Its origin as an inspirational tool traces back about 30 years, to a pep talk his mother, Pat, gave him. She said that her five fingers represented the immediate family — two parents, two children and their Irish Setter, Maggie, who served as the thumb. Then she clenched her hand and told her son, “When those fingers are extended, they’re not as strong as when you make a fist.”
It has become almost like their secret handshake, with family members balling fists in good times and bad. To Schottenheimer the image is what endures, a reminder, he said, “of all the people that have always believed in you and always will.”
He said he had thought about it often this season, his sixth as ’ offensive coordinator, while also drawing on another piece of parental advice, as offered by his father, , “Do the best that you can, and if it’s not good enough, work harder to find the solution.”
In the N.F.L., where dispensing excuses is tantamount to snitching, Schottenheimer takes unconditional responsibility for his group’s performance, accepting the blame when it underperforms — which it has this season, by expectation and almost any statistical measure. 22nd in yards per game (314.5) and 26th in rushing (96.6), and also a quarterback, Mark Sanchez, who is seemingly stuck in neutral, as prone to leading a fourth-quarter comeback as to tossing a how-could-you-throw-that interception. Their problems — a shaky line, meager pass protection, an inconsistent running game, a dearth of long gains — are intertwined, producing a unitwide chain of culpability that, almost by default, could leave Schottenheimer in a vulnerable position, despite a contract that runs through at least 2012.
“This is a tough game, and it takes people with tough skin to handle it,” Schottenheimer said. “I have it, and it’s why I’ve never shied from assuming accountability. It’s part of the job. You just believe in yourself, trust in your abilities and believe in the plan you’ve put in place with the staff and players.”
As the offense has sagged, some players have noticed a subtle change in Schottenheimer. Plaxico Burress said Schottenheimer, 38, had become “more intense,” if possible, in preparation and personality. Known for his diligent work ethic, Schottenheimer sometimes spends 20 hours a day at team headquarters. When Burress first sees him in the morning, he often asks Schottenheimer if he slept the night before.
“He says, ‘No, man, I’ve been up all night,’ ” Burress said. “You see it in his face. He’s passionate, trying to put us in position to succeed. He’s not going to quit doing that; that’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 12 weeks.”
Bespectacled and built like the college quarterback he was, Schottenheimer cuts a contrasting figure to Coach Rex Ryan, who joked that his Thanksgiving meal stretched the boundary of his lap band. Their football expertise unites them as much as their shared understanding of the pressures — and advantages — of being a son of an N.F.L. head coach. The former Jets fullback Tony Richardson, who played four seasons for Marty in Kansas City, said it was obvious that Brian inherited his father’s attention to detail, devising game plans that left “no question marks.”
The rookie quarterback Greg McElroy compared Schottenheimer’s approach to a pyramid, with players reading over and discussing brief overviews of a general concept — the opponent’s base defense, for instance — at their daily 8 a.m. meetings before later in the afternoon delving into specifics, details as refined as a linebacker’s stance signaling an oncoming blitz. By the end of the week, guard Matt Slauson, pointing to the team’s 3-inch-thick playbook in his locker, said they have covered “every single play in every single possible formation in every possible look.”
Of Schottenheimer, Slauson said, “He’s got this passion that just spills out of him after a loss, and you just feel so terrible about it.”