Marty Schottenheimer and His Coaching Tree of Woe


Marty Schottenheimer is known for a lot of things. His admirers note that he is one of just six coaches in league history to amass 200 career wins. His detractors point to his 5-13 postseason record and the fact that he is the winningest NFL coach to never lead his team to the Super Bowl. Both parties, of course, are correct.

What cannot be disputed is the Schottenheimer coaching tree has changed the landscape of the league forever. Nine men who got their start due to Schottenheimer — four as his direct assistants, five as assistants to his assistants — went on to become NFL head coaches. And for the most part, all nine shared Schottenheimer’s frustrating tendency to be at his best when the stakes were lowest.

The names on Schottenheimer’s coaching tree include: (direct assistants) Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Herm Edwards, Cam Cameron, (once-removed assistants) Marvin Lewis, Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.

That list is not without some serious accomplishments. Cowher, Dungy and Tomlin went on to capture the biggest prize in sports, helping their teams secure the Lombardi Trophy that evaded Schottenheimer throughout his 21-year career. But the theme of “playoff disappointment” certainly permeates from every branch of that tree.

Let’s go one by one:

Cowher: The Chin finally broke through during the 2005 season, leading the Steelers to the first Super Bowl win of his 14-year tenure. However, before that Super Bowl run his teams were just 8-9 during postseason play. More concerning was the fact the Steelers were just 2-4 in AFC Championship Games under Cowher, with all four losses coming at home.

Dungy: He helped turn around the Buccaneers before being fired after consecutive one-and-done showings in the postseason. He went on to spend the next seven seasons in Indianapolis, where he again showed a tendency for early exits (going one-and-done four times). It wasn’t all bad, though; he and Peyton Manning got off the Super Bowl schneid together by winning Super Bowl XLI.

Edwards: The man famous for his, “You play to win the game!” rant didn’t do nearly enough winning in the playoffs. He led the Jets to the playoffs twice and took the Chiefs there once. Unfortunately, he won just one playoff game in his career (in the 2002 season with the Jets) and never advanced beyond the Divisional Round.

Cameron: After serving as Schottenheimer’s offensive coordinator in San Diego, Cameron went on to become head coach of the Dolphins (2007). He went 1-15 in his only season at the helm, with his lone win coming in Week 15 over Baltimore. The Ravens were so impressed, apparently, they hired him as their offensive coordinator the following season. Cameron eventually won a ring with the Ravens (2012), although he was fired earlier that year before the team’s playoff run ever began.

Lewis: Apparently determined to outdo Shottenheimer, Lewis has a career playoff record of 0-6. He has led the Bengals to the playoffs each of the last four season — no small feat, given the state of the Bengals before he arrived in 2003 — but has yet to win a game once in the tournament.

Whisenhunt: The Whiz led the Cardinals on an improbable run to the Super Bowl following the 2008 season, winning three road games after earning a Wild Card berth at 9-7. However, he lost on the big stage to the man who will appear next on this list, Mike Tomlin. Whisenhunt guided the Cardinals back to the playoffs the following season, but was unable to make it past the Divisional Round.

Tomlin: It didn’t take Tomlin long to prove he was the right man for the job, leading the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory in just his second season in charge. However, things have not gone so well since. He led the Steelers back to the Super Bowl two years later, where they lost to the Packers. There have been only two other playoff games in the following four years: an infamous loss to Tim Tebow’s Broncos (2011) and a home loss to the rival Ravens (2014).

Smith: Like Whisenhunt, Smith lost his only Super Bowl appearance to a fellow member of the Schottenheimer coaching tree (falling to Dungy’s Colts). However, Smith deserves credit for getting a Rex Grossman-led team all the way to the Super Bowl. Things fell apart after that, though, with the Bears making the playoffs just once in the next six years. After sitting out the 2013 season, Smith returned last year to tear down the Buccaneers.

Marinelli: The Lions never even got to .500 in Marinelli’s three seasons in charge, let alone make it to the playoffs. That doesn’t mean he didn’t make his mark on history, though. His 2008 Lions became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16.

Never in history has there been such a depressing tree without someone hanging from it. Even the highlights — the three Super Bowl wins — are somewhat muted by the fact that two of those games featured a pair of Schottenheimer proteges going head-to-head (making it impossible for BOTH of them to blow the opportunity). Only Cowher’s Super Bowl win came against someone not from this tree; and it should be noted that Cowher’s win over the Seahawks will go down as the most referee-assisted championship the sport has ever seen.

This is not to bash Schottenheimer or his legacy. Since he left the game following the 2006 season, 17 coaches have been hired by teams that previously employed him, and all but the Chargers have a losing record in their post-Schottenheimer eras. That is a phenomenal testament to his ability, as is the fact that in 21 seasons as a head coach he finished with a losing record just twice.

But for some twisted reason, Schottenheimer’s tree is rooted in losing. It’s a seed that was planted by John Elway’s drive following the 1986 season and blossomed with Marlon McCree’s fumble 20 years later.

Even with Schottenheimer no longer in the league, his legacy lives on. Just tune in for Week 1, when Whisenhunt leads his Titans against Smith’s Buccaneers in a game that will feature the top two picks from this year’s draft. And know this: those men will lead their teams back to the playoffs sooner than later; and once there, the smart money says they’ll crap the bed.

About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.