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Archive for Friday, December 8, 2006

Dungy’s teams keep finding the postseason

December 8, 2006

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— Tony Dungy's teams have made the NFL playoffs seven straight seasons, going on eight. He is as respected as any man in the game, both as a person and for his coaching ability.

And yet ....

Not only has he never won a Super Bowl, he has never reached one. And not only has he never reached one, but there are those who whisper he never will because he lacks the one thing a Super Bowl-winning coach needs: the killer instinct to push aside everything else.

In other words, he's too nice. The cameras never catch him shouting at an official or cursing under his breath. His priorities are to his family, to his religion and to society, including advancing minority hiring in the NFL.

He is still going through a personal tragedy, the suicide of his 18-year-old son, James, last Dec. 22. But he also has turned it into a social cause, reaching out to those trying to prevent teenage suicide. ("I was amazed at how many people had suffered through the same thing," he says.)

Even during the stretch run of another outstanding season, outside causes draw his attention.

During a 45-minute talk this week with The Associated Press, his face lit up when it was mentioned that Jerry Reese, who is black, appears to be the front-runner for New York Giants general manager when Ernie Accorsi retires after the season.

"Jerry? Is that right? Wow!" he said. "Just to have someone mentioned as a front-runner for a job like that. That's great - an African-American as a front-runner for a GM. job."

On the other hand, make no mistake:

It is much more important to Tony Dungy that the Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl than that Jerry Reese becomes general manager of the Giants.

The big 'but'

In six seasons with Tampa Bay and in 43â4 with Indianapolis, Dungy has won 112 games and lost 60, a winning percentage of .651. That's better than any other active coach - Joe Gibbs, Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren are 2-3-4.

By taking a team to the playoffs for an eighth straight season, he'll tie his mentor Chuck Noll for second place behind Tom Landry, the only coach ever to do it nine straight times.

There's a "but" there.

Dungy's playoff record is 5-8 and includes some notable losses, such as at home to Pittsburgh last season after the Colts secured home-field advantage in the AFC.

And Gibbs, Cowher and Holmgren all have Super Bowl wins. Gibbs has three.

Dungy's closest brush with the Super Bowl was after the 1999 season, when his Bucs lost the NFC championship game in St. Louis, 11-6. They shut down a team that had averaged almost 33 points a game in the regular season and lost in part because of a late replay reversal of a reception by Bert Emanuel - one that led to a rules change that would have made it a catch today.

Dungy also made it to the AFC championship game in January 2004, losing 24-14 in New England with the Colts.

But you also can argue that Jon Gruden's title with the 2002 Bucs was with players assembled and coached by Dungy. And that Bill Parcells, who won Super Bowls after the 1986 and 1990 seasons, doesn't have a regular-season winning percentage as good as Dungy's.

"You can't judge a coach only on Super Bowls won," says Colts president Bill Polian, who hired Dungy a week after he was fired by the Bucs following a playoff loss in Philadelphia after the 2001 season. "It's an injury here, a play there - like the Bert Emanuel thing - or simply the bounce of the ball."

Polian is in the same boat, a frequent executive of the year and the architect of the Buffalo team that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93, but never won one.

Polian compares Dungy most closely with Marv Levy, who coached that Buffalo team.

"They are disciplinarians without being disciplinarians," he says. "If they bench you, or punish you in some other way, they let you know that it can be rectified, that if what you did wrong is corrected, there are rewards down the line."

Dungy's star player describes his coach in a similar vein.

"He doesn't yell. Or at least he doesn't yell very often," quarterback Peyton Manning says. "But I've seen him get angry. And like anyone who is so even-tempered, it really has an effect. When he's angry, you know there's a reason. And we listen."

Climbing the ladder

Dungy does have a Super Bowl ring - as a player with the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a spare defensive back and emergency quarterback, the position he played at the University of Minnesota. He played two seasons in Pittsburgh, one in San Francisco (where he came under the influence of Bill Walsh) and finally was cut by the Giants after he was traded there for another future head coach, Ray Rhodes.

