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JUDGE: Don't overlook the job these coaches have done

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Clark Judge

 
   
 
Philadelphia¿s Andy Reid is the leading candidate for Coach of the Year, and you don¿t have to look far to see why. Anyone who can produce the game¿s top record without his top two quarterbacks, including MVP candidate , deserves a curtain call. But you can make a case for Green Bay¿s Mike Sherman, Atlanta¿s Dan Reeves and Oakland¿s Bill Callahan, too. Sherman lost nearly every starter but quarterback ; Reeves won with a club that hasn¿t done anything since 1998 and Callahan proved that, yes, there is life after Jon Gruden. Then there¿s Tennessee¿s Jeff Fisher. All he¿s done is win nine of his last 10 — soon to be 10 of 11 — without a single player named to the Pro Bowl. Now, I don¿t know much about Fisher, but I do know this: If your players aren¿t considered among the league¿s best, yet you have the best record in the AFC ¿ someone must be doing something right. Someone like Jeff Fisher. But I¿m not here to address the obvious candidates. This is all about recognizing those guys who could be Coach of the Year choices ¿ but won¿t. The few. The proud. The overlooked. They don¿t have the records of Reid or Sherman, but they did cover themselves with distinction nevertheless. So what if they don¿t get votes when the ballots are collected next week. That doesn¿t diminish their accomplishments, and this is the acknowledgement. Here then are candidates you won¿t hear about but should.

BRIAN BILLICK, Baltimore

He lost his starting quarterback from last year. He lost his leading receiver. Heck, he lost his top two receivers and four of his top six. His leading rusher was gone. His Pro-Bowl return specialist. Three of his four defensive linemen. His Pro-Bowl safety. His starting cornerback. All but four defensive starters. And his defensive coordinator. Yes, the salary cap did what opponents could not — tore up the Baltimore and forced them to start over with a team nobody west of Catonsville would recognize. ¿You know what? It¿s energizing,¿ Billick said before the season. ¿Yeah, we paid a price. But we can regroup quickly.¿ And they did. The club that should have finished last in the division is 7-8 and a step behind Cleveland, a club it had beaten for all but 30 seconds last weekend. Had that happened the wouldn't need pretty much every AFC contender to lose to qualify for the playoffs, and credit Billick. He didn¿t get enough attention when the club won Super Bowl XXXV, and he doesn¿t get enough today. He started with at quarterback, a guy who¿d thrown three passes in his NFL career, and was 3-3 with him before Redman bowed out with a bad back. He played most of the season without the league¿s best defensive player, linebacker . And he lost defensive end Mike McCrary for the season ¿ and, in all likelihood, for his career. Still, Billick can finish .500 with a win at Pittsburgh on Sunday. It won¿t be easy, but that¿s the way it¿s been all year ¿ and it hasn¿t bothered him. For the record, Baltimore was outscored by a total of 10 points in four of its losses — 10 lousy points are all that separated the from 11-4 — and, given what this team went through, I call that an achievement. I also call it good coaching. It¿s about time Brian Billick was recognized.

JOHN FOX, Carolina

If there was unanimity in training camps it was the assessment of the team with the league¿s worst talent. No doubt about it, it was the Carolina . They had a journeyman quarterback, an unwanted running back and too few players of consequence to make a difference in a mess that was 1-15 a year earlier. So what happens? John Fox wins his first three games, then endures a nightmare of a season where running back finishes the season on the sidelines after a DUI arrest; defensive back Rashard Anderson is suspended for the year for violating the league¿s substance abuse policy; Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate is suspended four games for violating the league¿s anabolic steroid and related substances policy; tackle is released after a series of off-field problems, including a domestic violence charge and wide receiver is suspended by the club for a game after he¿s arrested and jailed for breaking a teammate¿s nose in a fight during a film session. The results were predictable: Carolina lost eight straight. But then the toppled Cleveland on the road, beat Cincinnati at home and hammered Chicago. Now, with one game left, they¿re 6-9 and poised to make a run at respectability next season. John Fox, take a bow. The guy has done more with less than anyone out there, and it¿s time someone noticed. ¿When we figure out what we¿re doing,¿ safety told the Charlotte Observer, ¿it¿s going to be real ugly.¿ No, last year was ugly. This year is good. Real good. Like Baltimore, Carolina lost four games by a total of 10 points. Imagine what happens when these guys get an offense. I can. And I like it.

MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER, San Diego

Before we get started, I¿m fully aware the have been in reverse the last two months; that they lost six of their last eight and could have been 0-8 if and hadn¿t missed field goals in overtime. But that¿s missing the point. The weren¿t a good team to start with. Heck, they haven¿t been a good team since Bobby Ross left after the 1996 season. But Schottenheimer is on the cusp of the club¿s first winning year since 1995 — or the last time the Bolts were in the playoffs — and is tied for second in the league¿s toughest division. OK, so the should have made the playoffs, but they were never the same after losing defensive tackle to a fractured ankle in the Dec. 1 game with Denver. I know, injuries happen, and Schottenheimer nearly overcame them, coming this close in losses at Kansas City, Buffalo and St. Louis. The ¿ beat him on a 38-yard field goal with 1:08 left; Buffalo¿s broke a 13-13 tie with 52 seconds remaining; the ¿ scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:14 left. That¿s three minutes, 14 seconds that determined the season for the , and Schottenheimer shouldn¿t be dismayed. He nearly pulled off the improbable with a defense that too often was without starters and an offense that featured and not a whole lot else. Though his record may be better, this year is not up to Marty¿s performance of 2001, when he won eight of his last 11 in Washington with at quarterback. But relax; there¿s time. San Diego will be in the playoffs next year ¿ and not because will benefit from this year¿s experience or because the club will draft well again or because will be back. Those things will help, but let¿s face it: It¿s Schottenheimer who makes the difference. The guy doesn¿t lose. Senior writer Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address, cjudge@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Bills, Broncos, Packers, Chiefs, Rams, Eagles, Seahawks, Redskins, Panthers, Ravens, Chargers, Texans, Tony Banks, Jason Elam, Brett Favre, Isaac Bruce, Donovan McNabb, Jamal Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, Jose Cortez, Steve Smith Sr., Ray Lewis, Julius Peppers

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