http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/canepa/20051122-9999-1s22canepa.html The title of this NFL film, "Mr. Schottenheimer Returns to Washington," doesn't exactly have a Capraesque kick to it. Can't imagine James Stewart playing Marty. Stewart was a far greater risk-taker. Besides, how does one get Schottenheimer on a movie marquee without using agate type? Nevertheless, this week does mark the first return of the Chargers head coach to our nation's capital – the cockeyed scene of one of one of his greatest triumphs and most disappointing denouements – to play the team with the most offensive nickname in sports. But Schottenheimer isn't going emotional on us. The D.C. cocktail may have been bittersweet, but there are other drinks to be drunk. The needless Washington impeachment was then. San Diego is now. It's football. Most often, the coach pays the price (as Schottenheimer did in Washington but received expensive parting gifts, so don't feel too sorry for him), which is why they are paid so well in the first place. "There's nothing different about this game than any other game," he insists. "I can say in all honesty that it's important because of its implications. Other than that, nothing." Of course, this will be the Chargers' biggest game of the season, as most promise to be as the stretch approaches, and Schottenheimer can't be concerned with old wounds. His team is rolling. Washington is beatable. Schottenheimer successfully has moved on, as he always has done. There were nine years in Cleveland, 10 in Kansas City and one in Washington, where, in 2001, the team started 0-5 and finished 8-8. For this magic trick, the coach was called into owner Daniel Snyder's office and canned so Snyder could woo Steve Spurrier, then national flavor of the month. Advertisement But Schottenheimer says he will not go to Washington with vendetta in mind. This is not Corleone, Sicily. "I wasn't there long enough to have a particular attachment," he says. "I was there one year. It's not like returning to Kansas City or Cleveland. I enjoyed my time in Washington. I felt confident we were on the right path. You can make an argument that it's as good a job as we've ever done. "But I respect Dan Snyder. I liked him before he put us in contact with a doctor at Mayo Clinic who resolved Brian's issues (Brian, his son and quarterbacks coach, battled thyroid cancer). I understand very clearly what happened there." Not I. Schottenheimer for unproven Spurrier, who is back making faces on college sidelines? Schottenheimer is a resuscitator of woebegone professional franchises. Chargers President Dean Spanos and General Manager A.J. Smith could have fired him after he won four games in 2003, his second season here. It would have been foolish. "We didn't have the players," Smith says. "You have to look at the players first, then, when you think you have enough, the coach." The Chargers have enough. More than they had last year, when they went 12-4 and made the playoffs. The current team is 6-4 and could have won them all, but it didn't, which means it can't afford to loiter, not in Washington or anywhere else. Washington is just another terminus on what may be the most brutal NFL schedule since the NFL-AFL merger. D.C. will be the third of four three-time-zone stops, Philadelphia and New York being the first two and Indianapolis the last. During a five-week span, the Chargers played four teams coming off byes. The NFL cannot be excused. But, you don't ask a date to the NFL party. Your dance card is set. As I wrote before the season began, if the Chargers are better than most of the teams they play – which they are – they should win the majority of their games, that they could be better than they were a year ago – which they are – and finish with a worse record. Peter King, the veteran Sports Illustrated NFL writer, yesterday wrote that the Chargers may be the best team not to make the playoffs that he's seen in his 22 years of covering The League. He could be right. Unusual. "Is it a difficult schedule? No question," Smith says. "You see all the East Coast trips and teams coming off of byes. It's difficult, but I don't waste my time and energy on it. I don't overanalyze it because nothing you can say or do is going to change it. So why bother wasting my time? Other people can do that." Schottenheimer has said this club is better than last year's ensemble – talented rookies such as Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo have helped make it so – and Smith, who watched the Chargers whack Buffalo 48-10 Sunday, is more than in agreement. "For the first time, I've started to look beyond this year and into the future," Smith says. "The talent I see and the skill level and the competitiveness of these guys . . . I was really excited. "We are in the thick of a race for the division (AFC West) now. We're two games behind Denver, but there is a lot of football to be played and the players are excited about it. I feel it. I feel it at practice. I feel it in the locker room. And I saw it on the field Sunday." Now to feel it and see it in Washington, where the old coach was punted away, only to have the Chargers call for a pretty fair catch.