SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Chargers are a whole lot of good with what appears to be the right amount of lucky.
More than anything else, however, they are a whole lot different than any team Marty Schottenheimer has ever coached. Or maybe it's just that Schottenheimer is a whole lot different than he has ever been, as a 20-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night showed.
From a fake punt in the first quarter to a long pass in the final minutes of the game, Schottenheimer continued to play fast and loose. Assuming this continues, the Chargers' highlight video for 2006 might be called "Marty Gone Wild."
"I guess he's tired of everybody saying that all these years," said Chargers backup running back Michael Turner, whose 25-yard run on a fake punt on San Diego's opening series set up a 7-0 lead. "He took some courage juice and he's letting us go a little. You have to do that if you're going to win big and that's how much confidence he has in us."
Said veteran nose tackle Jamal Williams: "That's about trust. It takes time for everybody to get there, but you see that Marty believes in us and he's willing to take those chances. That's how we play."
Of course, the main storyline for San Diego revolves around running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He continued his assault on the NFL record book, scoring two touchdowns to become the first player in league history to reach 30 and running his tally to 31. Tomlinson also broke Paul Hornung's single-season scoring record, reaching 186 points with two games remaining. He also became the first player to score multiple touchdowns in eight consecutive games, although that qualifies as a footnote in the grand scheme of his history-making year.
With Tomlinson and guys like quarterback Philip Rivers and linebacker Shawne Merriman, who had another sack to give him 12½ in just 10 games and make himself a solid candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Chargers are plenty good.
As for the luck, that came in the form of a boneheaded play by the Chiefs after they deflected a punt in the second quarter that could have turned the game in their favor. After the deflection, Kansas City linebacker Derrick Ross touched the ball in a misguided attempt to return it. That made the ball live and the Chargers recovered it to regain possession. One play later, Tomlinson ran 85 yards for a touchdown, fully crushing any momentum the Chiefs hoped to create.
As a result, the Chargers improved to a league-best 12-2, held onto the No. 1 seed in the AFC and continue to look like the best bet to make a Super Bowl run.
But before you make any wagers, any experienced gambler will tell you that there's one major issue to consider in measuring the Chargers. That's the Martyball factor, the overwhelming tendency of Schottenheimer to clench so tightly on the play-calling that he could choke an elephant with his bare hands.
Ask the folks in Cleveland or Kansas City and the horror stories abound. Even earlier this season, in fact, the Chargers were on their way to a victory in Baltimore before they got too conservative. That has allowed the Ravens (11-3) to remain on San Diego's heels for the AFC's top seed.
Ever since then, Schottenheimer has made a point of saying that he has nothing to do with the play-calling, leaving that to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Perhaps, but after Schottenheimer's 20 years as a head coach, not too many people are buying that stance. Furthermore, many are wondering what will happen in the playoffs.
However, in blowing out Denver last Sunday, the Chargers pulled out a classic fumblerooski play to score a touchdown. This Sunday, Schottenheimer continued to build the case for the new Marty.
The first exhibit was the fake-punt run by Turner. The play unfolded quite nicely as the Chiefs set up too tight to their left of the formation. That gave Turner an easy run to the outside as he got to the Kansas City 32-yard line. Three plays later, Tomlinson ran 15 yards without being touched for the 7-0 lead.
But the play wasn't something new.
"We've had that in there the whole time I've been here," said Turner, who is in his third season. "We've just never called it."
The second exhibit came with 5:29 remaining despite all signs pointing to the contrary. San Diego was leading 17-9 and Rivers was in the midst of his worst game of the season. (He finished the game completing only eight of 23 passes for 97 yards and was intercepted twice.) Rivers' previous throw was picked off as he committed a cardinal sin by leaving his feet and throwing back across his body.
Given the score, the flow of the game and Schottenheimer's history, the last thing anyone could have expected was a long pass. But after Rivers hit second-year wide receiver Vincent Jackson for a 46-yard gain, the Chargers settled for a field goal and the final margin.
"I hadn't been playing all that well to that point, but that's the confidence they have in me to make a play when they call on me to do it," Rivers said. "I thought it was a good play when [Cameron] called it and it's my job to make it."
Of course, Schottenheimer would have been even more impressed had Jackson scored on the play.
"As he ended up catching the ball, I told him afterwards, 'I was disappointed to see they ran you down from behind,' and he said, 'Nobody caught me from behind,' " Schottenheimer said. "We'll have to see … I thought someone caught him from behind, but maybe the guy had an angle."
But clearly, the Chiefs didn't have all of the angles covered. Not against the new and improved Marty Schottenheimer.