Note: For nine years, I have written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes that help make some of the extraordinary things happen in the NFL on any given weekend. At the end of the year, the Unsung Hero of the Year is presented a trophy made in the name of Chip Myers, a longtime NFL assistant coach and former player who passed away just days after he was elevated to his first coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings. Chip was well respected by everyone in the coaching ranks and embodied all the virtues assistant coaches need to be successful. He was humble, a good teacher, a loyal friend and a tireless worker.
The NFL is down to the final four and the league will be well represented on championship weekend. We have two teams that have defied the odds, as the Giants and Chargers take to the road once again, and two storied quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Brett Favre waiting at home to take the final step to the Super Bowl. There were great coaching efforts this past weekend, some under the most adverse of conditions -- like the New York Giants secondary playing backups all over the field with Tony Romo trying to bring his team from behind.
Before I get into the assistant coaches and a coordinator or two who got the job done in the divisional round, I think this is the right time to start with the four strength and conditioning coaches who work with the players year-round and stand proudly on the sidelines watching their guys win the physical battle on the field. Never forget, football is a collision sport played by very strong men and the year-round development of these athletes is as critical a component as any other in the building of a football team.
Final four strength and conditioning coaches
1. Mike Woicik, New England
Woicik has been with the Patriots for eight years. Prior to New England, he served the same role with New Orleans and Dallas. From the physical development of Tom Brady to the last man on the roster, New England always has one of the best conditioned football teams in the NFL.
2. Jeff Hurd, San Diego
Hurd just arrived in San Diego this year after nine seasons in Kansas City and three years in Jacksonville. The Chargers are the surprise team in the AFC finals, but when you watch the power up front on both sides of the ball to go along with the speed and agility of the skill players, it is a tribute to the work Hurd is doing for the Chargers.
3. Rock Gullickson, Green Bay
Rock is the perfect name for a strength and conditioning coach. He has the least amount of NFL experience among this final four. This is his second year in Green Bay after six seasons in New Orleans. The Packers are the youngest team in the NFL and it is critical that Gullickson raises them the right way in the development and care of their bodies if they are going to last in the league. The results so far are evident.
4. Jerry Palmieri, N.Y. Giants
Palmieri is a local New Jersey guy who spent eight years with the Jaguars and one with the Saints before returning home to the Giants four years ago. The Giants are an impressive looking football team with power on the offensive line, quickness and burst in the defensive line and a physical style that would make any strength and conditioning coach proud.
The N.Y. Giants assistants
5. Peter Giunta, Secondary coach/cornerbacks
Giunta, a 17-year NFL coaching veteran, had to go into Dallas without Sam Madison and Kevin Dockery. Then he lost Aaron Ross and still managed to piece the cornerbacks together enough to hold Romo to 201 yards passing and one TD. Giunta took some chances with the coverages on Terrell Owens and it paid off in one of the best coaching jobs of the year.
6. David Merritt, Secondary coach/safeties
Merritt is Giunta's right-hand man. The sideline adjustments as the players got injured and the ability of the Giant secondary to key and diagnose the Cowboy plays goes back to coaching, and Merritt had his guy ready to go.
The Packers assistants
7. Carl Hairston, defensive ends
Everyone remembers Hairston from his 15-year playing career in the NFL, but he went right into coaching and has now logged 13 years of working with players. Not many guys are still going strong after 28 years in the NFL. Hairston coaches the defensive ends, and when you consider Aaron Kampman, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Cullen Jenkins on the running downs, he has a well-coached group. Seattle had 28 yards rushing on Saturday, along with 2 sacks and 5 hits on Matt Hasselbeck.
8. Robert Nunn, defensive tackles
Nunn works hand-in-hand with Hairston. He is in his eighth year in the NFL and deserves as much credit for preparing the Packers defensive line to stop the run and frustrate Hasselbeck.
9. Edgar Bennett, running back
Bennett played for seven years as a fine running back and now handles the same position for the Packers. Ryan Grant starts the year out as the third-stringer, gets called upon after a few injuries and is the hottest ball carrier in the league. Grant reminds me of his coach: shoulders always square when he crosses the line of scrimmage and a good, solid burst in space. Any time a young back fumbles twice early in a big playoff game, there could be big problems. Bennett deserves a lot of credit for keeping the kid's head on straight and settling him down enough to go out and break the Packers' single-game playoff rushing record.
The Patriots assistants
10. Nick Caserio, wide receivers
Caserio does a nice job with a group of very talented receivers. He has the privilege of coaching Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Jabbar Gaffney. These guys catch the ball, run great routes, block down field, make route adjustments and break tackles. Those things don't just happen. Caserio works the drills, does the classroom work and keeps them sharp on Sundays. Moss only caught one pass in the win over Jacksonville, but the others combined for 15 receptions.
11. Danta Scarnecchia, assistant head coach/offensive line
Scarnecchia is always a finalist for the Unsung Hero of the Year. He is the consummate assistant coach. He has his offensive line prepared no matter how deep in the roster they have to go because of injuries. Against the Jaguars, New England averaged 5.0 yards a carry, gave up one sack in 28 pass attempts and Brady was only hit twice in the game. Scarnecchia has the respect of every coach in the NFL.
The Chargers assistants
12. Ted Cottrell, defensive coordinator
Cottrell took a lot of abuse earlier in the season. Critics said his system was vanilla, too passive. They said he couldn't relate to his young players. Cottrell proved them all wrong. When he knew his players well enough, he turned up the pressure on quarterbacks. The win over the Colts in Indianapolis was a mighty feat. Don't look at the numbers, because the Colts' 446 yards doesn't tell the whole story. The Chargers forced three turnovers and limited the Colts to 2.4 yards a carry.
13. Wayne Nunnely, defensive line
Nunnely has been coaching in San Diego since 1997. He's seen head coaches come and go, he's coached every scheme in the book and yet this defensive line coach is always on the staff. His front three may not always jump off the stats page but they are hard to beat in the trenches. Jamal Williams, Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo play hard and dominate the line of scrimmage. Nunnely's efforts may go unnoticed but when you watch the coach's tapes, it's clear he gets the job done.