So he began coaching, first at his alma mater. At 25, he became the NFL's youngest assistant when he returned to the Steelers to work for Noll. By 28, he was the team's defensive coordinator, instantly becoming the focus for those seeking to hire the first black head coach in a league that was becoming increasingly black on the field.

He was, in today's parlance, "the hot coordinator." In hindsight, he recalled a few years ago, it was much too early. "At that age, I wasn't ready," he said.

Still, he kept getting interviews and kept not getting hired until he was a little stale - the natural question from owners and general managers became: "What's wrong with him?"

Meanwhile, Art Shell became the first black coach of the modern era with the Raiders. Dennis Green was hired by the Vikings and Rhodes by the Eagles. Dungy went to the Chiefs, where he worked under Marty Schottenheimer and with Cowher, who also became a head coach before he did.

He became Green's defensive coordinator with the Vikings, and in 1996 found himself interviewing in Tampa, perhaps the fourth choice for the job on a team that had 13 straight losing seasons, 12 of them in double digits.

He got the job.

By his second year, the Bucs were in the playoffs. The power was almost all on defense and a system called "the Tampa Two," a two-deep zone that's been emulated throughout the league. Dungy often gets the credit for it.

"Chuck Noll," he says. "Always Chuck Noll. That's where I learned it. That's where it will always be from."

Dungy's teams have missed the playoffs only once since then, in 1998, when the Bucs finished 8-8. In Indy, he went from a defensive powerhouse to a strong offense and succeeded with Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.

But in the NFL, winning can get stale if all you do is get to the playoffs every season.

In 2000 and 2001, the Bucs lost their opening playoff games in Philadelphia. Dungy was fired.

He went to Indy, but the postseason results were the same as the Colts were blown out 41-0 by the Jets in their first postseason game. Where his predecessor, Jim Mora, might have had a historic blowup after a horrible game like that one, Dungy put it aside. Fifteen minutes after his postgame news conference, he was once again talking about minority hiring, suggesting that Marvin Lewis should take the coaching opening in historically dismal Cincinnati.

That is Dungy, whose outside interests can reduce the sting of a crushing playoff defeat. A deeply religious man, but one who refrains from using his position to push his beliefs, he acknowledges: "I am certainly aware that there is life outside of football."

Super Bowl is secondary

Two weeks after his son's death, Dungy was back coaching, graciously thanking the millions of well-wishers, getting himself involved in his latest cause of preventing teenage suicide and suggesting that it was harder on his wife because he had football as a catharsis.

"I can't imagine how he got through that," says close friend Reggie Roberts, who was his public relations director in Tampa and is now in Atlanta.

"When I was at the funeral, he was composed and I was breaking up. But it's the way he lives his life. A lot of people talk about being men of character. He lives it. I learned so many life lessons from him. Not only how to conduct yourself as a person but how to be a better father, a better friend, a better person."

A year later he's still pursuing that elusive Super Bowl, although this team, with a suspect run defense, is not the favorite it was last season.

"This is a funny game," Dungy says. "One play changes a game. One game changes a season. It's one and out, which means that at some point maybe that 'one' works in your favor."

There's been talk that, win or lose, Dungy might step down after this season to devote all his time to his causes. He doesn't think so.

"All I know is that I'll know when it's time, when there's no longer the fire to do what I'm doing," he says.

But he won't keep going just because the Lombardi Trophy is out there.

"When I retire, it will be when my time is done in the league," he says. "I don't know now when that is, but I'm not someone who will have to keep going until I win one."

Dungy's Colts will travel to Jacksonville for a noon game on Sunday with a chance to clinch the AFC North division with a victory.

Comments

mseybold 8 years ago

went to the playoffs in 2003, but you're right the Chiefs won't get to the superbowl the way things are going now.

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