Shanahan's theory was that having a coverage cornerback to shut down an opponent's best receiver would lead to success in the playoffs. Well, the Colts have three 1,000-yard receivers. His theory comes to the supreme test Sunday. Another playoff loss in the first round will only intensify the criticism.
5. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots: In some ways, he's bulletproof. He's won two Super Bowls in three seasons. Another ring and Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady would generate Hall of Fame talk because they are on the verge of a dynasty. But concerns are building. Success is eating away at his staff. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is off to Notre Dame after the season. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is a hot coaching candidate, who has interviews with the Browns and 49ers this weekend. And he doesn't know what he has in the secondary. Cornerback Ty Law has been placed on injured reserve and will miss the postseason. Fellow cornerback Tyrone Poole is also out for the playoffs. Belichick knows how difficult it is to be at the top. He has the roster in good shape for the next few years, but will he lose his edge if the coaching staff takes more hits after the season. The pressure to win a third Super Bowl builds because it's tough to stay at the top in this league no matter how brilliant the head coach is. And Belichick has become the best and the brightest.
6. Tony Dungy, Indianapolis Colts: Dungy is the perfect coach in the salary-cap era. He's a players coach who teaches smart football. He's willing to bring along young players and play them. That's important for a team that has most of its cap money on offense. Dungy and Bill Polian have built a championship-caliber team in Indianapolis. Dungy and general manager Rich McKay built a championship-caliber team in Tampa Bay, but Jon Gruden won a Super Bowl ring in Tampa. Dungy needs to illustrate what he learned under Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh and prove he can get over the hump. He has the right quarterback in Peyton Manning. His offense was the best in football, and one of the greatest ever. The challenge for him is potentially winning on the road against two good defensive teams in cold weather if he gets past the Broncos on Sunday. Dungy has been to two championship games in his successful coaching career. Odds may be against him this year, but he knows he has the right makeup for a team.
Andy Reid's won four division titles but just five playoff games with the Eagles.
7. Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles: Only Marv Levy and maybe Bud Grant, Dan Reeves and Bum Phillips can understand what Reid is going through. He keeps knocking on that championship door, but it's not opening. The Eagles have lost three consecutive NFC title games. He's proven he's one of the best coaches in the NFL since the turn of the century. Now, he needs to prove he can take the team to the next level and go to the Super Bowl. His front office maneuvering put him in position. Though he won't have Terrell Owens for the playoffs, he has Jevon Kearse and a better defense to help him get through two playoff games. The defense has more weapons than a year ago. The Owens' injury hurts. Now, the team is void of a major wide receiving threat as it was a year ago. Because this will be their fourth chance at the Super Bowl, few will be happy if Reid doesn't go to the Super Bowl. In a league that rewards being No. 1, being No. 2 is very uncomfortable.
8. Mike Martz, St. Louis Rams: People tend to forget Martz has gone 51-29 in the regular season. He's been to a Super Bowl. He's had four trips to the playoffs in five years. That's had a pretty good run. But he needs to prove that his offensive magic still works. They've gone from Kurt Warner to Marc Bulger at quarterback. Marshall Faulk's knees are sore. Receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are still productive, but it's getting harder and harder every year to keep this team at the top. Martz needs to prove he can still squeeze big wins out of this team. His test is his game plans. Martz loves to pass in a league in which running the ball is the best way to get through playoff games. It's a game of balance. Martz tilts to the dark side by going overboard with the pass in big games. Which way will he go in these playoffs? No one knows for sure.
9. Mike Sherman, Green Bay Packers: Sherman proved this season how great he really is as a coach. Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley had heart problems early in the season and Sherman took over the offense. When Sherman took over the offensive play-calling, the offense had one of its greatest years. Sherman has to prove how many jobs he can handle successfully. He's the coach, general manager, offensive coordinator and motivator. That's a lot on one person's plate and the Packers, as an organization, need to decide how much he can handle. Sherman proved this year he was Superman. But will the extra drain affect him during the playoffs? We'll see.
10. Herman Edwards, New York Jets: Edwards worked for Dungy in Tampa Bay and he's doing everything the Dungy way. His defense is built from great play along the defensive line and speed at the linebacker position. This will be Edwards' third trip to the playoffs in four years. Just like Dungy, he's experienced early success, and this particular defense is at its best for athleticism. The knock on Edwards has been the play-calling of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. The Jets are 1-2 under Edwards during the playoffs. They scored 34 points in two playoff losses although their greatest success under Edwards was a 41-0 victory over the Colts in a first-round game. Hackett may be in his last days as the Jets coordinator, but Edwards has to prove he has the right offense to get to a title game.
11. Mike Tice, Minnesota Vikings: No coach is under as much heat in the playoffs as Tice. The Vikings finished the past two seasons losing a combined seven of 10 games. Even though he reached the playoffs, it would be nice if he could pull out a victory. The pressure shouldn't affect his job security but it does. Red McCombs was essentially forced to exercise the final year of his contract at $1 million. There are rumblings, though, that Timberwolves owner Glenn Taylor might be willing to increase his offer to buy the Vikings to over $500 million. What does Taylor think about Tice and is there a sale brewing? By beating the Packers, Tice firms up he's the right coach for this team. He's built up the talent, but people want to see him close the deal.
12. Jim Mora, Atlanta Falcons: Mora proved he's one of the brightest young coaching talents in the business. In normal years, he would be coach of the year. This wasn't a normal year. Schottenheimer turned around the Chargers, and Mora just had to be satisfied with the fact he's the NFC's No. 2 seed with a chance at the Super Bowl. Like any first-year coach, Mora's persona will be on display during the playoffs. He loves aggressive defense. He has Michael Vick running around on offense. The Falcons are expected to be a playoff team for years with Vick at the helm. What Mora has to prove is what kind of playoff team they will be. Will they win on offense? Will they win on defense? Starting next week, we will know.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.