Ryan Chartrand

Imagine this – you set the franchise record for wins in a season, then get fired.

Well, after going 14-2 and suffering a 24-21 home playoff loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round, Marty Schottenheimer was let go Monday night.

The 1986 Bears, 2005 Colts and 2006 Chargers are the only teams in NFL history to go 14-2 during the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs.

After losing both their offensive and defensive coordinators to head coaching jobs elsewhere, the Chargers’ coaching staff is all but depleted.

With Schottenheimer and general manager A.J. Smith’s relationship getting worse by the minute, it was obvious that a change needed to be made. The question was – who do you keep?

It’s either Schottenheimer, who’s 5-13 all-time in the playoffs and currently holds the title as the worst big-game coach in the history of football; or Smith, the guy who assembled the team whom many might consider the most talented in the league.

Smith traded the rights of Michael Vick for a pick the team used to draft MVP running back LaDainian Tomlinson and also pulled off the deal that enabled it to select Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Shawne Merriman in back-to-back Aprils.

It was an easy decision.

Now comes the tougher choice – who should San Diego hire?

The answer is simple, and he’s only about an hour away. The only problem is, it’s not going to be the Chargers’ decision.

Pete Carroll needs to stop fooling himself and leave USC behind. It’s time for him to step up with the big boys and head to the NFL.

Now is the time.

I pleaded in an earlier column for Carroll not to leave and accept the Miami Dolphins job and stay at USC. The Dolphins have an aging defense, no quarterback and play in a division with the Patriots. It was a no-win situation.

Carroll made the right decision then. Anyway, who needs South Beach when you have Pacific and Mission beaches?

We knew Carroll couldn’t go back to the NFL until the time was right. The time is now optimal.

This couldn’t be any more of an ideal situation.

San Diego returns the NFL’s MVP in Tomlinson.

This should remind Carroll of when he had No. 5 in his backfield at USC. There’s only one difference – Reggie Bush isn’t as talented as Tomlinson.

Oh yeah, I don’t know if I mentioned that the offense also showcases the game’s best fullback (Lorenzo Neal), the league’s best rookie left tackle in years (Marcus McNeill), arguably the best tight end in the game (Antonio Gates), Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick, a backup to Tomlinson (Michael Turner) who rushed for more than 500 yards last season and emerging wideout Vincent Jackson, just to name a few players.

If I remember correctly, Carroll’s old offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, said Rivers was the most talented quarterback he’d ever coached. Pretty high compliment coming from a man who has coached players such as the two Youngs (Vince and Steve), Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer.

Seeing as Carroll’s a defensive guru, one couldn’t ask for better personnel on that side of the ball. This defense is just flat-out loaded and young as well. Its front seven is possibly the most talented in football. The core of that seven – linebacker Merriman, defensive lineman Luis Castillo and elephant-end pass rusher Shaun Phillips – are all under age 25.

The possibilities with this team are endless.

The Chargers job would be very similar to that of the USC job if Carroll were to leave.

These are jobs where all you have to do is let the dog pull you on the leash.

Both rosters are as talented as they come, and just need a man to manage the ship – it’ll steer itself.

Now is the chance for Carroll to prove he can win at the next level.

There is a white horse waiting for him on the gross, polluted beaches of Los Angeles, just waiting to take him for a ride. The horse has a lightning bolt on the side of it and is ready to take him to the beautiful sunlight.

If he rides this horse, he will not only eventually see the sunset, but also the Vince Lombardi trophy.

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