One of them had his name virtually turned into a punch line in recent years, and it was often said of him that as a head coach he made a heck of an offensive coordinator. The other one spent a good bit of the past two seasons playing the role of a piñata, taking blows from all directions while folks stood around and debated when he'd crack.
But look at Norv Turner and Tom Coughlin now. They've coached their resurgent and resilient teams all the way to the NFL's final four, and while they'll be leading heavy underdogs in their respective conferences on Sunday, it's not as if they don't know what it's like to be counted out.
In San Diego, Turner replaced Marty Schottenheimer last offseason and assumed control of a talent-laden team that went 14-3 last year. Everyone said there was nowhere to go but down for the Chargers, and four weeks into the regular season, San Diego had already matched its 2006 loss total. The predictable howls of protest and finger-pointing in Turner's direction ensued, with every coaching stereotype he's ever heard -- he's overmatched, not tough enough, a loser -- being quickly trotted out.
But for all those who loudly grieved the demise of MartyBall in San Diego, mocking Turner as a failure-in-waiting, consider this: Turner has taken San Diego to its first AFC title game since 1994. Schottenheimer last advanced one of his teams to a conference title game in 1993 (Kansas City), which is also the year he last won a playoff game. He was 0-2 in the postseason with the Chargers, so Turner already has managed something that Schottenheimer never did.
San Diego has won eight games in a row and is 12-2 since that 1-3 start. The Chargers just knocked off the defending Super Bowl champions on the road in a game in which their three most important offensive weapons were either hobbled by injury or knocked out of the game. That could sound a little flukey until you realize it's the second time this season the Chargers have beaten the Colts. They upset them in San Diego in November when Indy was injured, and they did it again on Sunday in Indianapolis when they were the ones who had to resort to backups. Different story, same result.
And then there are Coughlin's New York Giants. At 0-2 in mid-September, they looked not only defensively dysfunctional, but also the noxious fumes that overtook their 2006 season internally were again forming in the locker room. The fans and media immediately resumed a death watch for Coughlin's job that had really never ended since December 2006. That one-year extension that New York awarded him in January 2007 -- after making him twist in the wind for a few days -- looked like it would wind up being money thrown out the window.
In September, there were questions about whether Coughlin would even make it to midseason before the boom was lowered on him. It was considered just a matter of time before his much-publicized kinder, gentler personality makeover gave way to the old, raging Tommy C.
But there are no death watches underway now that New York has strung together a pair of playoff road wins, giving the Giants nine consecutive wins away from home overall. New York on Sunday in Green Bay will play for the NFC championship for the first time since the 2000 season, and Coughlin's guys have gone 12-4 for him since that 0-2 sky-is-falling start.
The best part for me is that both coaches have no interest in using this week's platform to remind everyone how wrong they were about them and their teams. They've got the mother of all I-told-you-so's coming, but all they want to do is get back to work trying to figure out how to extend their playoff runs another week. After all, Coughlin (12) and Turner (10) have been NFL head coaches for a combined 22 seasons without ever earning a Super Bowl trip. So there's plenty more to be won.
It's once again a great lesson for all of us in letting the whole story play out before we rush to judgment. In September, we buried Coughlin and Turner, but in January we're saluting them. No, you can't like their chances to keep their rides going this week in Green Bay and New England, but how can you rule out another comeback after where they've already been this year?
• Is it like we've seen this movie before? The Chargers are the third straight AFC team to follow my Theory of Unfinished Business (even though I thought it applied more to New England this year, as I wrote in May). Simply put, for the third consecutive year, the team that suffered the most bitter and galling playoff defeat last season has rebounded to make the most surprising postseason this year.
The No. 1-seeded Steelers in 2004 went 15-1, but lost at home to the Patriots in the AFC title game. The next season, the wild-card Steelers won four playoff games to earn their first Super Bowl title since 1979.
The No. 1-seeded Colts in 2005 went 14-2, but lost at home to the Steelers in the AFC divisional round. The next season, the No. 3-seeded Colts won four playoff games to earn their first Super Bowl title since 1970.
The No. 1-seeded Chargers in 2006 went 14-2, but lost at home to the Patriots in the AFC divisional round. The next season, which would be this year, the No. 3-seeded Chargers are halfway home to winning four playoff games and earning the first Super Bowl title in San Diego team history.
Then again, the Steelers and Colts didn't have the perfect-season Patriots standing between them and the Super Bowl.
• Just using a little common sense here, but if Colts owner Jim Irsay felt the need to offer head coach Tony Dungy the flexibility to live in Tampa for three or four months of the offseason in order to coax him into returning to Indianapolis, isn't it pretty clear Dungy is more than halfway out the door?
Dungy would do right to ignore Irsay's proposed arrangement. How does an NFL head coach ask his players to commit to the team year-round when he's not doing the same thing ? Being a head coach in this league will never be a part-time job, and Dungy knows that.
• Jim Caldwell has to be the Colts' guy if Dungy does the expected and walks, doesn't he? I know there are calls for Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian to shake things up a bit in the wake of his team's second embarrassing one-and-done playoff run in three years, but if everyone in Indy believes all those things they've said about the highly respected Caldwell in the past three years, how do you bypass him in favor of someone from the outside?
• And while we're at it, Jim Mora (the younger) makes all the sense in the world to me in Seattle if Mike Holmgren retires, as I expect him to do. Mora, the team's defensive backs coach this season, is a former University of Washington player and coach, and he's the only member of Holmgren's staff with previous NFL head coaching experience.
• I don't think I've ever seen one team handle playing in the cold so dramatically differently as I did Green Bay in Week 16 in blustery Chicago (a 35-7 loss) and on Saturday in that snow-fest against Seattle (a 42-20 win).
Brett Favre could do nothing right at Solider Field that day, but nothing wrong against Seattle in Lambeau. Then again, offensive players always say snow is easier to play in than wind.
• Speaking of the cold, the Chargers' injury situation won't be helped one bit by the game-time temperatures in the teens that are expected Sunday in Foxboro. If San Diego is waiting to see how quarterback Philip Rivers responds during pre-game warm-ups, it might be waiting a while. Warming up may be the most difficult of tasks at Gillette.
• If I were an NFL fan, I don't know if I'd really want my team going 13-3 in the regular season next year. The unlucky 13-win scenario claimed both the Colts and the Cowboys in their playoff openers this year, as it did the Ravens last year.
NFC North teams, however, seem immune from it. The Packers were 13-3 this year, as were the NFC champion Bears last year.
• Cowboys owner Jerry Jones blunted the dump-Wade Phillips movement almost before it got started after the Dallas loss to the Giants. But that just means you can put Phillips at or near the top of the hot seat list for 2008. Nothing short of a couple playoff wins will likely save his job next season.
• Couldn't help but notice some quotes where Dallas offensive line coach-assistant head coach Tony Sparano was described by his players as "hard-nosed'' and "old-school.'' Said Cowboys guard Leonard Davis: "He knows how to push buttons. Some coaches I've had, they really didn't know how to push guys' buttons to make them play at a higher level. He knows how to do that.''
Who does that sound like? No wonder Dolphins football czar Bill Parcells is going to hire this guy as Miami's next coach. He's a mini-Parcells.
• An interesting and potentially very telling statistic not to be lost in the build-up for this week's Chargers-Patriots AFC title game: While New England beat San Diego 38-14 in Week 2 at Gillette, the Chargers led the league in scoring defense over the final six weeks of the regular season, giving up just 12.5 points per game in that span.