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Mark Craig: A familiar face returns to sidelines

  • Article by: Mark Craig
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2007 - 2:43 PM

SAN DIEGO — Former Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was enjoying the good life working as an appeals officer at the NFL office in New York City last year.

"Go to work at 8 a.m., done by 5, 5:30 p.m.," Cottrell said. "I called it my 'humanoid' hours. It was a nice break. A lot less stressful, that's for sure."

But Cottrell is a football coach. Has been every year since 1973, except for last season.

So it was only natural he would say yes when the opportunity to become the Chargers' defensive coordinator presented itself. The Chargers were a league-best 14-2, led the league in sacks and were seventh in scoring defense last year.

"It was a natural fit," Cottrell said. "It's the 3-4 defense Wade [Phillips] and I ran in Buffalo. I made a few subtle changes, but nothing big."

The Chargers were scrambling in mid-February when A.J. Smith, the team's general manager, fired coach Marty Schottenheimer nearly a full month after he turned a dominant regular season into yet another one of his first-game post-season stumbles. By that time, both coordinators already had been hired as head coaches elsewhere -- offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Miami and Phillips in Dallas.

The Chargers needed some stability. Fast. Norv Turner, who installed the Chargers offense when he was there as coordinator in 2001, was hired from San Francisco as head coach. Smith also knew Cottrell, having been in Buffalo's front office back when Cottrell's defenses were among the league's best in the late 1990s.

Today, Cottrell returns to the Metrodome, where he coached many of the current Vikings as defensive coordinator from 2004-2005.

"It's a crazy business we're in, and it definitely will be strange to be standing over on that other sideline," said Cottrell, who was fired along with Mike Tice and the Vikings' staff following the 2005 season. "And guys like Antoine [Winfield] and Pat [Williams], we go back even to Buffalo. Those are guys I helped recruit to Minnesota. D-Sharp [Darren Sharper], too. So it will be emotional for me."

The worst thing about inheriting a 14-2 team is the possibility of losing for the third time early. The Chargers (4-3) picked up their third loss in Week 4. They lost at New England, at Green Bay and home to Kansas City -- three teams with a combined 18-4 record.

"I don't think there's any more pressure taking over a 14-2 team than one with a losing record," Cottrell said. "It's a win-now league no matter what the situation."

The normal adjustment period for a new coordinator and his players was slowed considerably on a cool Sunday night in Foxboro in Week 2.

"Someone came up to me right before the Patriots game and said Matt Wilhelm, our inside backer and the guy who calls our plays, pulled a calf muscle in pregame," Cottrell said. "I said 'He what?' That was a huge blow."

The Chargers lost to New England 38-14 and dropped two more consecutive games while Wilhelm was sidelined. Since then, the Chargers have won three in a row, beating Denver, Oakland and Houston by a combined score of 104-27.

The Chargers are tied for third in takeaways with 14. Their turnover margin is plus-12 in the four victories and minus-4 in the three losses.

"We're starting to see our mistakes and Ted is correcting them every week," said outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. "When we do that, it can be scary how good we can be with as much talent as we have."

Cottrell said he's still hoping for two things as he makes his way through his 24th NFL season at age 60.

"I want to win a Super Bowl, and I still want to be head coach in this league," Cottrell said. "So here I am. Back at it, still chasing the dream."

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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