Pat Kirwan | NFL.com
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 wild-card weekend was just that, as the Redskins roared back but faded at the end and in Pittsburgh the Steelers let something happen for the first time ever -- they let a team beat them twice in the same season in Pittsburgh. The Giants went into Tampa with a great game plan and pulled off the improbable, and the Chargers finally got the playoff jinx off their backs. Four great games all coached well and here are just a few of the winning assistant coaches who got the job done:
1. Jim Mora (pictured) and Larry Marmie
Secondary coaches, Seattle
It won't be long before Mora is back in the head coach's office somewhere in the NFL, but in the meantime he has done a fantastic job along with Coach Marmie getting the Seahawks secondary to play championship football. The Redskins came into Qwest Field and threw the ball 50 times against the Seattle secondary. With the Redskins in the middle of a rally and down 21-14, the momentum instantly switched back to Seattle when cornerback Marcus Trufant returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown. A few minutes later, Jordan Babineaux picked off another Todd Collins pass and went 57 yards for the score. Mora has developed a very aggressive attitude in the secondary and when the game was over the defensive backs had 24 tackles, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defended, and 1 hit on the QB. Trufant can line up and cover the best receivers in the NFL, Deon Grant and Brian Russell read the quarterback's eyes well and jump passes and Kelly Jennings makes it look easy making plays on the ball.
2. Zerick Rollins
Linebacker coach, Seattle
The most underrated linebacker group in the NFL belongs to the Seahawks. Coach Rollins joined the Seahawks in 2001 and has developed an absolutely great group of backers. Lofa Tatupu went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and hasn't looked back. Leroy Hill and Julian Peterson play at the same level as Tatupu and when the three of them are keying and diagnosing plays as fast as they did against the Redskins, it's hard to beat Seattle. Rollins' ability to prepare his backers was obvious as the trio led the team with a combined 35 tackles. 5 hits on the QB, 2 sacks, and 1 pass defended. Clinton Portis was held to 2.6 yards per carry and the game was over.
3. Joe DeCamillis
Special teams coach, Jacksonville
Joe has been an NFL special teams coach for 17 years, with five different teams. He is an excellent teacher and a very good motivator. In the Jags' road win, the special teams were special. Maurice Jones-Drew led the way with a 96-yard kickoff return and the team finished with 140 kickoff return yards. Dennis Northcutt and the punt return unit averaged 10.3 per return and delivered three hidden first downs with 31 return yards. The punt unit was also exceptional as Adam Podlesh averaged 43 net yards and punted four times for 200 yards. Finally, when the Steelers kick return unit had to be covered, the Jags did it in fine fashion. A 16.6 return average is another win for the Jags special teams.
4. Mark Duffner
Linebacker coach, Jacksonville
"Duf" is considered an exceptional teacher and has done a very good job of getting the Jaguar linebackers ready to go in the playoffs without their star middle linebacker, Mike Peterson. A new middle backer, a new signal caller and a road game against the Steelers -- that's a lot to get ready for. The Steelers averaged 1.7 yards per rush, and Ben Roethlisberger struggled all night. Coach Duffner got rookie Justin Durant ready and he looks like a star in the making. Durant (12 tackles), Clint Ingram (6), and Derek Smith (6) had 24 tackles, and two passes defended.
5. Chris Palmer
Quarterbacks coach, N.Y. Giants
Have you noticed the difference in Eli Manning this year? Chris Palmer was hired in the offseason to mentor Manning and he brought with him 18 years of NFL coaching and a calm personable teaching style. Manning not only led his team to its first post-season win, he did it on the road and now the Giants are 8-1 on the road this season. Manning executed the game plan to perfection in the win over the outstanding Tampa defense. He didn't force balls, he moved around in the pocket and checked in and out of the running game when need be. Manning finished the game with a 117.1 passer rating, didn't throw an interception and hit seven different receivers throughout the game. His release had some zip on it, he converted 42 percent of his third downs and played without his starting center. Coach Palmer has done a professional job of bringing Manning to new heights in his career.
6. Pat Flaherty
Offensive line coach, N.Y. Giants
It's possible the Giants offensive line is the most underrated in the NFL. No big-name tackles, the starting center, Shaun O'Hara, was missing and they still managed to grind out 100 yards on the ground against the Tampa defense. Nothing flashy from the five men up front -- just a hard day's work and, as guard Chris Snee said to me last week, "we know what we have to do and we are prepared." Well, Coach Flaherty is the man who prepares them and he brings his eight years of NFL line coaching to get the job done.
7. Bill Bradley
Secondary coach, San Diego
Bradley was a great NFL defensive back for the Eagles from 1969 to '77. I first met him when he was coaching for the Jets and it was clear to me that he had what it takes to coach the modern NFL defensive backs. No highs or lows from Bradley. Players get taught and they perform. There's enough pressure on defensive backs without the coach going haywire. Bradley got his hands on the Chargers secondary this season for the first time and it led the NFL with 30 interceptions. His No. 1 student, Antonio Cromartie, is already a Pro Bowl player and Quentin Jammer never looked better. Whether it's run support or switch calls in man coverages, the Chargers secondary looks well coached. Actually, they play the way the former Eagle played himself.
8. James Lofton
Wide receiver coach, San Diego
Lofton is a Hall of Fame receiver and the NFL is lucky to have him on the sidelines coaching. I've known Lofton since his playing days in Buffalo but really got to know him when we did television together back in the late '90s. Some players like the TV world, but Lofton was being drawn to coaching, which is unusual for a player of his stature. His efforts in San Diego have paid off for the Chargers receivers. In the wild-card win against the Titans, Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers combined for 11 receptions, 235 yards and 1 TD. As Jeff Fisher told me last week, "You have to worry about Chambers -- he is getting better every week." He was right, as Chambers led the team in receptions, which was critical for San Diego after Antonio Gates went down.