The NFL Playoffs

Are Clutch Quarterbacks Born or Made?
The stadium scene.
Jan. 12 2007 4:40 PM

The NFL Playoffs

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It's OK, guys. I, too, watch football games all by my lonesome most of the time, and I don't feel the least bit guilty about it. Case in point: On the rare occasion when I attend a Super Bowl party, I learn that most people don't pay much attention to the game. They're just there to drink, socialize, and distract the limited number of people in attendance who do care about football. So, I will kick off a slothful, self-indulgent day tomorrow by watching the Kansas Jayhawks tip off in the early afternoon, followed by what should be two mesmerizing NFL games. And I'll probably do it alone. I'm adult enough not to be ashamed of attending a movie by myself. Why should I feel any differently about watching football?

And yes, Josh, if you must know, I even fact-checked the Schottenheimer Blizzard story, for fear that I was fooled by a Marty doppelgänger. When I was a journalism grad student at Mizzou, a fellow student scored an ESPN internship in Bristol, Conn., during Marty's lean years (post-Chiefs and pre-Redskins) as an NFL analyst. This intrepid intern approached Schottenheimer to tell him about a friend who sold the coach Tropical Blizzards at the Rosana Square Dairy Queen in Overland Park, Kan. Marty's eyes lit up: "I love those things!"

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So, there you have it. The Patriots can expect a steady diet of Tomlinson, Gates, and soft-serve ice milk blended into a delicious confection. And Marty can send me a percentage if he lands an endorsement contract out of this.

Let me dissent quickly from Josh's claim that the 1980 Raiders were the worst Super Bowl champs in history. The Plunkett-led Raiders returned to win another Super Bowl three years later, on the legs of Marcus Allen. They also won one while quarterbacked by Ken Stabler (and coached by John Madden instead of Tom Flores) four years earlier. That's three rings in eight years. That's called a dynasty, not the worst champ of all time. Before you protest that there wasn't enough continuity over that period to call the Raiders a dynasty, let me remind you that only 10 players remain on the Patriots' roster from their first Super Bowl victory (as the Boston Globe's Jackie MacMullan pointed out yesterday).

And Seth, that's a fascinating analysis from Ron Borges (who is excellent), but there's one problem with it. I assure you that Schottenheimer, Cam Cameron, and the Chargers, unlike Mike Martz and the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, plan to actually hand the ball off to their record-breaking star running back. Borges also makes the very good point in today's Globe that the Chargers "were only two field goals away from an undefeated season."

Both of San Diego's losses were on the road to playoff teams (Baltimore and Kansas City). Sure, the Patriots were 7-1 on the road this year, but they were also 2-3 against teams with winning records (losses to the Jets, Colts, and Broncos, and wins against the Bears and Jets). Don Banks of Sports Illustrated notes that Schottenheimer is 7-1 against the Patriots in his career, including a 2-1 record against The Mighty Belichick. That includes last season's 41-17 annihilation in Foxboro, which ended the Pats' 21-game home winning streak. On top of all that, the Chargers were plus-189 in point differential this season, best in the league.

Does that mean the Chargers can't lose? Of course not. It just means I wouldn't bet that way. Here's an ominous (well, the opposite of ominous to you, Seth) sign that San Diego is testing God's patience: The Chargers are apparently plotting to get rid of Marty Schottenheimer (according to Peter King on HBO's Inside the NFL) and Donnie Edwards (according to Edwards himself).

What about the "experience" factor? Here's the most interesting thing I've read about the playoffs all week (that wasn't in this dialogue, of course): The Wall Street Journal'sAllen St. John asserts that clutch quarterbacking in the postseason is an "innate trait" rather than a "learned skill." His evidence: "Of the 17 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks since 1980, nine got there for the first time without one playoff win before that Super Bowl run—and with two or fewer games of total playoff experience." Quarterbacks who won it all in their first playoff run include, of course, Tom Brady, as well as Kurt Warner and Joe Montana. Philip Rivers may not be a good playoff quarterback (we're about to find out), but if he isn't, it won't be because he's inexperienced.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but the above trend bodes ill for Peyton Manning. Only one quarterback in recent history, St. John writes, has won a Super Bowl "after more than five near-misses in prior seasons." That would be Brett Favre. (St. John doesn't include John Elway here because he regards a Super Bowl appearance—even one that results in a loss—as postseason success.) Only two other QBs have even led their teams to a Super Bowl loss after a consistent record of postseason failure: Donovan McNabb and Rich Gannon.

I have a pit in my stomach for both Manning and Schottenheimer this weekend, but Manning at least has the known disadvantage of going up against a superior team, the Ravens, on the road. Marty doesn't have that excuse. Is coaching failure in the playoffs a fixed, innate trait? I guess we're about to find that out, too.

And what happens if the Colts and Chargers square off in the AFC championship game, when Manning's movable force would meet Marty's resistible object? How many overtimes would it take before the game ended? Here's my answer: The world will never know.

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